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Jason Berry, Church Whistleblower

JASON BERRY doesn’t mince words. It’s not that he’s impolite or rude. In fact, he’s a soft-spoken Southern gentleman who is unfailingly gracious and considerate. But ask him a tough, direct question and you get a no-nonsense reply.

This is especially true when the topic at hand is the sins of the Church—the Church he belongs to and has written about for more than 25 years as an investigative reporter, primarily through books and newspaper and magazine articles.

Berry, 62, was among the first U.S. journalists to write about the incidence of clerical sex abuse in the Catholic Church. His groundbreaking and award-winning reporting, specifically about clergy sex abuse in his native Louisiana, was published in the National Catholic Reporter in 1985.

Six years later he published Lead Us Not Into Temptation: Catholic Priests and the Sexual Abuse of Children, the first major book on the subject. In 2004 he co-wrote a book exposing the scandals surrounding Marcial Maciel Degollado, the late, now-disgraced founder of the Legionaries of Christ. Earlier this year the Catholic Press Association of the United States and Canada honored Berry for updated newspaper articles on Degollado. Berry’s reporting on the Church has been years ahead of the rest.

Berry’s new book, Render Unto Rome: The Secret Life of Money in the Catholic Church (Crown Publishing Group), again finds him exposing the unsavory. This time he shines the light on Church financial practices, including how bishops manage money as well as financial relations between Rome and the Church in the United States. Berry leaves little untouched in his 400-page, extensively footnoted book.

The safety of the Sunday collection, the unprecedented numbers of parish closings and the selling of assets to help fund settlements of victims’ abuse cases, the status of the Holy Father’s special collection (Peter’s Pence), the Vatican deficit: All come in for heavy scrutiny and review.

And then there are the men Berry names, including a retired cardinal who remains a higher-up in the Vatican. (See sidebar.) The U.S. hierarchical figures he cites don’t fare much better.

Berry isn’t without hope, though. He offers constructive remedies and prescriptions in Render Unto Rome. And he isn’t single-minded. He has written about New Orleans jazz as well as its funeral traditions. He’s produced documentaries and writes on culture for a variety of publications. His play, Earl Long in Purgatory, earned a Big Easy Best Original Work in Theatre.

But who is the Jason Berry who writes about the underside of the Church? What impact have his years of research and writing had on his lifelong faith? How does he feel about the institutional Church? Is he trying too hard to uncover its warts? By focusing so much of his professional energy on the Roman Catholic Church, is he saying or implying that churches of other denominations are without sin?

St. Anthony Messenger posed these questions, and more, a few months ago, when Berry was traveling the country to promote Render Unto Rome. Berry’s book tour brought him to Cincinnati, where he sat down with this reporter for a Q&A in the lobby of a downtown hotel. Later, he participated in a book-signing event and addressed a group at a nearby local bookstore. This article is based on his answers at both locations.

This magazine does not often print the views of such a strong critic of the Church, but the editors feel that the fruits of his years of research and the important issues he confronts are worth putting before you, our readers, for your own consideration. And, as you will see, he’s no “outside agitator.” We make no claims about the accuracy of all of his book’s assertions. But this journalist has been right before, on questions that were initially avoided by the Catholic media.

Why don’t we start with your relationship with the Catholic Church? Maybe you could begin with your religious upbringing and where you are today.

I grew up in New Orleans. My grandmother lived a short drive from my parents’ house. Often I would go to her place on Friday nights and stay with her through the weekend. She was a Mexican Creole who had a very festive sense of faith. By the time I got to Jesuit high school in the mid-1960s,
the Second Vatican Council had begun and the civil-rights movement was reaching high gear. I carried into my high school years a sense of rootedness about the faith but also a sense that the Church was growing and changing, that the winds of modernity were blowing in. During and after my four years at Georgetown [graduating in 1971], the Church was the spiritual core of my life.

I don’t think that changed until I stumbled onto the Gilbert Gauthier [clergy sex-abuse] case in 1985. I was exposed to a range of information suggesting that this was not just going on in one diocese in Louisiana. I felt that this was a moral outrage that needed to be exposed and understood. I went
through a period of mounting anger about what I learned.

