RENDER UNTO ROME:The Secret Life of Money in the Catholic Church
By Jason Berry
Reviewed by Fran DeChant, Community of St. Malachi, Cleveland, Ohio
"We need a justice system in the Catholic Church."
… Jason Berry
Enter the world of lace and watered silk, of formally polite conversation and closely veiled secrecy. Jason Berry takes the reader into that world, the Vatican, in the introductory chapters of his third book, Render Unto Rome: The Secret Life of Money in the Catholic Church. An entrenched culture of monarchical privilege, last hold-out of the Middle Ages in the modern world, stymies every effort to investigate the Catholic financial system centralized in Rome.
An example of financial obscurity well known to the average Catholic is the annual collection of Peter’s Pence. This fund, long revered as the Pope’s personal charity account, has no documentation for ninety percent of monies collected throughout the world. That is not to say Peter’s Pence contributions are misused. We just aren’t allowed to know where most of the money goes. Other instances of shady financial dealings litter the money trail Berry follows through a system devoid of checks, balances and accountability.
Berry’s quest bisects the American Catholic community from coast to coast. Boston is first in time and location. Boston is also the home of Peter Borré. Borré, urbane and educated, was propelled by his outrage into the Boston church closing situation. He went on to become an advocate for parishes fighting those closings not only in his hometown, but also in dioceses far distant and in Rome itself.
Hierarchical leadership of the Boston Diocese passed from Cardinal Law to Archbishop Sean O’Malley when Law was propelled, soft landing style, into a cushy sinecure in Rome. O’Malley, a Franciscan and ascetic by nature, appeared ill-prepared for the Boston mess he inherited. Berry writes: “O’Malley was boxed into a corner. An unwritten law of the apostolic succession holds that one bishop does not overtly criticize another, and an archbishop should preserve the reputation of his predecessor, particularly a cardinal. O’Malley could not bring himself to state publicly that Law had mismanaged the money, stuffing money into written-off loans for clerics’ legal fees and writing checks for the expensive psychiatric facilities.” O’Malley begged the Vatican for money. What he got was permission to continue raising money by disposing of parish properties. As under Law, Bishop Richard Lennon was the hatchet man.
“In the culture of ecclesiastical princes where mistakes are often rewarded, Richard Lennon would soon be moving on, and up, to assume a diocese of his own.” The diocese was Cleveland, the news of which was greeted in Boston with a cry for God to help the people of Cleveland!
Twin crises convulsed the Cleveland Diocese. Blocked investigation of clerical sex abuses had produced the outstanding cover-up of records in major US dioceses. In this environment of deliberate secrecy it is not surprising that financial irregularities were unearthed. Under Bishop Pilla maintenance of off-the-books accounts, kickbacks and secret pay-outs dragged down a cadre of employees, even ending in jail time. Unlike Boston, Cleveland had adequate money resources. Lennon was not deterred. “In Cleveland he would prevent deficits with early, tough chopping block decisions.” He announced that twenty-nine parishes would close and forty-one would merge. Cleveland is the world center of FutureChurch.
In 1990 Sister Christine Schenk and Father Lou Trivison saw that falling numbers of priests would endanger access to the Mass, the Eucharist for Catholics. It was time to begin discussion of opening ordination. Two decades later an acute shortage of priests puts that mission beyond question. Faced with wholesale church closings engineered unilaterally by Lennon, FutureChurch swung into action. Save Our Parish Community packets educated and advised viable parishes faced with unjustified closing or merging. Chris Schenk collaborated with Peter Borré to support parishes. They matched helpful canon lawyers with parishes choosing to pursue formal challenges in Rome. Today, Cleveland has fifteen appeals pending,
Jason Berry’s “follow the money” trail ends in California, with a side trip into New Orleans, Berry’s hometown. The Archdiocese of Los Angeles headed by Cardinal Roger Mahoney offers the final view of a clever prelate’s maneuverings to satisfy huge indebtedness arising from clerical sex abuse.
Jason Berry summarizes the impact of his book in his own words: “We need a justice system in the Catholic Church.” Begin by reading Render to Rome. Berry has meticulously verified his facts showing us clearly how the Church got to where it is. Join with others to “engage the Vatican on its own level.” The payoff can be a Church where justice, the virtue that gives everyone their due, is found in abundance. This can be our Church, where we try so hard to bring about change for the better, the Church we dare to love.