Church ‘released’ Gozo land tipped for cruise port for just €200,000

A pot of gold at the end of the Qala countryside? Curia insiders question the ‘release’ of land worth millions administered by trust for just €200,000

Chapman Taylor’s rendition of their cruise liner port for the ‘mysterious’ Kalamarine consortium, right in the quarry currently under emphyteutic concession to Gatt Development
Chapman Taylor’s rendition of their cruise liner port for the ‘mysterious’ Kalamarine consortium, right in the quarry currently under emphyteutic concession to Gatt Development

Land worth millions of euro in Gozo real estate, and a quarry earmarked for a cruise liner project, have been released from the ‘clutches’ of an old Church trust dating from the 1600s, for just €200,000 – a deal that has Curia insiders seething over the implications.

The saga had been ongoing for two decades, when the Maltese Church challenged in court a controversial 1992 decision by then magistrate Carol Peralta that benefited then magistrate Denis Montebello: the shareholder in a company that was promised the Qala lands for a paltry annual lease of Lm500 (€1,250).

When the Church won the right to stop that deal in 2013, four years later it relented – relinquishing its hold on the land the size of some 40 football grounds, for just €200,000.

But what is the controversy that has Church insiders stamping their feet?

The lands belonging to the Giuspatronat of Sant Antonio delli Navarra, a ‘foundation’ for the lands bequeathed by the noble Cosmana Cumbo Navarra for the male descendants of her family line
The lands belonging to the Giuspatronat of Sant Antonio delli Navarra, a ‘foundation’ for the lands bequeathed by the noble Cosmana Cumbo Navarra for the male descendants of her family line

The money was paid not just by the heirs of the legendary Rabat noblewoman Cosmana Navarra who placed the Gozo land in the trust;  but also by the same Dennis Montebello and his business partner.

Playing a crucial role in the deal is the lawyer Patrick Valentino, appointed by the Church as the ‘rector’ for the trust; Valentino is also reportedly the partner of Montebello’s daughter, sitting magistrate Rachel Montebello.

On the horizon is probably the ultimate goal: securing control of the land for a project that has yet to materialise – a cruise liner terminal inside the quarry operated by Gatt Development, right on the contested lands, where Valentino is now pursuing court action to regain control of the quarry.

Qala’s verdant fields are an impressive tapestry of countryside, layered beneath rubble walls and dotted by prickly pear trees.

But the coastline is interrupted by a large quarry which, in 2013, was identified as a possible site for a cruise liner terminal.

The movers and shakers behind that project were never made public. The plans were inadvertently publicised by Milan designers Chapman Taylor in 2015, after winning a competition for the design concept. The sole bid for an expression of interest issued by the new Labour government in 2013, had come from Kalamarine consortium. Since then, the project has never been mentioned again.

Yet the construction company that runs the quarry is in court, called upon by lawyers Carmelo Galea – a legal advisor to the Gozo bishop – and Patrick Valentino, to pay the owners of the land their rightful dues for having extended their quarrying beyond agreed limits; and, an email from 2018 reveals, to “discuss the concession of the territory of the [Giuspatronat] for reasons that go beyond rock-cutting.”

1992: The story breaks - The first report on this case is in Alternattiva Demokratika’s newspaper, reporting the 24-hour decision by magistrate Carol Peralta to recognise Richard Stagno Navarra as the ‘rector’ of the Giuspatronat  At this stage, the Church has only started its legal challenge to stop Peralta’s decision  The shareholders in Berracimp transfer their shares to Jimp Ltd, which is now the controlling shareholder in the company
1992: The story breaks - The first report on this case is in Alternattiva Demokratika’s newspaper, reporting the 24-hour decision by magistrate Carol Peralta to recognise Richard Stagno Navarra as the ‘rector’ of the Giuspatronat At this stage, the Church has only started its legal challenge to stop Peralta’s decision The shareholders in Berracimp transfer their shares to Jimp Ltd, which is now the controlling shareholder in the company

Indeed, since 1675, these rural fields were part of the Giuspatronato of Sant Antonio delli Navarra – a sort of foundation for the lands owned by Cosmana Cumbo Navarra.

Since the 17th century, the foundation had to be administered by the male heirs of the Stagno Navarra family and importantly, by a ‘rector’ or cleric appointed by the Maltese Archbishop.

Things came to a head in 1989 with the death of the cleric Francesco Saverio Bianco, the rector who administered the lands. With his death, Richard Stagno Navarra of St Julian’s came forward – claiming to be the rightful owner as laid down in the Cumbo Navarra lineage – demanding that the Archbishop appoint him as the ‘rector’ of the foundation.

But Archbishop Mercieca denied the request, insisting that the role had to be fulfilled by a cleric, according to the foundation’s own strict rules.

Undeterred, Stagno Navarra ignored the Archbishop’s decree, and in 1992 signed off a tract of land of 126,000sq.m, known as ‘tal-Vardati’ to the company Berracimp Properties and its shareholder Jimp Ltd, on a 150-year emphyteusis for just Lm500 a year.

