Jason Berry, a journalist and author known for his meticulous reporting on sexual abuse by Catholic priests, is to be in Toledo today to discuss his latest book, Render Unto Rome: The Secret Life of Money in the Catholic Church.
Mr. Berry spent 2½ years following the money trail in the Roman Catholic Church, which with 1.2 billion members, is the largest organization in the world.
The financial story includes donations made (or withheld) by average Catholics in the pews, sales of multimillion-dollar properties, and settlements paid to victims of sexual abuse by priests.
Throughout his detailed research — the book contains nearly 40 pages of footnotes — Mr. Berry finds much of the church’s money unaccounted for.
He points out, for example, that Peter’s Pence, a global collection taken every June for the Pope’s use in helping people in dire need, raised $82.5 million in 2009, but the Vatican reported allocations of $8.65 million, only 10.5 percent of the total.
Looming over the church’s financial picture is the monetary impact of the clerical sexual abuse scandal.
In Portland, Ore., the diocese filed for federal bankruptcy protection in July, 2004, after a spate of lawsuits was filed alleging sexual abuse by priests, shortly after the diocese reached a $53 million settlement for 100 abuse claims, Mr. Berry writes.
At the same time that many U.S. dioceses faced increasing budget pressures, some — notably Boston and Cleveland — started closing parishes and selling valuable properties.
The debts from legal settlements, as well as from mismanagement, embezzlement, and declining revenue, are not directly linked to the sale of church property but are certainly “major factors,” Mr. Berry said in an interview with The Blade.
He called Cleveland’s closing of parishes, overseen by Bishop Richard Lennon, an “outrage” and “another sign of how downsizing, selling property, and the like become a mere instrument of diocesan finances.”
Mr. Berry’s book spotlights the case of the former St. James Parish in Kansas, Ohio, which was closed by Bishop Leonard Blair in 2005 during the Toledo diocese’s largest restructuring in its history.
The parishioners held a round-the-clock prayer vigil in the church, filed appeals with the Vatican under canon law guidelines, and pursued their cause in civil court, spending more than $100,000 on legal bills.
The diocese, meanwhile, used some of the funds acquired from St. James’ bank account after the parish closed to pay attorneys to fight the ex-parishioners’ legal suit.
Why did Mr. Berry include a small parish in rural Seneca County in a book with such a global view?
“It was just the rank injustice of it,” he said in the interview. “These are hardworking people in the heartland of America who clearly wanted to do everything they could to maintain a vibrant faith community. If your measurement of a vibrant faith community is dollars and cents, then the whole question of a parish is up for grabs. And the idea that Bishop Blair could take the cash reserves to use it to pay his lawyer to beat them in court and use it to tear down the church seems vindictive — winner take all.
“I think we have a generation of bishops who just seem unable to sit down with lay people who have valid questions and to negotiate differences in a pastoral, forward-looking way.”
In response, the Diocese of Toledo issued a statement Saturday saying that it “agrees with the position of the Toledo Blade in its editorial published Oct. 14, 2008, which stated that the lawsuit initiated by the Kansas St. James parishioners was ‘without basis.’ The Blade wrote that they ‘should stop holding onto a past that doesn’t fit the present’ and ‘that the only winner in this contest, in which the former parishioners are challenging the authority of Bishop Leonard Blair over church property, is the Columbus law firm representing them to the tune of “well over $100,000” in legal fees.’
“The Diocese would also point out that parish assets that remained after closing were spent principally on care of the property, insurance, and taxes [after it ceased to be a church] and eventual demolition. These expenses were prolonged by the time period during which some former parishioners refused to vacate the property.”
Mr. Berry, a Catholic who graduated from Georgetown University in Washington, said his investigations of the church have not shaken his faith. “I am severely disappointed and still shocked by the incompetence and corruption in the government of the church,” he said in the interview. “But I don’t want bishops, some of whom act like moral thugs, to drive me out of the place where I practice my faith. And I think a lot of Catholics feel that way.”
Jason Berry will speak and sign books at 2 p.m. Sunday at the Needmor Foundation, 42 St. Clair St., in downtown Toledo. Admission is free. Information: 419-345-9291.
Contact David Yonke at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6154.