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Former church in West Tarentum caught up in fraud scandal

By Celanie Polanick
Thursday, July 3, 2008 

A former Roman Catholic church in West Tarentum was one of two in the Greater Pittsburgh area bought by Raffaello Follieri, an Italian real estate mogul recently accused of fraud for pretending to work for the Vatican.A century ago, St. Clement’s Church on West Ninth Avenue and Center Street was beautiful and beloved, filled with a blossoming faith community, according to historical accounts. But, like so many other churches, membership declined over the decades.


After St. Clement’s closed in 2006, one of Follieri’s numerous corporations — CV12 216 W. Ninth Avenue LLC — bought the property in January 2007.


Follieri was arrested last week by federal investigators and accused of improperly spending money from investors, who believed he represented the Vatican’s financial and land interests.Now, local officials say, they’re not sure what will happen to St. Clement’s.


Men from the Vatican


According to the U.S. Attorney’s Office, from June 2005 through June 2007, Follieri ran a fraudulent real estate investment scheme, claiming that he had close connections with the Vatican — enabling him to purchase Catholic church properties at prices well below their market value.


He allegedly told people he formally was appointed by the Vatican to manage its financial affairs. Investigators say he raised investment capital for an “Italian office” that didn’t exist, including $800,000 on bogus “engineering reports” and other falsified business expenses.


Federal prosecutors say they have ample evidence that he spent as much as $6 million from his investors on a jet-setting lifestyle for himself, a girlfriend and others. The girlfriend is said to be actress Anne Hathaway, who dated Follieri for four years. Tabloid reports say the pair split last week.

Follieri is charged with various counts of conspiracy, wire fraud and money laundering. If he receives the maximum sentence, Follieri would spend life in prison and pay millions of dollars in fines.


A federal district court judge set Follieri’s bail at $21 million — $16 million must be in cash or property. Follieri also must relinquish his passport and get five other people to co-sign, assuming responsibility if he tries to escape. At press time, he was still in federal custody.




When Follieri’s company bought the former St. Clement’s property from the Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh in January 2007, it was valued at $407, 000 — $337,000 for the building and $70,000 for the 23,000 square feet of adjoining land. Follieri, though, paid only $252,000 for it, according to Allegheny County records.

Follieri’s company also bought St. Patrick’s in Alpsville, Allegheny County, said the Rev. Ron Lengwin, diocesan spokesman.

“We were prepared to sell them (other unused properties), but it never got that far,” Lengwin said.

Follieri’s representatives did not tell diocesan officials they had ties to the Vatican, said Lengwin.

“Any church official could tell who was from the Vatican and who was not,” he said.

The property was sold to Follieri at the reduced price because “when you sell a piece of property that no one else wants, you have to sell it to the person who wants to buy it for what they’re willing to pay,” Lengwin said.

By the end of the year, the property was back on the market for $425,000.

The marketing agent trying to sell it, James Kelly of Grubb & Ellis in Pittsburgh, said he could not comment, as part of his contract with Follieri’s company.

Multiple calls to Follieri Group’s main switchboard were forwarded by a receptionist to a non-working number.


Tarentum Borough Manager Bill Rossey said he had heard about Follieri but didn’t know he owned the former St. Clement’s property and had heard nothing about what might happen to it now.


According to staff at the U.S. Marshals’ Department of Asset Forfeiture, if Follieri is convicted of obtaining his assets fraudulently or using legitimately obtained assets to commit a crime, those assets could be seized and sold to pay restitution to the people he cheated. Other options include a plea agreement to sell the properties and liquidate the assets to pay restitution or other penalties.


At last estimate, the building needs about $400,000 in work before it could be used again, including the roof and mildew removal, said local Catholic historian Charles “Skip” Culleiton of New Kensington.

Former parishioners and local Catholics probably would like to see the building used to provide some social service or for another purpose that could improve the community, which is what Follieri’s corporation originally promised, Culleiton said.


“That would probably make (parishoners, Catholics) them feel better about the whole thing,” Culleiton said.


Celanie Polanick can be reached or 724-226-4702

Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation

100 West Station Square Drive, Suite 450

Pittsburgh, PA 15219

Phone: 412-471-5808  |  Fax: 412-471-1633