Crucially, Berracimp had three owners: the late Gozo businessman Joseph Vella, lawyer Carmelo Galea, legal advisor to the Gozo bishop, and then magistrate Dennis Montebello (now retired judge).

Stagno Navarra’s next step was to file a court case asking to be recognised as the holder of the Giuspatronato, which he did by filing the case in the Gozo courts – despite not living in Gozo. His lawyer was Carmelo Galea himself.

Patrick Valentino (right) is the lawyer of the MSSP sex abuse victims seeking compensation from the Maltese archdiocese, seen here with bishop Paul Cremona.  In 2017 he was made ‘rector’ of the Giuspatronat, upon agreement of Archbishop Charles Scicluna with the Stagno Navarra heirs.  Together with Berracimp owner Carmelo Galea, he is pursuing court action against the quarry operators Gatt Development, over abusive rock-cutting
Patrick Valentino (right) is the lawyer of the MSSP sex abuse victims seeking compensation from the Maltese archdiocese, seen here with bishop Paul Cremona. In 2017 he was made ‘rector’ of the Giuspatronat, upon agreement of Archbishop Charles Scicluna with the Stagno Navarra heirs. Together with Berracimp owner Carmelo Galea, he is pursuing court action against the quarry operators Gatt Development, over abusive rock-cutting

Indeed, those doors were flung wide open: within the space of just 24 hours, magistrate Carol Peralta obliged by recognising Stagno Navarra as the rector of the Giuspatronato.

The decision sparked controversy not least for its hastiness, and for having denied the archdiocese the right to be heard. Whether Peralta knew his decision was benefiting a colleague on the bench, apart from the alleged conflict of interest the Gozo bishop’s legal counsel might have had, is a moot point.

The archdiocese – under both bishops Mercieca and Paul Cremona – challenged that decision, perhaps cognisant of the manoeuvres to outsmart the Church’s duty to administer the foundation.

It finally won the case on appeal in 2013, with the Chief Justice recognising the Archbishop’s right to nominate the rector to administer the foundation.

At that point, the Church was the uncontested administrator of the foundation, a role which also meant it had to mount legal challenges against abusive rock-cutting taking place on the contested land.

Yet just four years later, the Church would relent, and for a price, appointed a rector to the liking of both Berracimp’s owners as well as the Stagno Navarra family.

Two of the shareholders in Jimp Ltd, the sole shareholding company in Berracimp Properties: Gozo lawyer Carmelo Galea, and retired judge Dennis Montebello. In 1992 their company secured the Gozo lands on an emphyteusis of just Lm500 a year, for 150 years
Two of the shareholders in Jimp Ltd, the sole shareholding company in Berracimp Properties: Gozo lawyer Carmelo Galea, and retired judge Dennis Montebello. In 1992 their company secured the Gozo lands on an emphyteusis of just Lm500 a year, for 150 years

In an unexpected turn of events, Archbishop Charles Scicluna appointed as rector of the foundation the lawyer Patrick Valentino, also known as the lawyer to the MSSP clerical sex abuse victims, who had been seeking compensation from the Church, and as it happens, the partner of Dennis Montebello’s daughter at the time of writing.

In an agreement reached in February 2017, Valentino now assumed the role to pursue the Giuspatronato’s claims against Gatt Developments, to demand fees for rock-cutting that had gone beyond previously agreed limits.

Importantly, this is the same Qala quarry that had been identified by the consortium Kalamarine – owners of which so far remain unidentified – for the development of a cruise liner terminal in Gozo, in the sole bid that had been submitted for a call for proposals issued by the Labour government in 2013.

It is by far the greatest indication of the millions that the land is worth now that control has been fully relinquished to private owners.

The Church deal was sealed for the price of €200,000, a sum which the Curia told MaltaToday was contracted by its Diocesan Finance Committee. “The release of the said land was an administrative decision taken by the Diocesan Finance Committee. Dr Valentino was nominated by the family and accepted by the DFC.”

Crucially, the €200,000 was paid not just by the Stagno Navarra heirs, who fronted €120,000. The other €80,000 was paid out by Carmelo Galea and Dennis Montebello – Jimp Ltd’s shareholders and owners of Berracimp.

It is probably also for that reason that in August 2017, the Stagno Navarras, Montebello and Galea formed the Carravan Company Ltd.

“The DFC was aware that Dr Galea and Dr Montebello had some form of interest in the land, but was not aware of specifics,” a Curia spokesperson said, when queried about the interested parties.

There is no smoking gun of wrongdoing. But a source privy to the deal has questioned the Church’s decision to relinquish control of the land. “Surely enough, the lands are now in private hands and that means emphyteuta on agricultural land will be raised for farmers. Already planning applications are being filed for the development of the land.”

Explained

The right of patronage in Roman Catholic canon law (jus patronatus or ius patronatus) is a set of rights and obligations of someone, known as the patron in connection with a gift of land (benefice)

The right of patronage is subject to ecclesiastical legislation and jurisdiction as well as civil laws relating to the ownership of property

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