Render Unto RomeThe Secret Life of Money in the Catholic Church Jason BerryCrown, $25, 432 pp.
A review of Jason Berry's Render Unto Rome
The John Jay College report on the “causes and context” of the sexual-abuse crisis in the U.S. Catholic Church frequently takes the news media to task. Journalists focused on bishops who were slow to respond to victims, “perpetuating the image” that the bishops as a group were unresponsive, according to the report. The media mistakenly referred to priest-abusers as pedo-philes; wrongly blamed celibacy; and focused on sexual abuse by priests even though it is a small percentage of all abuse incidents, according to the report.
But the study takes little note of the role journalists have played in prodding the church’s conscience by steadily forcing the issue into the open over the objection of church authorities. No journalist has done more to provide this service to the church than Jason Berry, whose new book on “the secret life of money in the Catholic Church” continues the reporting he started on the sexual-abuse scandal in 1985—the year, according to the John Jay report, that the number of abuse cases started to drop after the issue began receiving national media attention.
Berry’s book concludes a trilogy, following Lead Us Not into Temptation (1992) and Vows of Silence: The Abuse of Power in the Papacy of John Paul II, written with Gerald Renner (2004). This time, Berry follows the money. The trail leads him to uncover questionable practices in the Vatican and to probe further into previously disclosed cases in a number of U.S. dioceses, especially Boston, Cleveland, and Los Angeles. Like Berry’s earlier books and articles, Render unto Rome is a powerful work of investigative journalism that deserves attention.
The book’s strongest material enlarges on Berry’s earlier reporting that Fr. Marcial Maciel Degollado, founder of the Legion of Christ, had sexually abused minors. The late Maciel, Berry writes in the new book, also “financially seduced members of the Roman curia.” Describing Maciel as the greatest fundraiser of the modern church, Berry charges that the powerful Mexican priest showered gifts and cash on Vatican officials to advance his order’s status and to keep his secret life as a sexual predator from being exposed.
A former Legion of Christ priest identified only as Fr. A. is quoted as saying that Maciel’s order frequently delivered large amounts of cash—in U.S. dollars—to Msgr. Stanisław Dziwisz, then Pope John Paul II’s personal secretary and now cardinal archbishop of Krakow. This occurred when the Legion brought wealthy families—the order constantly courted them—to private Mass with the pope, according to the account.
Fr. A. described one occasion when a family brought Dziwisz $50,000. “This happened all the time,” the anonymous priest told Berry. A second priest identified only as Fr. B. said such gifts were considered works of charity, but “in fact, you don’t know where the money is going. It’s an elegant way of giving a bribe.” Berry hedges on this anonymous bribery accusation by quoting Nicholas Cafardi, canon lawyer and dean emeritus of the Duquesne University Law School, explaining that the Vatican does not require its staff to report gifts given for the officials’ “personal charity.”
Fr. A. also told Berry that Maciel paid to renovate the residence of the late Cardinal Eduardo Francisco Pironio, prefect of the Congregation for Religious and Secular Institutes from 1976 to 1983. It was during that period that Maciel sought approval of the Legion’s constitution—a document Berry presents as suspicious because of strict provisions barring members of the order from speaking ill of their superiors, and requiring members to report those who do, thus concealing Maciel’s abusive acts. Cardinals in the Vatican congregation would not sign off on the constitution, Berry writes, but Maciel went to the pope through Dziwisz and received approval.
After Pironio’s death, Fr. A. says, he was sent to the residence of the cardinal who replaced him, Eduardo Martínez Somalo, with an envelope containing $90,000, “a way of making friends.” Martínez Somalo later ignored allegations, reported by Berry in 1997, that Maciel had molested youths, according to Berry. (None of the Vatican officials he named would talk to Berry.)
These are alarming charges, even though it’s not shown that recipients of the payments used the money for anything other than charitable purposes. At a minimum, the Vatican emerges in this telling as a bureaucracy in need of an ethics code, a more transparent legal system, inspectors general, whistleblower protections, and full financial disclosure for those in policy positions.
The intent behind Maciel’s largesse is illustrated well in an anecdote describing how an outraged Cardinal Pio Laghi turned down a Mercedes-Benz that the Legion of Christ offered. Laghi was prefect of the Congregation for Catholic Education at a time when Maciel wanted his university in Rome, Regina Apostolorum, to be recognized as a pontifical academy.