Fast-forward to where I am now. Almost three years ago my daughter Ariel died; she was 17. She had Down syndrome and was born with serious heart problems. [Berry is also the father of Simonette, aged 26.] One of the things that keeps me anchored in the Church is my parish, Mater Dolorosa in New Orleans, where my wife and I worship. My pastor buried Ariel. Along the way I’ve also had help from a lot of priests who have gotten involved in the struggle of clergy sex abuse.

What are the key points you are seeking to make in this book? What do you want readers to come away with?

We all need to question Peter’s Pence, which is advertised as the collection for the Holy Father’s charitable uses, and determine where the money goes. The Vatican has released information about approximately 11 percent of the 2009 collection of $82 million; the rest is unaccounted for. What I learned during my research is that, for most of the last century, funds from Peter’s Pence went to plug the Vatican’s operating deficit. The Vatican Bank is not even listed as an asset on the financial

Secondly, we need to follow closely the wave of parish closings—an average of one church per week over the past 15 years. The priest shortage is the primary reason. Demographic changes are relevant, too. So is the reality of costly abuse litigation.

A related issue is the use of suppression, the Church-approved device by which a bishop literally seizes a parish and all of its assets for whatever uses he wants. In Ohio, for example, a bishop ordered a parish suppressed. When the parishioners raised $100,000 and hired an attorney [to keep it open], the bishop used almost $78,000 to pay his attorney to fight the parishioners. The court in that state ruled that the bishop owned the parish. When that decision was delivered, the bishop had the church torn down and used the parishioners’ money to pay the legal fees. I see this as rank injustice and a moral outrage!

Another key theme in the book relates to embezzlements by priests and lay workers. Several years ago the socalled Villanova Study was conducted by the university’s graduate program for Church management. Approximately 85 percent of respondents reported embezzlement of funds from the Sunday collection. In my book I quote Michael W. Ryan, a retired U.S. Postal Inspection Service manager and rock-ribbed Catholic who has studied this for more than 20 years. He estimates that, since 1965, the Church has lost approximately $2 billion from the Sunday collection to embezzlement and theft.

Finally, a core theme of my book is that the Roman Catholic Church does not have an adequate justice system. Instead, we have these ancient tribunals at the Vatican that give bishops de facto immunity from prosecution. No matter what they do, the worst that can happen is they will “step down.”

How long did it take you to complete the book? Did it come easily?

It took about three years to complete. I had a lot of information and documents that had been revealed through litigation. By far, this is the most difficult thing I’ve ever done. Other books took longer, but they were written before the Internet.

Where did you travel to do your research? How difficult was it to get to the records you wanted to study and the people you wanted to contact?

I made trips [one or more] to Boston, Rome, St. Paul, Los Angeles, New York and Cleveland. None of the U.S. bishops would talk to me, but that came as no surprise. I did talk to one archbishop deeply off-the-record in Rome. Although my entire interview with him was on background, his interpretation of the Legionaries of Christ was instructive to me.

Do you think the Catholic Church is being overly scrutinized by you and others in the media these days? Are other Churches/religious institutions getting a free pass?

I’ve done nine books, only three of them about the Church, and I have done other things in between them. It’s not joyous; that’s for sure. But with 1.2 billion members, the Catholic Church is the largest organization in the world, the largest faith in the world and the largest Church in the United States. Other Churches do get scrutiny and coverage—Islam probably gets more coverage than any global faith—but when you have such blundering leadership as we have had, it’s a wonder I haven’t written more!

People say, “Why don’t you get off it, do something else?” I would be happy to pack my bag on this tomorrow if I saw genuine change going on. I don’t intend to make this topic my life’s work,
but at least for the moment this is where I am.

Did you learn anything new about the Church in the writing of this book that stays with you?

It became clear to me in writing this book that, as Catholics, we really are shaped by a culture of passivity. It’s not just “pray, pay, obey,” as the old slogan goes. It’s deeper than that. The biggest benefit the bishops have at this time is the apathy of the average Catholic. Most people go to church to hear the Gospel, to be comforted, to be part of the community. We are not disposed to think about the Church as a political institution.

I think there is a parallel between the so-called Arab Spring and what’s going on in the Church. We are witnessing, I believe, the slow crumbling of the edifice of Catholic authority as we once knew it. We are living through the second Reformation. This one is coming from within—from Catholics who want justice from their own Church.

Could you cite a few key changes you see as important in light of your research? Are Church leaders up to this kind of change?

