All Roads Lead to Accountability

Posted in: Book Reviews

There was a time when Ireland was politically and constitutionally united with the Roman Catholic Holy See.  The priest sex-abuse cases, though, have driven such a wedge between the two sovereigns that Ireland’s Prime Minister, Enda Kenny, angrily denounced the Vatican for its brazen failures to abide by civil law and basic standards of decency.

In this column, I’ll explain and applaud both Kenny’s speech, and the work of another fine thinker and writer on this issue, Jason Berry.

Kenny’s Denunciation of the Vatican’s Contemporary Culture

Kenny minced no words when he referred to the “dysfunction, disconnection and elitism that dominate the culture of the Vatican to this day.”  But what was most striking about his speech was that he laid down the gauntlet of accountability:  He told the Vatican that the Church, its clergy, and hierarchy are governed by the civil law of Ireland.

At the heart of Kenny’s speech was this point:  The era of giving priests and bishops a wink and a nod if they misbehave is now past.  Illegal behavior, particularly the failure to report child sex-abuse and the failure to stop known abusers, is intolerable, no matter what individual or group is involved, and no matter if they are religious or secular.

What was the Vatican’s response to Kenny’s speech?  They called their ambassador back to Rome to discuss the situation.  From all reports, it would appear that the tone-deaf, if not profoundly deaf, highest levels of the Roman Catholic hierarchy may try to put the devoutly Catholic Kenny in his place—which in their eyes, is subservient to Rome.  The Holy See thus may express that it is “surprised” or “disappointed” with what it views as the extreme nature of Kenny’s remarks.

Those are the terms of a failed diplomacy.  The Holy See has exhausted Ireland’s patience, and the Holy See has no more defenses left.  Kenny should be commended for telling it like it is, regardless of the response.

Jason Berry’s Invaluable Book on Money and The Catholic Church

It happens that Kenny made his remarks just as I was reading Jason Berry’s illuminating and deeply troubling book, Render Unto Rome: the Secret Life of Money in the Catholic Church.  Kenny’s speech and Berry’s book reach the same conclusion: This sovereign institution must be made accountable to basic principles of honesty and decency, or there will be too many victims for any of us to possibly bear (if that has not, frankly, been the case already for quite a while).  And once a civilized society knows of the existence of victims, it has an obligation to stop the harm.

Everyone, whether Catholic or not, needs to read Berry’s book, because all of us are affected by the financial dealings of the Church, which is the largest organization in the world.  Berry was one of the very first journalists to cover misdeeds in the United States Catholic Church, when he first wrote about the prolific and grotesque child abuser, Reverend Gilbert Gauthe, in Louisiana and then authored important op-eds for the Boston Globe which contributed to tremendously important reportage about the Catholic hierarchy and clergy child-sex-abuse, which caused a seismic shift in the perception of, and the public reaction to, the issue.  From there, Berry moved to chronicling the extraordinary evil of Marcel Maciel, whose abuse of children and financial misdealings were not enough to get him removed from the ministry until after John Paul II passed away.  In sum, Berry’s learning curve is far ahead of just about anyone who is covering these issues, and this new book is going to make Catholics who desperately want to repose some faith in this institution search even harder for reasons to give or attend.

Some sections of Render Unto Rome talk about what, at first, seems like petty theft, but then, once the numbers start adding up, looks like grand larceny.  For example, Berry points to studies that show that it is typical for about 10% of weekly collections to be skimmed off the top.  If this were a one-church aberration, one might be more forgiving, but when this is a practice that covers many parishes across the institution, the aggregate harm is staggering.

Part of the problem, according to Berry, appears to be that priests and their superiors tend to be lousy financial managers.  They do not know (and thus, of course, do not follow) even the most basic of standard accounting or business models, and the result is complete financial unaccountability.

At one time in our history, a church’s financial naiveté seemed almost charming.  It is not so beguiling, however, when the dollars that have been misappropriated or grossly mismanaged reach into the millions and even billions.

How, and When, Will the Church Attain Financial Accountability?

When Render Unto Rome is read with Kenny’s words in mind, the question that must be asked is:  How can the hierarchy be forced into financial accountability?  According to Berry, we are a long way away from that goal.  Granted, the Holy See issues annual reports, but they do not list all assets.  For example, the Church’s properties in the Vatican may be listed as worth “1 euro.”  And, the practice is to exclude the Vatican Bank and its holdings from Church financial statements.

The same approach to financial “disclosure” has been followed in the United States, where bishops routinely release annual operating reports, but never provide an assessment of their actual wealth.  As the largest landowner in the United States, the Church has many, many assets, which are never disclosed unless a diocese is forced to do so.  The hierarchy was able to operate under the radar until the bishops invoked bankruptcy law to protect their assets from their victims.  They have discovered that once a diocese avails itself of the United States bankruptcy system, it must account for its holdings, including its property, and it can no longer operate in financial secrecy.  So even though the bankruptcy filings are often just a dodge, they have increased public disclosure of the enormous wealth of many dioceses.

Why Doesn’t the U.S. Government Speak Out Against Clergy Abuse and Its Cover-Up, Just as Irish Prime Minister Enda Kenny Has?

It would be refreshing and heartening for clergy-abuse survivors to hear the United States government take a stand for the victims, just as Kenny did in Ireland.  But the federal government has been not only silent on clergy abuse, but troublingly willing to ignore it.

Yet, maybe money talks.  Berry tells the engrossing story of Raffaello Follieri, who was famous for being actress Anne Hathaway’s boyfriend.  Follieri is now in federal prison for fraud and money laundering in a scheme that involved buying and selling church properties for a profit.  Involved in his scheme were three men with connections to the Vatican: the nephew of Cardinal Sodano, Andrea Sodano (formerly Secretary of State for the Holy See and now Dean of the College of Cardinals); a layman employee of the Holy See, Antonio Mainiero; and Msgr. Giovanni Carru, who at the time was undersecretary to the Congregation for the Clergy.  Berry quotes an FBI agent saying that the latter two were “unindicted co-conspirators” to Follieri’s scheme, and that the FBI believed that Sodano’s company took in fraudulently- obtained funds.

Shouldn’t the United States demand accountability and, actually, a better accounting of the money flowing from fraud that occurred in the United States and involved American properties?  Why stop with Follieri?  Berry’s account strongly suggests that the investigation seems to have gone up to the edge of the Holy See but stopped there.  Is this the wink and a nod the whole world gave the Vatican until we knew about the clergy abuse cover-up?

Ireland, once connected to the Roman Catholic Church through a constitutional umbilical cord, has now demanded that the Vatican obey its civil laws.  If clergy sex abuse of children does not prove enough, even though it should, perhaps the United States’ federal government can find its moral compass by demanding that the Vatican defend its apparent involvement in some way in serious financial fraud.  Berry subtitled his book “The Secret Life of Money in the Catholic Church,” but the subtext is a call to unveil the hierarchy’s unsavory financial dealings.  The best way to end the secrecy is to demand accountability to the law.