Render Unto Rome

The Secret Life of Money
in the Catholic Church

By Jason Berry

Broadway Paperback. 420 pp. $16

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Reviewed by Kenneth A. Briggs


While some Catholic bishops and lay people have been waging a campaign to convince the public that their religious freedom is being threatened, Jason Berry's book stands as a formidable reminder of how much the church needs to learn from the "secular" realm that it often scorns.

Like common-law justice for sex abusers.

And certified public accounting of obscure church finances.

Combining superior investigative skills and adroit analysis, Berry links clergy sexual abuse of children - a subject he helped push onto a national stage in an earlier book - with the tactics designed to cover legal and psychiatric damages resulting from it in a crisis that has cost the church more than $3 billion in settlements, according to the advocacy group BishopAccountability. The chief cause he identifies is appalling moral failure by top church officials, including Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI.

Abuse and its cover-up, widespread and hidden, became a nightmare when Berry in Louisiana and a blockbuster series later in the Boston Globe exposed the scope and horror of the scandal. Expenditures on legal fees and suits quickly became astronomical. Strapped for funds, bishops resorted to various schemes.

The reflexive response in settings like Boston, Cleveland, and Los Angeles, was to sell off church property. That often meant killing a parish that was the cherished spiritual home to neighborhood Catholics. Asking them, in effect, to pay for clergy abuse sparked protest.

As Berry illustrates in exhaustive detail, the misuse of money and the host of deceptive practices are rooted in a system of clerical privilege that gives the pope, bishops, and pastors virtually unlimited authority over funds that fall into their jurisdictions. It's all top down with few if any internal checks, resting on a monarchical model that expects lay passivity and unquestioned trust in the ordained men who run the church. In such a blurry climate, the larceny and license can be hard to separate. A check for charity may or may not be used for personal purposes.

The shocking scandals have shown how misplaced such blind trust can be. Ignoring modern criminal and fiscal standards has wrought catastrophic ruin and shame, underscoring the huge cost of refusing to report abusers or filing complete financial audits for parishioners to inspect for themselves.

Berry's book, initially published last year and now reissued in paperback, tells a story of strategies to meet the enormous fiscal demands and includes sordid tales of skulduggery in major dioceses, shady money transfers, apparent pay-offs to curry favor with the Vatican, hush money, contract swindles involving kickbacks, and black holes swallowing resources intended for other purposes to cover unreported budget gaps. Peter is repeatedly robbed to pay Paul, as it were.

It starts at the pinnacle, where the Vatican funnels the proceeds from Peter's Pence, the yearly worldwide collection supposedly for the needy, deployed to balance the pope's budget.

In Berry's account, dioceses scramble to settle legal operations. Archbishop Sean O'Malley of Boston succeeded the disgraced Cardinal Bernard Law who was forced to resign for enabling abusers. Berry writes that O'Malley inherited not only "a horrific sexual scandal" but "a financial sinkhole." Law had already secretly diverted funds from priests' retirement reserves to pay off abuse judgments. Plans to sell off 83 parishes created angry outbursts and a fall in contributions.

The Cleveland diocese highlights the corrosiveness of inner-circle corruption. Bishop Anthony Pilla went to great lengths to conceal his protection of sex abusers and attempted to arrange an elegant retirement in a high-end home. Top financial officials acted in cahoots with a prominent contractor who paid them handsome gratuities for obtaining diocesan business.

On an even grander scale, East Coast dioceses teamed up with a rich, charismatic Italian real estate dealer named Rafaello Follieri to unload vast acres of church land and buildings, for scandal relief. Follieri was eventually arrested by the FBI on charges of money laundering and fraud.

Berry reports that skimming weekly Mass collections may be startlingly common. His chief source, Michael Ryan, a devout Catholic who oversaw accounting integrity for the U.S. Postal Service, estimates that such larceny may cost the average parish $1,000 a week or about $50,000 a year. Stories of theft by individual pastors are plentiful. The single most notorious scoundrel in this account is Father Marcial Maciel, founder of the Legion of Christ, who used his religious order's fortunes to stave off disclosure of his chronic abuse of young people and his illegitimate son. Despite a flurry of indictable accounts, Cardinal Angelo Sodano, Vatican secretary of state, and John Paul II continued to lavish praise on him. The dam of concealment finally broke, however, making a mockery of his defense.

Berry's reporting justifies a wholesale revamping of the way the church does business. His commitment to Catholicism gives him hope, but his probe leaves him wary that entrenched patterns will change.

Short of adopting "generally accepted accounting principles," and shifting to contemporary models of sound finance and prosecution of the guilty, no one will know how much the medieval system remains in place. Catholics these days have come to expect openness and accountability in their daily lives (however violated that code may be), but will large numbers continue to permit the church to live outside those standards?

Berry is left wondering where much of the money went. "As long as the people ask no questions about their money," he writes, "the church can ban reformers from church grounds." He concludes: "The Catholic church's great problem is structural mendacity, institutional lying."

Kenneth A. Briggs, former religion writer for the New York Times, is a freelance writer and retired adjunct professor at Lafayette College. He is the author of "Double Crossed: Uncovering the Catholic Church's Betrayal of American Nuns" (2006).