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Tuesday, December 13, 2011

The Secret Life of Money in the Catholic Church' by Jason Berry

The Secret Life of Money in the Catholic
Church' by Jason Berry
What does a church do when faced with potentially having to pay
billions of dollars in damages to victims of sexual abuse at the
hands of its clergy?
By Steve Fiffer
Special to Tribune Newspapers
Chicago Tribune
Wednesday, August 17, 2011
What does a church do when faced with potentially having to pay
billions of dollars in damages to victims of sexual abuse at the
hands of its clergy? As Jason Berry documents so well in his
compelling new book, "Render Unto Rome," the Catholic Church's
initial response was to fight the charges.
Highly placed bishops and cardinals denied any knowledge of such
abuse or claimed that proper procedures had been followed in sending
known pedophiles from one parish to another, where they often
committed the same vile acts. High-priced lawyers argued that even if
such evils had taken place, the statute of limitations had passed and
victims were not entitled to compensation. And perhaps worst of all,
high-ranking church officials in the Vatican and the United States
branded the accusers as liars.
Apologies were almost as hard to come by as restitution.
We know that ultimately such tactics failed miserably and that
archdioceses across the country and around the world have either lost
or settled lawsuits that might bankrupt a major corporation -- over
$700 million in damages in Los Angeles alone.
So how does an archdiocese pay for these damages and the hefty legal
fees associated with them? Some archdioceses have actually filed for
bankruptcy, while insurance payments and loans from banks with ties
to the Vatican have helped others cover the costs. But, sadly, all
too often the short answer has been on the backs of good, innocent
According to Berry the church has shut down more than 1300 parishes
in the U.S. since 1995. Some of these closings were legitimate due to
declining attendance and other factors; however Berry's focus is on
those churches with vibrant congregations, strong balance sheets,
and, in many cases, parishioners themselves willing to raise the
funds to meet any operating deficits.
Why were so many of these parishes targeted? According to this
painstakingly researched book, it was because closing them would
allow the church to sell off their real estate, much of which was
extremely valuable. Whether the money reaped from such sales should
"follow the parishioners" or go to the archdiocese to use as it
pleased has, understandably, been the subject of much contention and
even litigation.
This battle pitting observant Catholics against their local bishops
and cardinals came to a head in the midst of the sex scandals
plaguing the Church. Parishioners whose places of worship were to be
shuttered and whose land holdings were to be sold argued that if
closure was inevitable, sale proceeds should go to the congregations,
not, as often appeared to be the case, to settle the lawsuits based
on misdeeds that were none of their doing.
In "Render Unto Rome," Berry focuses his intelligent eye on two
cities, Boston and Cleveland. In each of these locales, the architect
of post-scandal downsizing was a less-than-likable bishop named
Richard Lennon. Berry questions the bishop's reasoning and motives in
closing over 60 parishes in Boston alone -- where it just so happened
that lawsuits and settlements from the infamous Cardinal Law era
totaled over $150 million.
Berry knows the church landscape as well as any living investigative
journalist. Almost 20 years ago, he documented the sex scandal in
"Lead us Not into Temptation." And in 2004, along with the late
Gerald Renner, he wrote the highly-regarded, "Vows of Silence: The
Abuse of Power in the Papacy of Pope John Paul II."
Berry knows how to find the story lines that humanize the stomach-
turning behavior of the pedophiles, those who protected them, and
those who sought to clean up the mess in less than savory ways. In
"Render Unto Rome," Berry follows the fascinating Peter Borre, a
Harvard-educated Boston businessman likened to Don Quixote. After his
church, which catered to working class immigrants, was slated for
closure, Borre embarked on an effort to keep it and other churches
open using tactics ranging from civil disobedience to sophisticated
appeals to the Vatican.
At one point Borre brought petitions bearing 3500 signatures to the
chancery in Boston's Brighton neighborhood. "'We're not interested in
petitions,' the priest uttered. Borre asked what they should do with
the petitions. The cleric, whom he recognized as a chancery official,
retorted, 'You should go f--- yourself,'" writes Berry.
With his business background, Borre became curious about church
finances: "How did a 'land rich' church manage its assets?" Berry
ably chronicles the history of local churches sending money to Rome
and the lack of financial transparency, accountability, and
efficiency in the Vatican and its archdioceses.
Most disturbing is the case of Father Marcial Maciel Degollado, the
Mexican-born priest who founded the Legion of Christ. Numerous men,
some of them now clergy, charged Maciel had sexually abused them when
they were young. Berry follows the gifts that flowed from the cash-
rich Legion to the powerful Cardinal Angelo Sodano, Vatican secretary
of state from 1991 to 2006. With Sodano as his protector, Maciel
enjoyed the support of Pope John Paul II. Condemnation and removal
from duties came only after Pope Benedict XVI took power. At that
time it was revealed that in addition to pedophilia, Maciel had
fathered children with two women and had committed incest with one of
his sons.
While Maciel is as close to evil as any character in this tawdry
story, many of the other principals are more complex. So many of the
cardinals and bishops took admirable positions in fighting for civil
rights, world peace, and immigrant rights, that it is hard to imagine
they could recycle known pedophiles throughout the system and play
dumb when caught. Sadly, their allegiance to Rome seemed to trump
those Rome was supposed to serve.
Chicago, which has not escaped the scandal, escapes Berry's focus...
almost. He notes that three years after the Catholic Church adopted a
youth protection charter in 2002, "Cardinal Francis George... put an
accused pedophile back in ministry over warnings from his advisory
board. The priest reoffended, went to jail, the archdiocese paid
heavily to the victims -- and Cardinal George was elected president
of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops."
Steve Fiffer is the author of several books, including the memoir
"Three Quarters, Two Dimes, and a Nickel."
"Render Unto Rome: The Secret Life of Money in the Catholic Church"
By Jason Berry
Crown, $25, 432 pages

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