Structural sin: finances, abuse and the church.
(Crown Publishing Group, Random House Inc., 2011, 420 pp) 978-0-385-53132-0, $25.00
NO AMOUNT OF FINANCIAL compensation can restore the destruction of the human body and spirit endured through the experience of sexual, physical, emotional or spiritual abuse. Similarly, the increasingly vast payments in litigation processes against churches can neither replace nor remove the guilt and responsibility of those who perpetrate such crimes. In some sense, however, both the abused and the perpetrators are victims of the macro-level dysfunctional power system that has been identified in much of the global analysis of the sexual abuse crisis within the Catholic church.
All abuse at its most fundamental level is an abuse of power, be that emotional, spiritual, physical or sexual. This list of words is deliberately ordered, since my own experience of working in the fields of child protection and sexual abuse--mostly outside of a church context--suggests that there is often a progression through the different forms of abuse, although this may not necessarily be an inevitable process in all cases.
Much research has been conducted at the personal level, investigating causal factors that incline certain individuals to perpetrate different forms of abuse. We are well aware of the colossal impact on the lives and future well-being of victims. But what of institutions? What factors come into play as we seek to understand how and why certain social systems provide a systemic context for multiple levels of abuse to occur? What oils the machine of social institutions like the church, so that such abuse can flourish all too easily? What is the interaction between social and religious values such as truth and honesty, transparency, integrity, repentance, healing and reconciliation?
Jason Berry's epic book, Render unto Rome, flows from his milestone work, Lead Us Not into Temptation, which exposed the extent of the sexual abuse crisis in the Catholic church. Berry sees that money in the Catholic church has a secret life of its own, functioning as a lubricant for the dysfunctional exercise of an ecclesiastical power machine. He does not stop at the immediate concern of how the institutional church and its hierarchy will find the financial resources to respond to the demands of litigation in the context of abuse. Berry discovers that this is just the tip of an iceberg, with secondary effects on the reorganization and restructuring of the local church in the face of decreasing clergy recruitment and increasing age of those remaining in active ministry.
Berry uses the emerging experience of groups such as Voice of the Faithful (VOTF) and Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests (SNAP) to dig beneath the surface of the financial and pastoral planning strategies, including parish and church closures, adopted by dioceses across the United States in the face of the sexual abuse crisis. He quickly realizes that, as in so many matters, "all roads lead to Rome." The issue doesn't just touch on fiscal mismanagement or concealment at local diocesan levels, but raises questions about the financial relationships between the Vatican, the local church and figures such as the late Father Marcial Maciel, notorious and abusive founder of the Legionaries of Christ.
The Code of Canon Law requires each Catholic parish to have a finance committee, while a parish pastoral council is only recommended. Nevertheless, lack of financial transparency is an issue that goes back to well before the first signs of the sexual abuse crisis emerged. Reform-minded Catholics in the UK highlighted the lack of financial accountability at parish and diocesan levels in a report published in the early 1980s, "Treasures in Heaven," calling for full, annual financial accounts to be published. Even today, there is still not complete transparency and questions remain around issues of ethical investment, use of off-shore financial foundations and trusts. More recently, attention has been directed at how diocesan funds, or bishops' "personal charitable funds," have been used to facilitate the moving around, within and beyond dioceses, of known abusers, including buying them property.
Berry shows that at the most basic level, ordinary Catholics lack trust in what passes for the church's "financial systems," which appear to allow parish and diocesan funds to be creamed off before they are even entered into conventional accounting processes. This can amount to "pocket money for Father," or bishops building reserves--sometimes secretly--used to buy favor with Rome in transactions that appear little better than bribes. Since end-of-year accounts are impossible to come by, questions remain as to the use of Peter's Pence by the Vatican. This parish collection is funneled directly to the financial support of Rome's infrastructure. How far does it shore up the Holy See's deficit, or is it more properly used for the relief of the world's hungry poor through the Sahel and Populorum Progressio funds established by John Paul II?
The author clearly finds few heroes among the US Catholic hierarchy, past or present, but plenty of villains. He scrutinizes now-retired archbishops such as Rembert Weakland of Milwaukee and Roger Mahoney of Los Angeles, as well as Pilla and Lennon of Cleveland, Law and O'Malley of Boston and the present prefect for the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Cardinal Levada, formerly archbishop of Portland, Oregon. At times, Render unto Rome reads like a catalogue of everyone you ever wanted to hate in the hierarchy, and only now have the temerity to name. In retrospect, I personally believe that Berry misrepresents the commitment of Benedict XVI to deal with the Maciel case in particular, and the wider sexual abuse crisis in general.
To say that this is a "curate's egg" of a book--not totally redeemed by its good qualities--is probably an understatement. Sweeping statements sit alongside almost obsessive preoccupations with financial details, leaving this reviewer slightly bemused that the cover should feature a wobbly tower of UK pound coins, rather than US dollars. Factual inaccuracies such as suggesting that London's St. Martin-in-the-Fields church is a Catholic parish, minor as that is, distract the reader and call into question the veracity of some of Berry's more important allegations. Sideswipes at Maryland's St. Luke treatment center for priests and religious fail to recognize that a good number of this population have benefitted from the therapeutic interventions offered there and at places like Canada's Southdown.
There are times when the author seems unable to extricate himself emotionally from his past exposures to the abuse crisis in order to focus objectively and factually on "the secret life of money in the Catholic church." He allows himself to be taken far too easily down side-alleys that leave the reader bewildered, asking, "And your point is?" Of course there is an international dimension to much that has happened with the Vatican's response to the global crisis of sexual abuse in the church, but Berry doesn't seem to recognize when to halt his travels. At times, readers may be unsure whether they are reading a blockbuster novel, or a real attempt to mark a crucial chapter in the church's contemporary history.
Berry does better with his observations about Cardinal Angelo Sodano--not least his role in protecting Marcial Maciel, as well as the financial dealings of the cardinal's nephew, Andrea Sodano, with the Follieri Group--which are important in understanding the level of dysfunction which was allowed to thrive during the pontificate of John Paul II.
Gaining contracts for the acquisition of over $100 million of church property in three US cities, Follieri's business director was able to write to one religious order, "because of the Follieri family's long-standing relationship with senior members of the Vatican hierarchy, the Follieri Group understands very well the imperative of the church and is sensitive to its needs." Essentially, this entailed purchasing properties from dioceses and religious organizations, renovating and converting them to new uses such as housing or profitable commercial development. With this backdrop, it becomes easy to see how the disposal of redundant churches can offer readily available solutions to the demands of litigation-strapped dioceses.
It is a pity that Berry did not wait a little longer before publishing Render unto Rome. As well as allowing time for much more judicious editing, further developments in the Maciel saga could have been included, such as that legal recourse seems to have succeeded in forcing the Legionaries of Christ, and the Vatican itself, to be accountable to a US court in some aspects of the case. If the author had wished to pitch the book's context beyond that of the American church, as is frequently the impression from the international snapshots he gives, then the Vatican's response to the Apostolic Visitation of the Irish church, due to report shortly, could well have been relevant.
If nothing else, Render unto Rome should remind bishops, religious superiors, the Vatican itself, as well as reforming activists, that the days are long gone when holy veils can be drawn over--not just dysfunctional systems--but the structural sin within the church, which enables such horrendous levels of abuse to persist.
MARTIN PENDERGAST lives in London, UK, and is a regular contributor on faith, sexuality and human rights issues to the Guardian newspaper. In the 1980's he managed the assessment and treatment of child sexual abuse in a major London hospital. He is active in various European Catholic reform groups, LGBT and human rights initiatives.