Jason Berry speaks about his book Render Unto Rome at a book-signing event in Cincinnati, Ohio.
JASON BERRY doesn’t mince words. It’s not that he’s impolite or rude. In fact, he’s a soft-spoken Southern gentleman who is unfailingly gracious and considerate. But ask him a tough, direct question and you get a no-nonsense reply.
This is especially true when the topic at hand is the sins of the Church—the Church he belongs to and has written about for more than 25 years as an investigative reporter, primarily through books and newspaper and magazine articles.
Berry, 62, was among the first U.S. journalists to write about the incidence of clerical sex abuse in the Catholic Church. His groundbreaking and award-winning reporting, specifically about clergy sex abuse in his native Louisiana, was published in the National Catholic Reporter in 1985.
Six years later he published Lead Us Not Into Temptation: Catholic Priests and the Sexual Abuse of Children, the first major book on the subject. In 2004 he co-wrote a book exposing the scandals surrounding Marcial Maciel Degollado, the late, now-disgraced founder of the Legionaries of Christ. Earlier this year the Catholic Press Association of the United States and Canada honored Berry for updated newspaper articles on Degollado. Berry’s reporting on the Church has been years ahead of the rest.
Berry’s new book, Render Unto Rome: The Secret Life of Money in the Catholic Church (Crown Publishing Group), again finds him exposing the unsavory. This time he shines the light on Church financial practices, including how bishops manage money as well as financial relations between Rome and the Church in the United States. Berry leaves little untouched in his 400-page, extensively footnoted book.
The safety of the Sunday collection, the unprecedented numbers of parish closings and the selling of assets to help fund settlements of victims’ abuse cases, the status of the Holy Father’s special collection (Peter’s Pence), the Vatican deficit: All come in for heavy scrutiny and review.
And then there are the men Berry names, including a retired cardinal who remains a higher-up in the Vatican. (See sidebar.) The U.S. hierarchical figures he cites don’t fare much better.
Berry isn’t without hope, though. He offers constructive remedies and prescriptions in Render Unto Rome. And he isn’t single-minded. He has written about New Orleans jazz as well as its funeral traditions. He’s produced documentaries and writes on culture for a variety of publications. His play, Earl Long in Purgatory, earned a Big Easy Best Original Work in Theatre.
But who is the Jason Berry who writes about the underside of the Church? What impact have his years of research and writing had on his lifelong faith? How does he feel about the institutional Church? Is he trying too hard to uncover its warts? By focusing so much of his professional energy on the Roman Catholic Church, is he saying or implying that churches of other denominations are without sin?
St. Anthony Messenger posed these questions, and more, a few months ago, when Berry was traveling the country to promote Render Unto Rome. Berry’s book tour brought him to Cincinnati, where he sat down with this reporter for a Q&A in the lobby of a downtown hotel. Later, he participated in a book-signing event and addressed a group at a nearby local bookstore. This article is based on his answers at both locations.
This magazine does not often print the views of such a strong critic of the Church, but the editors feel that the fruits of his years of research and the important issues he confronts are worth putting before you, our readers, for your own consideration. And, as you will see, he’s no “outside agitator.” We make no claims about the accuracy of all of his book’s assertions. But this journalist has been right before, on questions that were initially avoided by the Catholic media.
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