First let me say that I’m not trying to turn the Church into a democracy. The pope can maintain his sovereign powers and have a court system the way Great Britain does, something along the lines of a constitutional monarchy. That way, those bishops and cardinals who have disgraced the Church so much would be subject to a basic code of legal reality. The pope has the power as the supreme pontiff to order an entire radical overhauling of the Vatican court system. It’s not rocket science.

The bishops can easily adopt a nationwide policy to safeguard the collection plates. Just count the money after each collection on the weekend. Do a recount at the bank on Monday. It would involve a political battle internally, but the bishops could do it.

All dioceses should post transparent audited financial statements. Every parish should have an active financial council that shares financial decisions with the pastor. Already there are many great priests who function this way, who are collegial. But you have to have a system-wide approach. I would love nothing more than to see the Church move in this direction.

These are problems that can be solved, but it takes men who are not afraid of the truth and of smart laypeople. So is there hope? Yes, if we heed the prophetic voices in our midst.

What comes next? Another book?

I’m at a real crossroads. I may finish a book I started some time ago on the history of New Orleans burial traditions. Or I may turn to St. Catherine of Siena. I’ve been thinking about doing a biography of her.

Getting Down to Specifics

In Render Unto Rome: The Secret Life of Money in the Catholic Church, author Jason Berry is seriously critical of some members of the U.S. hierarchy, the late founder of the Legionaries of Christ and certain cardinals in Rome. He doesn’t have positive things to say about how John Paul II handled the growing clerical sex-abuse crisis during his papacy. Pope Benedict XVI gets only begrudging credit for confronting the problem more forcefully.

But Cardinal Angelo Sodano, 82, now dean of the College of Cardinals and former secretary of state, comes in for especially tough treatment for his role in Vatican mismanagement of money. Berry also targets the powerful cardinal’s nephew Andrea Sodano, a building engineer, as a profiteer of a “buy low, sell high” scheme connected to the sale or liquidation of many Church assets in the United States in particular.

The office approving such transactions is the Congregation for the Clergy in Rome. One of the monsignors named by Cardinal Sodano to serve in that office, Berry alleges, began feeding information about Church property and closings to the young Sodano. Berry calls the arrangement a “scam” that reaches to the highest levels of the Vatican.

The journalist Berry doesn’t shy away from specifics. He cites the sums that Andrea Sodano and his business partners have brought in. He also notes that an investor in Sodano’s firm is now spending time in a federal penitentiary.

What’s needed, he believes, is “structural change. But it will take leadership of a kind we have not seen from this generation of bishops and cardinals.”

‘We Are Expert Problem Solvers’

Not all of the Church-finance news is bleak. Kerry Robinson is part of an organization that includes members of the laity, religious and clergy who use their special expertise to help find solutions.

The organization is the National Leadership Roundtable on Church Management (NLRCM) in Washington, D.C., and Robinson is its executive director. Its mission is to help parishes, dioceses and Church-affiliated groups strengthen their practices in the areas of management, finances and human resources. “We have had an impact in roughly two thirds of the dioceses in the country,” she tells St. Anthony Messenger.

Serving as mentors are leaders from the worlds of business, finance, academia, philanthropy, nonprofit organizations and the Church.

“There are some serious problems” confronting Church institutions today, she acknowledges, “but we’re not here to focus on mistakes. The NLRCM is dedicated to addressing them, solving them and correcting them. We utilize expertise drawn from the highest levels of leadership across all sectors and industries. We are expert problem-solvers.”

Just ask Archbishop Alfred C. Hughes of New Orleans, who got the help of the NLRCM in rebuilding the parochial school system in his archdiocese following Hurricane Katrina. Just ask Bishop Dale J. Melczek of Gary, Indiana, who has committed himself to following the group’s Standards for Excellence Program for every parish in his diocese.

“Our strategic goal is to develop working relationships with bishops,” Robinson notes. When they approach the NLRCM for help, she says, “We make it our business to find the facts, determine where outdated practices are, develop appropriate goals and introduce contemporary standards.”

What motivates the members of the National Leadership Roundtable on Church Management? Simple, says Kerry Robinson: “We love the Church.”

Judy Ball is a widely published freelance writer and editor from Cincinnati, Ohio. She has two graduate degrees from Xavier University.

Related links:

National Leadership Roundtable on Church Management

Colleges that offer programs in Church administration:

Caldwell College

St. Mary’s University in Winona, Minnesota

University of Notre Dame

Boston College