“Though grateful for any attributes that have been granted to him, the archbishop unhesitatingly defers to a higher authority when it comes to seeing the future.”

Penned by the Curia’s communications officer, this pearl of wisdom rounded off a reply to the latest article published in MaltaToday about the Abbazia saga.

I’m not averse to the wee joke, especially on dour Sunday mornings where the papers cough up more of the same: electoral surveys, COVID-19 variants, the routine environmental howler and tales of normalised misogyny and racism.

However, there’s little reason for Archbishop Charles Scicluna to get sarcastic, especially in the face of what appears to be an organised land-grab carried out to the detriment of scores of Gozitan families and which he himself, wittingly or less, greenlighted with a simple stroke of a pen.

The Abbazia saga revolves around lands in Gozo previously owned by the noblewoman Cosmanna Cumbo Navarra.

In 1675, she created the Abbazia di Sant’Antonio delli Navarra, a foundation that would administer these lands under the control of a very specific line of first-born descendants. In the absence of any rightful heir, control of the foundation would go to a cleric appointed by the Archbishop of Malta.

In 1992, a Richard Stagno Navarra came forward with a challenge to the clergy’s control of the lands, claiming to be a descendant of Cosmanna Navarra.

The late Stagno Navarra’s claim was merely substantiated by a family tree; here, too, the archdiocese took no steps to verify this fact, ignoring the impact of this claim on the proceedings. Interestingly, then-magistrate Carol Peralta had issued an unusually rapid 24-hour decision appointing Stagno Navarra (a Lands employee, according to many sources) as rector of the foundation; the archdiocese protested the decision.

In 2013, a court sentence reversed this decision, ruling that the archdiocese had the sole power to make that appointment.

However, unbeknownst to many, in 2017, Scicluna signed an agreement through which the Abbazia fell under the control of the pretenders of the foundation: the Stagno Navarra family, who, together with lawyer Carmelo Galea and former judge Dennis Montebello, own a company named Carravan. Lawyer Patrick Valentino became the Abbazia’s rector, while the “pious obligations” requested by Cosmanna Navarra in the 17th century were redeemed with a paltry €200,000 capital sum making its way to the Church’s dwindling coffers.

As a result, Gozitan families who have resided in properties on the Abbazia’s lands with a land title registered in their favour are now being sued by Carravan, represented by Valentino.

The archbishop’s brushstroke effectively swept the carpet from under residents’ and farmers’ feet.

Testifying in court, Joint Office director Duncan Mifsud said that no verification of the Church’s request to remove the foundation’s Gozo lands from its property list was ever made. In a separate testimony, the Curia’s former property director, Ray Bonnici admitted that Scicluna went for the easy way out and settled for the €200,000 agreement. Archbishop Pilate had, thus, washed his hands off a potentially long-drawn legal wrangle, leaving his flock in Qala and Nadur to the wolves.

Meanwhile, some of Carravan’s properties are now being developed by Excel Investments Ltd, owned by none other than rodeo artist Joseph Portelli and his business partners, the Agius brothers (Ta’ Dirjanu) and Daniel Refalo.

Archbishop Charles Scicluna pontificates against greed and overdevelopment while facilitating them with his repeated washing of the hands- Wayne Flask

See, Scicluna should refrain from dispensing nuggets of humour. In the context of all this, his wit almost smacks of glee. His confidence was, however, nowhere to be seen outside the Gozo courts a few weeks ago, where the archbishop was accompanied by a police detachment usually afforded to magistrates harassed by the Sacra Corona Unita.

Scicluna then scuttled back to Malta, leaving the Cheshire-grinned Valentino and fellow lawyer Galea to face the media. Which they did, by refusing to give answers about the veracity of Stagno Navarra’s claim, with Galea even asking journalists to “learn the law”.

Galea is an interesting figure: formerly a lawyer for the Gozitan Curia, he has also represented Portelli as an individual or as director of J. Portelli Projects and Excel Developments in suits against the commissioner for revenue, ARMS and a number of private individuals. Some of these suits have been filed before 2017.

While the archbishop may solemnly claim to be unable to read the future, he appears to have little grasp of both past and present. In 1992, Stagno Navarra, despite archbishop Joseph Mercieca’s opposition to his rectorship claims, signed off 126,000sqm of land to a company called Berricamp, of which both Galea and Montebello were shareholders.

Did Scicluna not understand that his signature, 25 years later, would have condemned more land to development? Did he never seek guidance from “higher authority” as to whether Galea’s knowledge of the foundation and its workings would come back to hurt the archdiocese but, more importantly, the residents of Qala and Nadur?

After months of silence since Robert Abela became prime minister, Scicluna delivered a stinging Independence Day homily attacking greed and overdevelopment.

Only a day later, Għargħur residents were up in arms after learning that Church property earmarked for the community was sold off to speculators, companies like Carravan.

Scicluna sidestepped the issue and said it’s up to the Planning Authority and the state to decide whether the area can be developed or not.

Much like a frontline Pharisee, Scicluna pontificates against greed and overdevelopment while facilitating them with his repeated washing of the hands. Neither silence nor sarcasm will cut it; his hypocrisy is stunning, his inconsistency detrimental to environmental activism, his lack of repentance infuriating. St Peter, at least, stopped at the third betrayal.

History and, possibly, his “higher authority” will not absolve Scicluna.

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