Spain’s Catholic Church agrees to return around 1,000 properties irregularly listed to its name

Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez and Cardinal Juan José Omella reach deal affecting at least 965 assets that the clergy appropriated between 1998 and 2015

Catholic Church Spain
Spain's PM Pedro Sánchez and Cardinal Juan José Omella on Monday.Pool

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The Spanish Catholic Church admitted on Monday that nearly 1,000 properties that it registered to its name between 1998 and 2015 do not really belong to the institution. The admission is intended to bring to an end a long-running scandal but not everyone is satisfied with the result.

Spain’s Franco-era Mortgage Law, which was passed in 1946, has allowed the Church to register thousands of properties in its name via a simple process that a number of law experts say is unconstitutional. In 1998, the conservative Popular Party (PP) government of José María Aznar extended this privilege to also include places of worship. Since then, thousands of properties of all types – cemeteries, smallholdings, chapels and cathedrals – have passed into its hands.

According to the current Spanish government, the Church registered irregularly a total of 34,961 properties between 1998 and 2015. But of this figure, the Church has so far only recognized that 965 of these assets do not officially belong to it – just 2.8% of the total.

The admission on Monday was made at a meeting between the Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez and the head of the Spanish Episcopal Conference, Cardinal Juan José Omella. In a joint press release, the Church recognized that these 965 properties “belong to a third party or else [the Church] is not aware of having ownership rights” – at no point did it describe them as “irregular.”

The Church signed an agreement with the government in which it committed to helping return the 965 assets to their rightful owners. The list includes 38 cemeteries, 502 rural properties, 151 urban properties and 98 housing units. Half of the assets are located in the Spanish region of Castilla y León, while 101 are in Catalonia.

Region of SpainNumber of properties
Balearic Islands12
Canary Islands32
Castilla-La Mancha35
Castilla y León435
Valencia region10
La Rioja16
Basque Country8

The list will now be sent to the Spanish Federation of Municipalities and Provinces, which according to the government will be tasked with identifying the true owners. In other words, the process to return the properties to their original owners or their heirs is now underway. In most cases, however, it is likely that the municipalities where the properties are located will end up keeping them.

But the work is still not over. According to the government, another 73 properties have been identified which have “incomplete or contradictory information and require greater study.” The agreement has also been strongly criticized by the organization Recuperando, which represents 24 groups that are calling for all the properties irregularly registered by the Church to be returned.

Carmen López, from the Castilla y León branch of Recuperando, argues that the Church has many more properties irregularly registered in its name since the Mortgage Law dates back to 1946. “If we take into account all those years, there are 100,000 properties registered this way, with only the certification of the bishop,” she said. “The scandal is enormous and it is still not resolved.”

López also criticized the government’s lack of transparency in its process to reach an agreement with the Church. “They are giving us a result without having spoken to civil society. We don’t know why it has been recognized that these [965] properties do not belong to them. All registrations made with just an ecclesiastical certificate, as if the Church were an administration, are illegal.”

“The clergy are not in a position of equals to deal with the state. In 1946 we were a Catholic state, but not anymore,” she added.

Pending matters

A medieval hospital in Olesa de Bonesvalls, the Catalan municipality where the Catholic Church has registered the most properties to its name.
A medieval hospital in Olesa de Bonesvalls, the Catalan municipality where the Catholic Church has registered the most properties to its name.JUAN BARBOSA (EL PAÍS)

Spain’s executive, run by a center-left coalition of the Socialist Party (PSOE) and Unidas Podemos, is seeking to develop a good relationship with the Spanish Catholic Church even though there are several contentious issues. One of them is taxation, particularly the fact that the Church is exempt from paying Spain’s property tax, known as IBI. The government wishes to revert this situation.

There is also the highly sensitive matter of abuse against minors. At a meeting last week between Félix Bolaños, the head of prime ministerial affairs, and Cardinal Omella, the former expressed an interest in how the Church is investigating this abuse and conveyed the government’s desire to see all cases resolved quickly, according to a government source.

Little to no progress was reported on the Socialists’ commitment to “review” Spain’s agreements with the Vatican dating back to 1953 and last reviewed in the 1970s, by which the Church received certain privileges. Although the last PSOE congress discussed the need to revise these agreements “within the framework of values and principles of a constitutional democracy,” neither Sánchez nor Bolaños have made it a priority in their recent meetings with Church officials.

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