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Disappointed by Jason Berry's Render Unto Rome

By Phil Lawler (bio - articles - email) | Aug 17, 2011

Jason Berry is an outstanding reporter, whose diligent work has helped to expose some of the most unpleasant truths about life in the Catholic Church, especially in the US. He has exposed corruption with a thoroughness and clarity that have made it impossible to dismiss his critique of the current hierarchy, and even those readers who disagree with Berry’s own views of Catholicism—as I do—have been forced to acknowledge the main thrust of his arguments.

Unfortunately in his latest work, Berry has allowed his ideological bias to overpower his otherwise sound journalistic instincts, so that he makes bare assertions where logical inferences are needed, and draws unwarranted conclusions from the facts that he has assembled. As a result, despite a prodigious amount of excellent reporting, Render Unto Rome is a disappointment.

In 1992, Berry tore open the story of sexual abuse by Catholic clerics, in his shocking Lead Us Not Into Temptation. Even though sloppy reporters continue to say that the sex-abuse scandal was uncovered in 2002, and the Boston Globe won its Pulitzer Prize for exposing the story that year, Berry had actually covered the subject quite well a decade earlier. Beginning with reports about a predator-priest (Gilbert Gauthe) in Louisiana, Berry followed the story through the local investigation, discovered a more widespread problem, and finally revealed that the US bishops had consciously decided not to confront that problem aggressively. Although dozens of books on the topic have followed over the years, to this day Lead Us Not Into Temptation remains the single most important work of reporting on the scandal.

In this first, groundbreaking book on the scandal, Berry gave careful readers occasional hints about his own attitude toward the Catholic Church. He was entirely sympathetic toward the late Father Michael Peterson, the founder of the St. Luke Institute, where many troubled priests were treated and released, only to molest children again. Berry did not ask the necessary tough questions about the nature of “treatment” at the St. Luke Institute, and the troublesome rate of recidivism. The author was also sympathetic toward Father Tom Doyle, a Dominican whose anger about the cover-up of sexual abuse eventually drove him off to the fringes of the Church. It was not entirely surprising that Berry’s own byline began to appear regularly in the National Catholic Reporter, the paper of record for Catholic dissidents. Yet the strength of his reporting could not be denied; the facts presented in Lead Us Not Into Temptation were facts, regardless of the author’s personal opinions.

In 2004, Berry teamed with Gerald Renner to publish a second book on the scandal. Vows of Silence explored the evidence of abuse by Father Marcial Maciel, the founder of the Legion of Christ, who at the time was still a very powerful figure in Rome. At the time of the book’s publication, Berry and Renner were denounced by many conservative Catholics, for having attacked the leader of a conservative religious order. But once again the reporting contained in the book was fundamentally accurate, and the authors were vindicated when Maciel was exposed as a uniquely sinister figure: a man who preached piety and demanded obedience while indulging in vice and preying on the faithful.

Vows of Silence contained more obvious signs of the authors’ bias. The book was intended to demonstrate not merely the corruption of Father Maciel, but (as the subtitle put it) “The Abuse of Power in the Papacy of John Paul II.” The book contained enough solid facts to justify the indictment of Maciel, but not to support the broader charge. The authors showed an occasional tendency to leap from established facts to unwarranted conclusions. For example, they implied that the silence of then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger on the Maciel case showed that the prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith was a party to the effort to quash a serious investigation. That implication was based on an assumption, which was overthrown when Cardinal Ratzinger, newly elected as Pope Benedict XVI, told his closest associates that he was never to be photographed in the company of Maciel. Soon thereafter, the new Pope authorized the aggressive inquiry that Vows of Silence wanted, and the Maciel empire soon collapsed.

So now we come to Render Unto Rome, Berry’s most ambitious effort to date. The reporting that went into this book is prodigious, the writing style is winsome, yet in this case too the overall effort fails to deliver on the promise of the subtitle: “The Secret Life of Money in the Catholic Church."

Render Unto Rome begins with the messy aftermath of the scandal in Boston: specifically, the decision by Cardinal Sean O’Malley to close down dozens of parishes in order to balance the budget of the devastated archdiocese. A cadre of determined Catholics resisted that decision, vowing to keep their own parishes open. It is a painful conflict, made even more painful by the deeply ingrained habits of Boston archdiocesan officials, who routinely gave the public misleading information—if they gave any information at all. Berry is particularly rough on Bishop Richard Lennon, the principal architect of the unpopular parish-closing scheme.