Others did not have such scruples. Cardinal Angelo Sodano, dean of the College of Cadinals and former Vatican secretary of state—and the man who blocked then–Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger from investigating charges against Maciel—was among those who accepted gifts from Maciel’s order, Berry reports. (Ratzinger turned down an envelope the order offered for a speaking engagement.)
Picking up on reporting he initially did for the National Catholic Reporter, Berry writes that former Legionaries said Maciel had approved gifts of $10,000 and $5,000 for Sodano. In addition, he reports, Sodano attended the order’s language school in Dublin; vacationed in the order’s home in Sorrento; and brought two hundred relatives to a dinner the Legion sponsored when Sodano was named a cardinal.
Berry devotes another chapter to the cardinal and his nephew, Andrea Sodano. He writes that Andrea and his uncle’s aides played key roles in the events leading to the federal fraud conviction of Italian businessman Raffaello Follieri, who duped investors by claiming his Vatican connections allowed him to buy properties the church was unloading at bargain-basement prices.
The financial dealings Berry describes in various U.S. dioceses pale before the dark mysteries of undocumented cash floating around the Vatican, but they have a direct effect on the faithful when parishes are liquidated for their assets to pay settlements to victims of sexual abuse. Berry brings to life the stories of beleaguered parishes in the Archdiocese of Boston, following them through the book with his portrait of Peter Borré, a layman who tirelessly pursued justice for members of parishes sold to pay for abuse claims. This pursuit leads Borré and the reader to Cleveland, where Bishop Richard Lennon liquidated solvent parishes just as he had done as an auxiliary bishop in Boston. Berry does a good job of showing how the deck is stacked against the rights of lay Catholics in such situations.
In Cleveland, Berry tries to get to the bottom of a story of financial chicanery involving the convictions of the diocese’s onetime chief financial officer for tax evasion and an accountant for paying him $784,000 in kickbacks. Berry is sympathetic to the defendants’ claim that higher officials in the Cleveland diocese knew about these off-the-books payments. But federal prosecutors argued that officials in the diocese, including Bishop Anthony Pilla, were unwitting victims of fraud. In convicting the accountant, the jury evidently agreed with the feds. Berry overreaches in this section, but does offer a cautionary account of how sloppily and unethically diocesan finances can be managed.
The biggest money Berry follows is in California, where the Archdiocese of Los Angeles settled abuse claims to the tune of $660 million. He assails Cardinal Roger Mahony—now retired—who he argues is more culpable than Cardinal Bernard Law when it comes to having recycled abusive priests to new assignments. But he adds that Mahony was better at public relations.
Berry draws an engaging portrait of plaintiffs’ lawyer Jeff Anderson, exploring the mix of motives that have driven him to investigate the church to its highest levels in pursuit of judgments for abuse victims. Berry notes that plaintiffs’ lawyers each stood to bring in $25 million in fees in the massive Los Angeles settlement. He also reports that Anderson has been a major benefactor of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, or SNAP, which plays an important role in the public debate over the bishops’ actions. Berry does not question this arrangement, in which a plaintiff’s attorney financially supports an advocacy group whose work in turn lines his pockets.
While it has some very impressive reporting, there are gaps in the book. With the author’s sights set on the sexual-abuse scandal, other serious concerns such as embezzlement from parishes get brief treatment. Berry cites “raw estimates” that more than $2 billion was stolen from U.S. parishes from 1950 through 2009, a loss more costly than the sexual-abuse scandal. But the evidence offered for this startling charge is weak—it is no more than a “theory” from a retired federal investigator. This issue needed to be treated in much greater depth.
The book deals briefly with these broader issues of church finances—inadequate disclosure by U.S. dioceses and the Vatican, pension shortfalls, donations—in an engaging prologue. But much more could be said on these areas as well. While substantial parts of the book are impressively reported and gripping, other sections meander away from the dollars-and-cents topic outlined with much promise in the prologue.
Much as he has done in the past, Berry performs the service of excavating the information needed to fuel debate and spark further news coverage. Berry’s book demonstrates that the sexual-abuse scandal is not so much about sex or psychiatry or the mores of the 1960s as it is about the abuse of power. In that sense, the scandal is linked to the sometimes casual, secretive, and even scandalous way the church handles the money entrusted to it.
The crux of the problem, Berry charges, is “institutionalized lying.” He does not hold out much hope that the system can reform itself—investigative reporters have an Augustinian view of human nature. Even so, Berry’s steadfast reporting raises the hope that his fellow Catholics will use this compelling and brave account as a handbook for reform.