Code of the Vicar. What is the Church not telling us about its business? |

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Code of the Vicar. What is the Church not telling us about its business?

Code of the Vicar. What is the Church not telling us about its business?

The diocese of České Budějovice decided to do business in banking. However, the emergence of the “first Catholic bank” in the Czech Republic is covered in secrets, and some parishioners in České Budějovice have already had enough of it.

Within the Roman Catholic Church, the Bishopric of České Budějovice is one of those organizations which, after the church property restitution, prove that they want and can take care of their property. In the city of České Budějovice, a grandiose repair of the Dominican monastery worth CZK 150 million is just about to be finished. A complete reconstruction of the famous Stations of the Cross in Římov, reconstruction of the church in Kájov and of the monastery in Třeboň are all under preparation. The effort of the Church to restore the cultural heritage is visible at first glimpse, at least in South Bohemia.

Recently, without drawing much attention, a piece of news was reported by the media, the content of which is a lot different than the news on investment "whirlwind" of the diocese. The Bishopric of České Budějovice officially announced on its website on October 9 that it enters the world of finance. Through the majority shareholder Artesa Capital, it now holds 9.5 percent of the shares in Artesa, the largest credit union (ie. financial cooperative) in the Czech Republic. Moreover, the bishopric declared that it wants to gradually increase its share in order to gain a majority in the financial cooperative. "The aim is to strengthen the capital and operational stability of the credit union with the possibility of further development of business activities," the bishopric wrote. At the same time, it announced that it plans to establish a third branch office of the credit union in České Budějovice soon.

Two days earlier Artesa announced the planned acquisition, so it was by no means a secret unearthed by investigative journalists. Both parties openly announced that they agreed to conclude a business, which, as the Artesa website says, should be the start of the banking business for the diocese. "The Bishopric of České Budějovice enters the world of financial services with the aim of building up a strong bank out of the Artesa credit union, which will be backed not only by its financial strength but above all by authority and proven principles," said the credit union management.

End of openness

The initial openness of both subjects, however, quickly disappeared. The announced acquisition suddenly became one of the most guarded secrets, or perhaps even the most guarded secret of the Church after property restitutions – even though many questions about the background of the deal arise.

The credit union Artesa is associated with the controversial entrepreneur František Savov, a billionaire who faces charges in the Czech Republic because of tax evasion; tax evasion amounts to hundreds of millions of Czech crowns. Savov, however, resists extradition to the Czech Republic while residing in Great Britain, where he applied for asylum. At the same time, however, as the police investigators say, Savov directly or indirectly continues to control a number of companies in the Czech Republic, probably including the mentioned Artesa credit union. And it was through Artesa that some other Savov's companies were supposedly financed, one of which is the Legios company, which currently undergoes insolvency proceedings.

However, unlike many other credit unions in the Czech Republic, Artesa itself has not had any problems officially yet. It has equity of CZK 850 million, a balance total of almost CZK 4 billion, and its majority (70 %) shareholder, through Artesa Capital, is Bohumil Koutník, a lawyer and a judicial expert from České Budějovice. It was supposedly from him that the diocese of České Budějovice acquired a stake in the credit union. How much did they pay? The Church does not want to say.

"We will not comment on the details of the deal yet," said Miroslav Bína, the spokesman of the Bishopric of České Budějovice, to INFO.CZ. After the loud announcement of the acquisition, the diocese suddenly refuses to answer questions regarding its plans after entering the banking sector. Will be the planned church bank, if it is granted the Czech National Bank licence, open to all customers? What kind of banking will the bank specialize in? What does the diocese, that owns real estate worth approximately CZK 6 billion, actually expects from the banking business? The diocese did not answer any of these questions.

Bank for a single crown?

To make the mystery more mysterious, David Henzl, the vicar general of the Bishopric of České Budějovice, in his only brief statement to the server said that the diocese had been informed about the suspicions that František Savov still has some influence on Artesa. "However, given the symbolic acquisition price and the philanthropic approach of the current majority shareholder, we do not consider the deal risky," believes David Henzl. What does it mean?

Among some experts in České Budějovice, whom INFO.CZ spoke to, there have been speculations expressed that the diocese could have got the credit union for free. This is a strange idea but given the non-transparent network of companies supposedly controlled by Savov, given the relations of their official owners, unclear interests and goals, virtually anything is possible. The price of a credit union with equity of CZK 850 million should amount at least to billions, based on the usual expert valuations of such deals.

Bohumil Koutník, the official majority shareholder of Artesa up to now, should be well versed in expert opinions. He is a judicial expert in the field of economics, specializing in valuation of companies in crisis and bankruptcy and in transfer pricing of assets and services. The Expert Institute (that belongs to this well-known attorney of České Budějovice) appreciated, among others, the Samson brewery (its former name was the Budějovický Burgher Brewery) at the time when it was allegedly owned by Savov.

And now, Koutník is officially the one who, showing a “philanthropic approach”, sold the largest Czech credit union to the Bishopric of České Budějovice. But he does not want to share information with us any more than the vicar does. "Thank you for your interest, however, at the moment in view of the initial phase of the process there is nothing to comment beyond the information provided in the press releases," wrote Koutník to INFO.CZ.

The silence about the deal, which was first announced so emphatically by both parties and then classified as one of the strictly guarded “ecclesiastical secrets”, is already starting to raise both speculation and concern in České Budějovice whether the deal can cause damage to the Church. “People from all over the country call us because of Savov, even my relatives asked me about it. And I don't know what to tell them. We know nothing,” said one of the employees of the Bishopric who wanted to remain anonymous. Similarly, under the promise of anonymity, some other people in the diocese also comment on the “Budějovice monastery mystery”. "I'm actually glad I don't know anything about it," one of them said.

Inscrutable business project

They are particularly wondering why the Church itself does not go about the deal openly instead of exposing itself rather unnecessarily to being suspicious of some behind-the-scenes and non-transparent transactions. The endeavour to own a bank does not have to be an end in itself because the Bishopric disposes of large real estate and must finance its maintenance. Some church institutions abroad also established a bank in the past to offer people the possibility of "ethical investing" in projects in areas such as welfare assistance, assistance to the needy or environmental protection. On the other hand, there is a well-known case of the so-called Vatican Bank, which was involved in several financial scandals, particularly in the 1980s.

However, the case where a catholic organization of the size of a diocese would buy a credit union from a private owner to try and penetrate the banking market this way is quite unusual at least in Europe, however. The Catholic Church and its religious orders in the Czech Republic have a number of ways to use the experience and advice of foreign partner organizations when investing or depositing money.

But the people in the leadership of the Czech Bishops Conference (CBC) also know nothing about the background of the business plan of the diocese of České Budějovice. “CBC does not have enough information on the matter, and it is not entitled to comment on the internal affairs of individual dioceses. Each diocese is absolutely autonomous and manages its own resources,” wrote Monika Klimentová, the spokeswoman of the Czech Bishops Conference, to INFO.CZ

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