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ROME – After facing public scrutiny for negotiating a possible lease to Bill Gates’s Four Seasons hotel chain, the Catholic Order of the Holy Sepulcher has defended its decision, saying the process has been fair and transparent.

In a statement the Order argued that, contrary to media reports, negotiations have not yet concluded, and they have been fully compliant with Vatican norms for the awarding of public contracts.

The Order, which is made up of roughly 30,000 Knights and Dames throughout the world, is dedicated to providing financial support to the church in the Holy Land. The funds they raise are provided to the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem, which operates a variety of pastoral and social projects throughout the broader region.

In order to fund its administrative costs so that all donations go straight to the Holy Land, the Order was given a large property by the Vatican called the Palazzo di Domenico della Rovere in Borgo, more commonly known as “Palazzo della Rovere.”

Located along the Via della Conciliazione, the main street leading up to St. Peter’s Square, the property dates back to the Renaissance and contains a turret, a large courtyard, and ancient frescoes by Italian artist Pinturicchio.

It is the only property owned by the Order of the Holy Sepulcher and serves as the Order’s global headquarters. Until recently, the building was occupied by the family-run Hotel Columbus, which closed prior to the COVID-19 pandemic. Only the Order’s administrative offices remained open.

Last month reports circulated saying the Order was in negotiations with the luxurious Four Seasons hotel chain, which is headquartered in Toronto and has Bill Gates as its majority shareholder.

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The decision to enter into negotiations with the Four Seasons – which is reportedly proposing a 27-year $52.4 million contract for a swanky hotel complete with a gym, spa, and a handful of fancy restaurants – was apparently made after the Order launched a public tender for the property.

That news was met with resistance by competitors who lost the bid, such as the Radisson and Centurion Hotel chains, who argued that the Four Seasons entered the tender late and is more luxurious than what was initially asked. These chains have threatened legal action.

Critics have also scoffed at the idea that such a swanky property would be located so close to the Vatican, saying it goes against Pope Francis’s “poor church for the poor” mantra. The property is also located near an area where many homeless people sleep at night.

In their statement, the Order referred to Pope Francis’s 2020 legislation on the awarding of public contracts, which centralized control over awarding contracts for goods and services in the Administration of the Patrimony of the Apostolic See (APSA) for the Roman Curia, which manages the church’s global assets, and the Government of the Vatican City State for the pope’s physical territories and the personnel who run them.

The new norms also created an impartial competitive bidding process with a commission of officials appointed to review bids without any direct relationship to the bidding agents.

These norms “do not apply” to the bidding process for the Palazzo della Rovere property, the Order said, because the Order is not included in the list of entities the legislation is intended for and because the selection process began in 2019, before the norms were issued on June 1, 2020.

“Moreover, the Norms do not require a competitive procedure for active leases,” the Order said, arguing that it was of “institutional interest” to ensure “the maximum participation of possible bidders” in the process.

The tender was published in Vatican newspaper L’Osservatore Romano in November 2020, and the evaluation of incoming bids, the Order said, was entrusted to an international commission of experts, though they did not disclose who these experts were or what firms they represented.

Responding to media reports stating that the contract for the property has already been awarded to Bill Gates’s Four Seasons, the Order said the reports are false, and that “the selection procedure for the hotel management of the Palazzo della Rovere has not yet concluded.”

“The Order has received some offers of interest and identified them in order of preference,” they said. Once current negotiations conclude, “and under the vigilance of the Bodies of the Holy See appointed for this purpose,” the Order will make its decision public.

“This decision will be reached exclusively on the basis of the offer which best meets the underlying interests of the Order’s institutional aims, eschewing all undue external interference which will be countered with recourse to all legitimate action” they said, insisting that any information on the process not included in an official communique “is to be considered unfounded.”

Follow Elise Ann Allen on Twitter: @eliseannallen