BOSTON — The Roman Catholic Church is a truly global institution with 1.2 billion members, making it the largest organization in the world.
The pope presides over the clerical hierarchy from the Vatican, but the church itself is a vastly decentralized institution with no full accounting of its financial assets. Its power remains largely vested in individual bishops scattered in dioceses across the world. It is a monarchical and anachronistic structure that goes largely unquestioned by many Catholics, who simply trust in the considerable "good works" of the Church.
But now there are deep stress cracks in the foundation of the Church brought on by mounting legal claims by clergy sex abuse victims and demographic changes, which are forcing the closure of churches in the industrialized world as well as causing explosive growth in the developing world, particularly in Africa.
Not since the Reformation has the Catholic Church been so battered by scandal and corruption. And not since the Reformation has it been under so much pressure from within to make profound structural changes.
Author and investigative journalist Jason Berry has chronicled the devastating sex abuse cases and the pattern of cover up by the church hierarchy since the mid-1980s when he began researching his 1992 book, "Lead Us Not Into Temptation." Now in his just-published book, "Render Unto Rome: The Secret Life of Money in the Catholic Church," Berry has undertaken a landmark examination of the church’s financial underpinnings and practices.
With his dogged research and signature elegance as a writer, Berry takes readers inside the highest levels of the Vatican and down into the inner workings of American dioceses to reveal a stunning lack of accountability for the billions of dollars that run through the Church every year.
While Berry is generous with praise for the vast and important charitable work that the church carries out every day in so many corners of the world, the book breaks new ground with its unflinching examination of the finances of the church.
Berry reports that safeguards for accounting for Sunday collections in parishes are so haphazard that an estimated $2 billion has been lost since 1965 to embezzlements from priests and lay workers.
He also trains an investigative reporter’s sharp eye on how financial decisions are made and how vast tracks of property, including churches, schools and seminaries, are being sold off by American dioceses. The fire sale on church property is needed to cover the estimated $2 billion paid to clergy abuse victims in the United States and for the legal bills and attendant costs for treatment needed for priests.
In "Render Unto Rome," Berry paints a dark portrait of the former Vatican Secretary of State Angelo Sodano. He places Sodano at the center of questionable financial practices surrounding the sale of church properties and reveals him as a key protector of the late Legion of Christ founder Marcial Maciel, who has been accused of pedophilia. Berry reports that Sodano received $15,000 from Maciel in gifts and that the Legion paid his nephew for engineering work. In 2006, Maciel was banished by the pope from active ministry.
Berry uncovers how Sodano also helped his nephew, Andrea Sodano, put together a scheme to obtain lists of U.S. church properties targeted for sale. It was what Berry calls a “profiteering scheme” to “buy low and sell high.”
Berry also takes readers inside the fallout from the priest sex abuse scandal in Boston in 2003. At that time, Sodano and other cardinals gave Archbishop Sean O’Malley (who replaced the disgraced Cardinal Bernard Law who resigned amid allegations that he oversaw the shuffling of known priest sex offenders from one parish to the next) carte blanche to sell off church properties to cover legal costs and compensation to victims.
Berry uncovers how an FBI investigation revealed that Sodano’s nephew, Andrea Sodano, a building engineer and vice president of a New York firm led by Raffaello Follieri, received some $800,000 for engineering services that the FBI later deemed worthless. Follieri was convicted in the fraud and money laundering case and sent to federal prison. Andrea Sodano and other church officials were what one FBI agent quoted by Berry called “unindicted coconspirators.”
I’ve known Berry for more than 20 years, since we both began digging into the priest sex abuse scandal that would eventually engulf the church in so many dioceses across America, but particularly in Berry’s native New Orleans and my hometown, Boston. We were both raised in the Catholic faith.
As a Catholic and a journalist, I’ve long admired the witness that Berry has done for his church in turning a spotlight on the dark corners of corruption and criminal sexual abuse that have done so much to hurt not just victims of the abuse, but also the reputation of the church worldwide. This book takes Berry’s commitment to uncovering truth to a new level by calling on Catholics to be more vigilant about the money they drop into the collection basket on Sundays.
As Berry points out, this month marks the collection of Peter’s Pence, a Sunday donation which is exclusively for the pope to be used for charity or cover Vatican costs as he sees fit. In 2009, Peter’s Pence pulled in $82.5 million and yet, as Berry reports, only about 11 percent of those funds have been publicly accounted for.
The book reveals a need for much greater accountability within the church from the highest levels of the Vatican down to the parish offices. And it is a call for all Catholics to pay much closer attention to the financial practices of their church so they can make an informed decision as to whether — or not — to drop money in that collection basket as it goes from pew to pew on Sunday.