Cardinal's profit mission and an FBI investigation into sale of church property
RITE AND REASON:IN 2005 parishioners of St James in the farm belt town of Kansas, Ohio, recoiled when Toledo Bishop Leonard Blair, facing a tight budget, closed the parish, steering them to one several miles away. They filed an appeal to the Vatican. It failed.
Then they sued in a local county court, arguing that the bishop was a trustee but parishioners owned the property. The state sided with the bishop. “We spent $100,000 in legal fees,” said parishioner Virginia Hull. “Bishop Blair paid his lawyers with $77,957 from our parish account.” Blair had the church demolished.
Canon law says a parish is “a juridic person”. But that “person”, like an olden slave, does not own itself. The bishop does. Nevertheless, a federal court in Springfield, Massachusetts barred the bishop there from razing a church deemed a historic landmark. Parish ownership is unresolved in American law.
A US Catholic parish has closed on average once a week for the last 20 years. Many bishops have sold churches to plug deficits, or pay for abuse cases caused by their negligence or their predecessors’.
The idea that each bishop stands in a lineage going back to Jesus’s disciples renders them immune from prosecution for recycling abuse predators or selling churches to cover mistakes. Since 2005 at least 95 parishes from 21 US dioceses have appealed to Vatican courts. At least 12 closures won partial reprieves in the Syracuse, Buffalo, and Allentown, Pennsylvania dioceses.
The Apostolic Signatura (Vatican supreme court), in a split-the-baby ruling, decided that the protesting parishes were “sacred” property not to be sold, but would not restore them as active churches. Juridic “persons” slumber in the folds of legal farce.
In July 2003 Boston’s then new archbishop Cardinal Seán O’Malley visited Rome seeking financial help to resolve 552 abuse cases. He met Secretary of State Cardinal Angelo Sodano and Cardinal Castrillon Hoyos, then in charge of the Congregation for the Clergy, which oversees the liquidation of diocesan assets.
They gave O’Malley carte blanche to sell properties. In Boston, parish sit-ins ignited bad press and a deep slide in donations.
Cardinal Sodano saw profit horizons. He installed an under-secretary at the Vatican who fed information on closing churches to a New York company, the Follieri Group. Its vice-president was Andrea Sodano, a building engineer in Italy and a nephew of the cardinal. The cardinal greeted potential investors at a New York launch party.
The Follieri website promoted its ties to Vatican officials. Its business plan: find churches, buy low, sell high. When an investor sued Follieri for profligate spending, the FBI investigated.
Follieri had wired $387,000 to the Vatican Bank account of a lay staffer in cahoots with Andrea Sodano. Cardinal Sodano’s nephew’s invoices netted more than $800,000 for work the FBI deemed worthless. Raffaello Follieri today is in prison for fraud and money laundering.
Nepotism, from the Italian “nipote”, means nephew. The FBI considers Andrea Sodano, the Vatican under-secretary and a lay staffer there to be “unindicted co-conspirators”. It helps to have an uncle in robes.
Pope Benedict should empanel constitutional scholars to create a court system for criminal issues and church property. But first, he should sack Cardinal Sodano – now Dean of the College of Cardinals and who will oversee the election of the next Pope.
It would give some sign of papal belief that St Augustine was correct: justice is a virtue.
Render unto Rome: The Secret Life of Money In the Catholic Church.