Given the harsh criticism of Bishop Lennon—much of it richly deserved—there may be some poetic justice in the fact that the man who had been apostolic administrator in Boston was eventually appointed Bishop of Cleveland, and walked into another sort of scandal. His predecessor in Cleveland, Bishop Anthony Pilla, had employed a financial officer whose creative accounting practices allowed for secret accounts, kickbacks, and off-the-books payments that eventually attracted the attention of federal prosecutors. Bishop Pilla himself escaped indictment but accepted early retirement, leaving Lennon to clean up the mess. The new bishop again found himself closing parishes and losing popularity. In July (after the publication date of the Berry book), an embattled Bishop Lennon revealed that he had asked the Vatican to make an apostolic visitation of the diocese to assess his leadership—and, perhaps, to decide what to do with any more skeletons he had discovered in the diocesan closets. Berry’s coverage of the Cleveland scandal is compelling, leaving the reader with little doubt that the financial malfeasance was widespread.

In Render Unto Rome Berry returns to the story of Father Maciel, and with the aid of new information that has come to the fore since Vows of Silence was published, he sketches an utterly devastating portrait of ecclesiastical corruption and abuse. He takes careful note of the ties between Maciel and Cardinal Angelo Sodano, and goes on to explore the undeniable connections between the Vatican’s former Secretary of State and the notorious Italian con artist, Raffaello Follieri, who was imprisoned for an elaborate multi-million-dollar scheme that still shows the traces of Cardinal Sodano’s fingerprints.

All these stories are damaging to the reputations of Church leaders, and there is much more in Render Unto Rome. Berry even dares to criticize the Teflon prelate, the retired Cardinal Roger Mahony of Los Angeles, saying that in his handling of abuse scandals, “Mahony acted like a politician to the end.”

But what do all these stories show? More to the point, what do they have in common: a parish-closing controversy in Boston, accounting tricks in Cleveland, the double life of a religious founder, the schemes of an international swindler? Berry sets out to say something about the power of money in the universal Church, and in passing he does provide some history of the Vatican’s own finances and the Peter’s Pence collection, but his disjointed narrative does not point to any solid conclusion, and the whole of this book is less than the sum of its parts.

Several times in the course of Render Unto Rome, Berry suggests that the fundamental problem is the Church’s understanding of “apostolic succession.” But he does not explain the point, and this reader found himself wondering whether Berry understands what “apostolic succession” really means. He seems to think that the Vatican can never admit that a bishop made a mistake, because such an admission would undercut the apostolic succession. But there is no theological warrant for such a belief. As a practical matter, the Vatican can denounce, correct, or even remove erring bishops—as we have seen several times in the course of this pontificate.

Render Unto Rome is a frustrating book, wasting first-rate reportage on illogical inferences. The narrative jumps from Boston to Cleveland to Rome to Los Angeles, even hopping back and forth across the centuries, with no clear unitive principle. As I neared the end, and realized that there would be no strong effort to pull the disparate elements together, I began wondering whether Berry had grown tired of his project, exhausted by the amount of material he had uncovered, and finally thrown things together haphazardly at the finish. And I realized that I had seen efforts of such unseemly haste earlier in the book.

Having lived for 30 years in Dedham, Massachusetts, I was bemused to see that town described twice in Render Unto Rome as an island in the Charles River. Dedham is not an island. I could shrug off that mistake, thinking that perhaps Berry had taken literally something that was meant as a metaphor. But then I saw the town of Scituate described as being an hour east of Boston. As anyone who owns a map of the US should understand, if you are an hour east of Boston you must be traveling by boat, because you are in the Atlantic Ocean. That Berry could make this simple error, and that his copy-editors could let it pass, suggests a rush to publication—or at least an unwillingness to think critically about the book’s contents.

A glance at the Acknowledgments tells a similar story. Berry thanks the scores of people who helped with his research, and the dozens of institutions that supported it. Yet nearly all his sources and supporters are people who share his own ideas. There is no evidence in the Acknowledgements that Berry spoke with people who would challenge his assumptions and force him to tighten his argumentation. A bit of criticism—an insistence that Berry be accurate in his logic as well as his geography—would have made this a much better book.

See Jason Berry’s response to this review, and Phil Lawler’s reply.

 

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