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 parishioners.
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