Catholic archdiocese of Malta says it could not have foreseen alleged ‘land grab’

The Archbishop’s Curia at St. Calcidonius Square in Floriana, Malta. The Archbishop’s Curia at St. Calcidonius Square in Floriana, Malta. | Frank Vincentz via Wikimedia (CC BY-SA 3.0).

The Catholic archdiocese of Malta said on Monday that it could not have foreseen an alleged “land grab” on the island of Gozo.

The archdiocese defended its decisions relating to tracts of land on Malta’s second-largest island in a statement on Dec. 13, the day that residents threatened with eviction held a protest outside the Archbishop’s Curia in the town of Floriana.

The statement lamented what it called “the spread of misinformation” concerning the archdiocese’s relationship with a medieval foundation responsible for the land.

The archdiocese, led since 2014 by Archbishop Charles Scicluna, said it wanted “to make clear that it could not have foreseen, let alone exercise control over, a decision in 2019 by the Land Registration Agency to permit the registration of tracts of land in Gozo which caused residents uncertainty over legal title to their homes.”

The protesters argued that the archbishop had a moral duty to intervene over the transfer of “large lands to private companies which are now making millions in profit from the development on this land,” reported Gozo News.

Archbishop Charles J. Scicluna. . Archdiocese of Malta.
Archbishop Charles J. Scicluna. . Archdiocese of Malta.

Malta is an island nation in the Mediterranean Sea with a population of around 500,000 people, an estimated 94% of whom are baptized Catholics.

The intricate dispute can be traced back to 1675, when a noblewoman called Cosmana Navarra created the Abbazia San Antonio Delli Navarra Foundation to administer her lands.

She decreed that the foundation would be overseen by an administrator selected by her heirs and approved by the bishop, with proceeds supporting Catholic causes. She died in 1687 without leaving children and the foundation was thereafter run by clergy.

In 1989, a man named Richard Stagno Navarra declared himself a legitimate heir with a right to be named administrator of the land. When the Church authorities dismissed his request in 1992, he took legal action.

“The Gozo courts approved his application to be considered the legitimate administrator within 24 hours of his case being presented,” the archdiocese said.

The Curia refused to concede and legal proceedings dragged on for more than two decades.

The archdiocese said that the courts determined that the archbishop of Malta’s power over the foundation was limited to appointing an administrator.

“At no point did they cast doubt on Richard Stagno Navarra’s status as a legitimate heir,” it said.

The archdiocese explained that in 2017, Scicluna followed advice to end the costly legal battle and sign an agreement accepting court decisions recognizing the heirs.

The heirs then nominated two candidates to serve as administrator: a cleric and a lawyer, Patrick Valentino.

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“The archbishop, who did not possess the authority to present names for nominations of his own, consented to Dr. Valentino’s nomination since he did not want to have a cleric involved in the administration of property belonging to a lay organization,” the archdiocese said.

It added that the Church received a lump sum of 200,000 euros (around $225,000), using the interest to fulfill obligations including the celebration of Masses.

Moviment Graffitti, a left-wing Maltese organization supporting the protesters, disputed the archdiocese’s account of events.

In a statement on its Facebook page on Dec. 15, it said that the archbishop’s decision had “opened the floodgates to eviction threats against Gozitan residents, land speculation and the take-up of precious agricultural and undeveloped land to be replaced by grotesque development projects, ruining Gozo’s landscape and the quality of life of residents in the process.”

Commenting on the decision by Malta’s Land Registration Agency in 2019 to register the land, the archdiocese underlined that the “unexpected development took place two years after a legal settlement.”

It concluded: “The archdiocese makes a heartfelt appeal for equitable solutions to prevail.”

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