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Thomas MaierMay 07, 2012
Render Unto Romeby By Jason Berry Crown. 432p $25

One of the most jarring moments in the New Testament, repeated in all four Gospels, is the story of Jesus driving out the money-changers from the temple. It is one of the few times we see the Lamb of God genuinely angry, simply outraged at what is going on. Notably, the Bible also tells us how the chief priests and scribes were indignant at Jesus’ cleansing action, stirring a hatred by those in power that eventually led to his crucifixion.

Jason Berry’s excellent new investigative book Render Unto Rome: The Secret Life of Money in the Catholic Church—the conclusion of a trilogy begun in 1992 dealing with the current crisis inside the world’s largest religion—might well prompt a reader to ask, ‘What would Jesus do?”

Even by mere mortal standards, the financial and moral mess is staggering, rooted deeply in the church’s contradictory attitudes toward sex. Between 1950 and 2002, 4,392 priests sexually abused children in the United States, taking advantage of school-age children in their care. Since then the church in the United States has paid well over $1 billion in expenses related to the scandal, while patterns of similar sexual abuse by clerics have been exposed in several other nations.

With extraordinary fortitude, Jason Berry has been the premier American journalist covering this wide-spread scandal, exposing serious cases of clerical sexual abuse more than a decade before the Boston Globe’s 2003 Pulitzer Prize-winning series turned it into an international crisis that rocked the Vatican. His groundbreaking 1992 book exposed various cases of sexual abuse by priests in the United States, while his second in 2004 described in detail the church’s attempts at cover-up and questioned Pope John Paul II’s handling of the crisis.

In his new book, Berry underlines the severe financial consequences of the sexual abuse scandal—particularly the closing of local parishes to help pay for legal costs to victims and other expenses—and shows how millions collected from faithful Catholics are lost, stolen and similarly mishandled by the church bureaucracy. He reports that in 2010 alone some $90 million in church donations was embezzled from the church.

Overall, Berry reminds us that sex and money are often intermingled in church corruption, whether it concerns Peter’s Pence from the collection plate or the molestation of children. Although his story is told with great compassion and considerable writing skill, Berry’s list of allegations seems almost like an indictment against a criminal racketeering enterprise. His style is doggedly investigative, in the best watchdog style of Ida M. Tarbell, who exposed the sins of that early 20th century behemoth, John D. Rockefeller’s Standard Oil.

“The Catholic Church’s great problem is structural mendacity, institutionalized lying,” says Berry, who writes as a practicing Catholic rather than a nonbelieving critic. “As long as the people ask no questions about their money, the bishop can ban reformers from church grounds.”

Perhaps the most revealing case involves the Marcial Maciel, L.C., the late founder of the powerful Legion of Christ, now a sort of rump order within the church with hundreds of priest members. During his heyday in the 1980s and 90s, Maciel became the darling of church conservatives and was praised by Pope John Paul II. As Berry shows, Maciel showered money on top church officials to get his way, while covering up evidence of his own sexual abuse of young seminarians. Pope Benedict XVI removed Maciel from the order in 2006 and later called his actions “immoral.”

Berry also casts light on the shadowy Vatican Bank, which in recent years has been investigated by Italian authorities for money-laundering. He also examines how church funds are used as a personal piggy-bank by some prelates who are loathe to agree to any open accounting of their finances, especially to the parishioners who donate the money.

We are reminded that huge sums, some from U.S. taxpayers, are funneled into church-related organizations, making it one of the nation’s largest single providers of education, health care and social services. Catholic Charities is justifiably lauded for carrying out Christ’s mandate to ease the suffering of the sick and poor. But Berry also shows how Peter’s Pence—the traditional collection for the downtrodden—was apparently rerouted in part to pay for the budgetary deficits caused by the sexual abuse scandal or simply not accounted for at all.

As an important historian of the modern U.S. church, Berry underlines how sex became an obsession in recent years, especially when it concerned the role of women. Although the church condemns homosexual activity, Berry contends there is “a vast gay subculture” among priests. Because of the celibacy requirements, many other priests during and since the late 1960s left to get married. In a scramble to keep more parish priests from leaving, the hierarchy looked the other way, even when presented clear evidence of sexual abuse by its most troubled clergy members. And the church has restated its ban on women’s ordination.

Today, Berry argues, the hierarchy’s tortuous reasoning has led to some calamitous results, including a sharp decline in church attendance and clerical vocations. Rather than focus on Jesus’ concerns that memorable day in the temple, Berry says that too many top church figures have been acting like the biblical money-changers who defiled his father’s house.

In the search for divine guidance to rescue the church from these sins, some of the best narrative parts of Berry’s book tell of those brave souls who are attempting to reform the church from within. We meet Peter Borré, the Boston businessman opposed to the closing of parishes in his diocese, who works with some in the hierarchy to bring about greater financial responsibility. Another compelling figure in this tale is Christine Schenk, C.S.J., a religious sister with the audacity to suggest women should have an equal place in the body of Christ, the communion of souls that make up the church. Her words offer the best hope out of this morass, even if no one at the top seems to be listening.

“Jesus stood against unjust authority,” Sister Schenk explained to Berry. “We push against the rock of injustice in our own church. Evil does not have the final word.”

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