September 21, 2019

Saturday, September 21, 2019 - ,, No comments

Suspended Maltese parish priest arrested for church-related art thefts

St Augustine Church
Image Credit: NICPMI archive
A Maltese parish priest has been suspended from his duties pending the outcome of an investigation by police into his alleged involvement in the thefts of paintings and ecclesiastical property taken from  the Baroque church of St. Augustine in Valletta where he served. 

The Provincial Parish church of the Augustinians in Malta and and its adjoining convent are listed on the National Inventory of the Cultural Property of the Maltese Islands (NICPMI), a heritage register which lists the cultural property of Malta under the responsibility of the Superintendence of Cultural Heritage (SCH) which was founded in 2002 to replace Malta's Antiquities Act.   The original church was built between 1571 and 1596 by Gerolamo Cassar, then demolished after the 1693 earthquake and rebuilt between 1765 and 1785.

Some of the stolen items, which included four oil paintings and six etchings, were taken in early February 2019 from the cloister used by the Augustinian nuns, perhaps in a period when areas of the church were undergoing repairs. The thefts were initially identified during an inventory conducted by the church's archivist, Fr Alex Cauchi, who discovered that certain hanging paintings and engravings at the property did not correspond with the inventory of the valuables located in the convent. To hide the criminal activity the thief or thieves had replaced the stolen paintings with other artworks hoping that the switch would go unnoticed, or at least delay any subsequent investigation.

Image Credit: St Augustine Priory in Valletta
In what appears to have been a separate theft, police from the cultural property section traced a thurible, a metal censer suspended from chains, in which incense is burned during worship services and incense holder from the St. Augustine priory to a shop in Valletta.  Fr. Deo Debono for approximately € 2,000.  
Image credit: Deo Debomo
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Questioning the proprietor, the police were led to the parish priest when the owner of the shop indicated that he had purchased the ecclesiastical items from

During his subsequent interrogation Fr Debono admitted to his involvement in the theft of paintings and the ecclesiastical silver items which had been taken from the top floor of the Augustinian Convent.  According to police sources cited by the Times of Malta, following a lengthy talk with police, Debono confessed to the crime and law enforcement officers subsequently recovered seven of the church's stolen objects.  As a result, Debano is to be arraigned in court on Monday, September 23, 2019 on formal charges of theft. 

Malta's specialised cultural property police unit was set up in 2005 and has worked on many church related theft cases.  Some of the recent church related cases which they have solved include the theft of a painting by Antonio Falzon dating back to 1861 stolen from the Ta’ Ġieżu Church, Valletta in February 2012, the theft of an antique chalice stolen from the Safi parish church and the theft of an ecclesiastical vase taken from Stella Maris parish church, both in August 2014,  the theft of a silver vase stolen from St Paul’s Church in Valletta in February 2015 and another vase taken from St Publius parish church in Floriana in April 2015.

Open to the public, churches and temples often lack the funds for robust security, making them more vulnerable for heritage crimes, though it is not often that they are tied to clergy and are often crimes of opportunity.  In addition to the thefts from St. Augustine, Malta's Cultural Property Crime Unit is also investigating several other church thefts in Malta including: the theft of ecclesiastical items from the Church in Cospicua and the Zejtun Church, and the theft of two bells from the chapel in Għaxaq. 

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