PROFILE

The pope’s Spanish broker

Lucio Vallejo,a member of Opus Dei, is the Vatican's stock market and real estate speculator

Lucio Vallejo pictured in 2011 before his Vatican posting.
Lucio Vallejo pictured in 2011 before his Vatican posting.

"Thou shalt not speculate" is not a commandment, which means the Roman Catholic Church's assets could come from a variety of sources. The number-two man in the Vatican's financial department is a Spaniard, Monsignor Lucio Vallejo, a 51-year-old from Astorga (León), in whose diocese he worked as an economist for 20 years. A member of Opus Dei, his career has been as efficient as it has been discreet (in 1991, he became the Church's youngest economist at age 29), and some analysts wonder whether his profile will please the new boss, Pope Francis, who is a Jesuit.

If there is one point on which Opus Dei members and Jesuits differ, it is in their way of interpreting the world through economics. And Monsignor Vallejo's management style at the Vatican has heavily favored stock market operations and real estate speculation.

In the summer of 2001, when it emerged that over 300,000 euros in Vallejo's care had been invested in Gescartera, more than one observer figured that monsignor's solid career was coming to an end. Gescartera was a shady investment fund that was embezzling its clients' money, and it became the first scandal of the José María Aznar administration. Several Spanish dioceses were caught playing the variable interest rate game, either with their own funds or with money that had been entrusted to them by parishioners. The Church resolved the situation without actually providing any explanations, as tends to be the case. Monsignor Vallejo was not forced to make any public appearances to explain his financial decisions, either.

A decade after this dark episode in his career, Vallejo was tapped on the shoulder by the Holy See to become secretary of the Prefecture for Economic Affairs. At the time, Monsignor was president of a SICAV, a controversial, open-ended collective investment scheme that only pays one percent in taxes; as such he was managing over seven million euros in funds which he'd placed on the stock market, generally in Spanish companies.

It is unclear whether Monsignor Vallejo is qualified to run an economy of the Vatican's size

Were they Church funds? Were they savings that churchgoers had handed over to their parish priests? Víctor Manuel Muría Borrajo, the current economist at the Astorga diocese, provides a terse answer as he sits behind a spotless desk without a single piece of paper on it: "In our diocese there is currently no SICAV."

The Vatican's résumé information about Lucio Vallejo includes the fact that he resigned from the chairmanship of the SICAV in 2012, and that he held a few more administrative positions before moving to Rome. He holds a degree in theology, began distance studies in law, and worked occasionally as a teacher, a religious consultant and a parish priest in 13 villages near Astorga. There are no documents regarding his pastoral work that might shed some light on his thoughts regarding either earthly or heavenly affairs. Besides the fact that he belongs to Opus Dei, there is no indication of whether he is qualified to run an economy the size of the Vatican, whose budget is 750 million euros between the Holy See, the Curia and missionary work.

So what is it that led Rome to turn to Vallejo? According to popular reports, there is a lot of praise, but also a lot of silence in Astorga regarding his financial acumen - but there is little in the way of hard evidence either way. Some of his admirers include the Socialist city administrators, who have nothing but respect and admiration for the religious economist.

At the personal level, Vallejo is a well-built, good-looking priest who stands nearly six feet tall, and comes across as a sociable man who is charming enough to get what he wants. Vallejo, more than the bishop himself, is credited with modernizing the Astorga diocese, which is one of Spain's largest, since it occupies parts of the provinces of León, Zamora and Ourense, and comprises 960 parishes, nearly 250 priests and over 1,500 places of worship. Thanks to his determination, there is now a computer in every office inside the bishopric, which was restored a few years ago, and Church-run museums like Palacio de Gaudí are managed using business criteria.

The charisma and manners of this man of his time (he uses a tablet and a smartphone) have been widely reported, but not so other details about his personality - like the time when he was showing off a beautiful altarpiece to some visitors and said: "It is made to pray before it, not before the same four old women [who show up at church]."

Very few people knew about his refined tastes, so it came as a surprise when the Diario de León referred to him as "a broker in priests' robes" and "the galactic monsignor." It was not the usual tone for a local, rather conservative newspaper that tends to be respectful of the Church's affairs.

Local paper Diario de León has dubbed Vallejo "a broker in priest's robes" and "the galactic monsignor"

EL PAÍS broke the story that Vallejo owned a designer home in Celada de la Vega that won the 2007 Castilla y León Architecture Award. The price tag was a mere 41,480 euros. "It was commissioned by a special client," said the architect Virginia González Rebollo in a magazine interview. "He arrived with a book by Le Corbusier under his arm, which showed a home on Leman Lake that he'd made for his parents," she added.

That special client was Monsignor Vallejo.

Elsewhere, this home was held up as a significant example of Vallejo's relationship with the main builders in the region. People did not fail to notice that the home was designed by the daughter of Victoriano González, owner of the construction firm La Cepedana and former chairman of the savings bank Caja España, not to mention business partner of José Luis Ulibarri, another builder and owner of Diario de León . Vallejo demonstrated an ability to hand out building contracts, including the impressive Church of Buen Pastor in Ponferrada, which cost 2.5 million euros.

A look at the balance books of the Astorga diocese is enough to see that it is probably the leading business in the area. In 2011, the bishopric had expenditures of 7,656,000 euros, nearly half of which went to pay for construction work at temples and centers of pastoral attention, as opposed to the 2.2. million earmarked for "maintaining the clergy."

Vallejo was able to manage that budget, but he was also useful to the bishop on another front: he hired a master builder and set about locating all the numerous shrines, parish homes, rural estates and other types of religious buildings within diocese bounds that lacked title deeds, and proceeded to put them to the Church's name, sometimes against the wishes of local governments, which wanted to keep them as public assets. A witness talks about 300 folders filled with related documents. This initiative allowed for a few lucrative real estate deals, including the sale of parish homes or their attached land to build homes, despite opposition from local residents. One such place is San Andrés de Montejo, where everyone remembers Monsignor Vallejo.

Yet his parishioners adore him, because their villages are never lacking for anything. In Magaz de Cepeda, for instance, the bishopric spent 125,000 euros restoring the church of San Juan Bautista for a population of 400 inhabitants.

Ultimately, the key to Vallejo's management style lies in his wisdom to know when to give and when to receive, like the time he gave Cope, the Catholic Church's radio station, a spacious studio inside a building next to a church in Ponferrada. The real estate bubble did the rest, elevating monsignor to the highest offices.

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