In his latest book, Berry chisels an image of his church that reads like an ecclesiastical version of recent Wall Street scandals. He accuses the Vatican of siphoning charitable donations from its special “Peter’s Pence” collection to plug its budget deficit and a high-ranking cardinal of collecting bribes in return for access to Pope John Paul II. He puts forth that another high-ranking cardinal facilitated a profiteering scheme to make his nephew rich by selling American churches, and he asserts that dioceses throughout the United States have been shuttering financially successful churches to seize control of their assets and then refusing to properly disclose their finances to the same parishioners responsible for making the donations that keep the church afloat. Jean-Francois Lantheaume, charge d’affaires at the apostolic nunciature in Washington, did not respond to requests by phone and e-mail for comment.
In an era when people on Main Street became suckers in the con games of the financial industry, Berry argues that the faithful have been snookered by Rome. Only, in his telling, it’s the collection plate — rather than the subprime loan with the balloon payment — that is the vehicle for the powerful’s deception of the powerless.
“Look. A good sign!” says John Tutino, a history professor at Georgetown University, harnessing Berry’s attention. “A man in a collar heading the way we’re heading.”
Indeed, up ahead, a Catholic priest pauses to read a sign announcing Berry’s appearance at Georgetown for a discussion of his book and the state of the Catholic Church. Berry’s mouth curls into an amused crescent. He is a tall man, vigorous at 62, and he smiles easily. But his eyes, heavily lidded and cupped by puffy pouches, look better suited for other emotions.
Speaking at Georgetown, he lays out his vision of the modern church: It is monarchical, he says, with “a constellation of medieval fiefdoms” in each of the dioceses. His arguments sound a bit like those that have been batted about in Washington after the 2008 financial meltdown: more transparency, more accountability, less power in the hands of the few (in this case, bishops) and more input from the many (laypeople and parishioners). Berry worries about the financial health of the church in part because he admires the good works it is capable of, particularly the vast reach of Catholic Charities. “The church is in meltdown,” he says.
But, for all his work in the darker recesses of human behavior, Berry insists he can still see the beauty in life, grasp its wonders and joys. In therapy, his goal was “to make sure the material did not engulf me or overpower me.” So he writes about jazz — “the cultural stuff is quite a celebration,” he says — and has produced a novel, “Last of the Red Hot Poppas.” “It’s a comedy,” he points out.
And, sure enough, even though the topic is far from slapstick, Berry manages to elicit laughter in the lecture hall at Georgetown. Focusing more on money and less on sexual abuse relieves some of the tension. (Berry asserts in his book that the financial misdeeds he accuses leading church figures of committing are frequently tied to schemes intended to silence abuse victims or pay legal settlements.)