Structural Sin: Finances, Abuse and the Church

By Pendergast, Martin | Conscience, Fall 2011 | Go to article overview

Structural Sin: Finances, Abuse and the Church


Pendergast, Martin, Conscience


Render unto Rome: The Secret Life of Money in the Catholic Church

Jason Berry

(Crown Publishing Group, Random House Inc., 2011, 420 pp) 978-0-385-53132-0, $25.00

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

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. …

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