Archdiocese: Embezzlement inquiry has no effect on World Meeting

March 2015: Archbishop Vincenzo Paglia, in rainbow sunglasses, holds up the official papal milkshake at Potbelly Sandwich Shop.
March 2015: Archbishop Vincenzo Paglia, in rainbow sunglasses, holds up the official papal milkshake at Potbelly Sandwich Shop. Michael Bryant/Staff Photographer

The Vatican archbishop in charge of overseeing the World Meeting of Families, to be held in Philadelphia this year, is under investigation for possible embezzlement, according to several European news organizations.

Archbishop Vincenzo Paglia, president of the Pontifical Council for the Family, reportedly bought the 14th-century San Girolamo castle in Umbria, Italy, at an artificially low price with the intention of reselling it at market value.

"The alleged scam" would have netted a profit of about $4.4 million, the London newspaper the Daily Telegraph reported Friday.

The Archdiocese of Philadelphia, which is hosting the eighth triennial World Meeting in September, issued a statement Friday saying the investigation of Paglia did not appear to affect the meeting.

"I assure everyone that matters facing him do not impact our plans for September," Archbishop Charles J. Chaput said in the statement.

"We continue to work without interruption and joyfully anticipate welcoming our Holy Father and the world to Philadelphia later this year." He said he was praying for Paglia.

Pope Francis is scheduled to be in Philadelphia for two days at the close of the six-day gathering.

Paglia was bishop of the Diocese of Terni-Narni-Amelia from 2000 to 2012, when Pope Benedict XVI named him head of the Pontifical Council for the Family. The Vatican office promotes the Catholic Church's teachings on family and is responsible for organizing the World Meetings.

According to news sources, the San Girolamo castle belonged to the township of Narni, whose municipal government sold it to Paglia and others four years ago for the equivalent of $1.9 million, or one-third of its true value.

"Prosecutors . . . suspect that the alleged conspirators planned to manage it for a few years, either as an upmarket guesthouse or for religious purposes," and then sell it for $6.1 million, the Daily Telegraph reported.

According to Agence France-Presse (AFP), Italian prosecutors are investigating Paglia "on allegations of criminal conspiracy and fraud" in connection with the sale of the castle.

Funds belonging to the diocese "were allegedly used illegally, and money was found to be missing from diocese funds," AFP reported.

Paglia has denied any wrongdoing.

"I remain at the disposition of the investigating authorities and I have full confidence in the justice system," he said in a statement.

The Rev. Federico Lombardi, the Vatican's chief spokesman, said, "We at the Vatican have nothing in particular to say about this affair. We trust that the magistracy will do its work well."

The World Meeting of Families-Philadelphia 2015, a nonprofit entity created by the archdiocese to raise the estimated $45 million needed for the event, issued its own statement Friday.

"Although the news received today regarding Archbishop Paglia is troubling, it does not affect the World Meeting of Families," it said. "Our partnership is with the Pontifical Council for the Family and not any individual from that office."

"Planning for the event is progressing positively and without interruption. It is important to note that the World Meeting of Families-Philadelphia 2015 is an independent 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization, separate from both the Archdiocese of Philadelphia and the Pontifical Council for the Family," it continued.

"All fund-raising for September's events is done through the World Meeting of Families-Philadelphia 2015, with funds held in separate and distinct accounts from the archdiocese and the Pontifical Council for the Family.

"We have been - and remain - committed to ensuring that financial best practices are employed at all levels of the organization," it said.

Paglia, 70, visited Philadelphia in March to promote the World Meeting, at which time he publicly sampled milkshakes at a Potbelly sandwich shop in Center City. The one he chose, a vanilla and shortbread butter cookie flavor, became the official milkshake of Francis' visit.

Proceeds from the sale of the milkshakes - 50 cents of the $3.90 price - were to flow to the World Meeting as part of the local fund-raising effort.

"I'm excited to see good friends and to taste," Paglia said as he sipped on the shake. "You are in a beautiful and splendid city and now I am one of you."

The newspaper Corriere Della Sera in Milan, Italy, reported that prosecutors have said Paglia appears to have been "one of the instigators" of the alleged fraud.

AFP said the Terni diocese is also "one of the most indebted" dioceses in Europe, with a deficit of about $27 million.

Nine other people are under investigation, including the former mayor of Narni and two employees of the diocese. They, and the archbishop, have 20 days in which to present a defense.


doreilly@phillynews.com

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