Catholic Culture Solidarity
Catholic Culture Solidarity

Jason Berry responds to Phil Lawler's review

By Phil Lawler ( bio - articles - email ) | Aug 22, 2011 | In Reviews

Jason Berry writes:

I am grateful to Philip Lawler for his favorable remarks on my reporting of the abuse crisis in previous books, and the overall tone of his review. In like measure I have appreciated the respectful treatment that he and writers like Michael Rose and Tom Bethell have given my work, though we approach the crisis from different theological slants--they as orthodox conservatives, I as a liberal influenced by Vatican II.

Nevertheless, for Lawler to argue that two small errors of Boston geography signal a work completed on the rush, and "no strong effort to pull the disparent elements together," is a real stretch. I refer him to page 3 of the Prologue: "By failing to show resolve as a ruler and bring the worst bishops to justice, Benedict has invited scrutiny of the Vatican's legal system, such as it is. Vatican offices have largely rubber-stamped bishops' financial decisions. How that Vatican legal system functions is the central theme of the book." The theme moves through the narrative, chapter by chapter unto the very last page:

The pope cannot be an authentic voice for peace, affirm the dignity of human life, and preach the values of a greener planet if people see that Vatican justice is a farce. Will justice sink beneath the weight of popes forever bound to the hubris of apostolic succession? Questions hang; a hungry people wait.

Lawler takes me to task for inadequately explaining apostolic succession. As a matter of faith, I accept the idea of bishops as a spiritual lineage descending from the original apostles. The problem is that the popes have erased the memory of Judas the betrayer from apostolic succession. In a more basic sense, as I report, bishops carry a de facto immunity from genuine prosecution within the church. The long sorry history of the abuse crisis--and the gathering financial crisis--is that canon law is malleable, and the Vatican tribunal system, such as it is, caters to bishops and almost never punishes them.

I devote considerable space in this book to Cardinal Angelo Sodano's role in the Maciel scandal, pressuring Cardinal Ratzinger from prosecuting--the case stalled in the CDF tribunal for six years, until shortly before Pope John Paul II died--followed by Sodano's continuing meddling in the process even after the investigation results awaited by Benedict were underway. No government of laws would have tolerated behavior like Sodano's. He has yet to be punished or demoted; if anything he has gained power. While functioning as Secretary of State under John Paul, Sodano helped set up his nephew with the now-imprisoned Raffaello Follieri, in a profiteering scheme to sell shuddered U.S. churches. The nephew, and two Vatican functionaries who were part of the scheme, are considered unindicted co-conspirators by the FBI agent who investigated their role. Lawler does cite Sodano and the Follieri case in his review, but misses the large point: these men are protected by the Vatican. An appreciation of apostolic succession is central to this point.

Lawler writes that yours truly "seems to think that the Vatican can never admit that a bishop made a mistake, because such an admission would undercut the apostolic succession. 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." "Correct or remove" a bishop is exactly the problem, as I argue in the book. When a guilty bishop remains a bishop there is no genuine prosecution. My thematic architecture seems to have eluded Lawler. Just as Cardinal Law, now drawing a $12,000 a month salary as pastor of a great basilica in Rome is a continuing scandal to Catholics because of what he did in Boston, so Angelo Sodano, now Dean of the College of Cardinals, is living proof that hierarchs have de facto immunity from serious punishment. A priest is defrocked, but a bishop who recycles pedophiles, covering up, causing enormous human damage and financial losses, is allowed to "step down." Law and Sodano were raised up, rewarded. If the church had a bona fide justice system these men would no longer be cardinals, no longer be bishops. Until we have a mechanism for justice that removes cardinals as cardinals, bishops as bishops--a way of defrocking members of the hierarchy--we won't get beyond the crisis at hand.

Phil Lawler replies:

The geographical errors are insignificant in themselves, of course. The larger point that I was trying to make was that Jason Berry’s book could have been improved if someone had read it more critically, forcing the author to tighten his argument.

As I read the book, I did not find that Berry’s central theme came through clearly. That is a pity, because if it had, I would have been an enthusiastic cheerleader for the book. We may have our differences, but with the last few paragraphs of his comments, I could not agree more wholeheartedly.

Berry says that I missed the thematic architecture of his book. I agree. Is that the fault of the author (and his editors) or the reviewer? I leave it to others to read the book and make their own judgments. At worst—if I’m right—they will have the benefit of Berry’s extraordinary reporting.


Phil Lawler has been a Catholic journalist for more than 30 years. He has edited several Catholic magazines and written eight books. Founder of Catholic World News, he is the news director and lead analyst at See full bio.

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  • Posted by: - Sep. 18, 2011 8:49 PM ET USA

    Yes, Archbishop Weakland is another bishop who was not removed for his undeniably scandalous behavior. And I have trouble understanding the unending uproar so widely expressed over Cardinal Law, in view of the generally muted response to Cardinal Mahony's dreadful record. Cardinal Law's record was not without redeeming elements. I wouldn't say that about the other two.

  • Posted by: - Aug. 31, 2011 2:26 PM ET USA

    Ithink that Rembert Weakland is another bishop who has scandalized with impunity.

  • Posted by: Erik George - Aug. 23, 2011 7:56 PM ET USA

    I am wondering if Mr. Berry isn't on to something here. Since the rise of collegiality as a Church governance philosophy in the decades after the Council, we have seen devasting corruptions in liturgy, catechesis, religious life, and now these financial improprieties. It all points to a gross lack of Church discipline, from the top on down, resulting from a supposed Vatican II mandate: collegiality. It's time we dispose of this failed experiment and restore order.

  • Posted by: - Aug. 23, 2011 7:55 AM ET USA

    The "hubris of apostolic succession"?? Sorry Mr. Berry, you lost my sympathy immediately with that remark. And the Apostolic Succession is not just a "spiritual lineage" - it is a real lineage. You don't really understand what you attack.

  • Posted by: dfp3234574 - Aug. 22, 2011 9:02 PM ET USA

    Jason Berry has written a lot of provocative things over the years, but are they TRUE? I have analyzed only one piece of Berry's work, a 2007 op-ed in the LA Times, and my research found his various claims to be false and misleading. Berry is also buddies with SNAP, hardly trustworthy. Berry recently wrote on behalf of a SNAP doc arrested for child porn.