Thursday, February 23, 2006

Shady Vatican real-estate deals?

Or so this breathless NCR piece might imply (Hat tip to Dogwood for the link)
An Italian-owned Manhattan real estate development company with ties to high-ranking Vatican officials is bidding on properties owned by dozens of U.S. dioceses and religious orders. Some church real estate professionals have questioned the company's tactics, while others praise the firm for its promise to revitalize vacant church property.

The Park Avenue-based Follieri Group, founded nearly three years ago by Raffaello Follieri and his father, Pasquale Follieri, has "entered into contracts for the acquisition of over $100 million of church property in three U.S. cities" and is "actively bidding on an additional quarter billion dollars of church assets," according to the company's Web site.
The article goes on to talk about the activities of the Follieri group, its supposedly high-pressure tactics, and tries its best to imply that there is something rotten about the fact that one of the company's VPs is the nephew of Vatican Secretary of State Angelo Sodano. However, it admits
"They used the Vatican connection and they found out that it got them polite teas with the bishop, but no further. It's a European approach to an American business relationship."
The critics are never identified ("some of the church real-estate professionals") and their criticisms don't amount to more than "the thing smells, in my opinion." As to Follieri himself, this is his plan:
The company, says Follieri, is focused exclusively on church properties in the United States, a niche that he hopes will redound to the company's credit. Further, says Follieri, "We are a profitable organization, but we are interested in the social good for the community." The group is committed to developing properties that are compatible with the church's social mission, he said.

Yet, he said, that commitment to good social outcomes does not give them an advantage in the bidding process for church property. "We sit down when [a bishop or diocesan official] receives us and we explain what we do. Some of the bishops embrace the projects, some are not interested. It is like any other venture. Some people are interested, some are not."
And then there's the implication of sleaze, or at least of monetary influence. The articles tries to make much of the group's sponsoring a fundraiser for the charitable arm of the Vatican mission to the UN ("access to Vatican officials doesn't come cheaply." Maybe I'm missing something. If a Veep is Cardinal Sodano's nephew, why on earth do they have to buy access to "Vatican officials?"), and then darkly implies that their hosting a hospitality booth at the USCCB meeting in DC had something to do with the Bishops' vote to ask the Vatican to raise the ceiling of property deals that can be done without Vatican approval from $5.1 to $10.3 million. Um. If the "Vatican" is in on this company, isn't this in the "Vatican's" interest as well?

I really have no knowledge at all about church real-estate deals, and, until now, haven't heard of the Follieri group. Maybe they're rotten, maybe (like any good company), they're trying to use their connections to increase their profits. What I find amusing is the way this NCR piece just tries so hard to make this sound so much more nasty than it probably is.

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