****God’s Bankers: A History of Money and Power at the Vatican

Vatican, Rome, St. Peter's

photo: Nick Fewings, creative commons license

By Gerald Posner, narrated by Tom Parks – If this troubled history of Vatican financial dealings over the past 150 years were fiction, it would be dismissed as unbelievable, but, alas, it is not. Former Wall Street lawyer Posner has done a remarkable job of in-depth reporting to pull together this story. Although much of the story has come out piecemeal over the years, he’s assembled it in a highly readable, occasionally jaw-dropping narrative.

Posner helpfully puts the Church’s opaque financial dealings in the context of pressures on it at any given time. His descriptions of the politics around the election of recent popes are likewise fascinating. Few of them had any awareness of—or interest in—the questionable and large-scale financial activities taking place practically under their noses.

Since 1942, when the Church reorganized many of those activities by forming the Vatican Bank, authorities in Italy, in the United States, and in the international financial world repeatedly pressured the Church to reveal what the Bank was up to, with little success. Bank leaders would claim ignorance of financial matters when it suited them (“we’re just poor priests here”), and employed a succession of shady financial advisors (“a few bad apples”). Meanwhile the international monetary wheeling and dealing was unstoppable. As Damon Linker says in The New York Times, “The result (of the Church’s history) has been a tension—and sometimes a blatant contradiction—between the church’s exalted claims for itself and its behavior.”

Not all of the Bank’s financial deals were successful and some too much so. Millions and millions of dollars simply disappeared. Many readers may know about the Pope’s barely audible muttering when it came to dealing with Hitler; they may not know that the financial side developed ratlines to provide monetary and other aid to Nazi fugitives. Or how its lack of records “made it an ideal safe haven for money plundered from Jews and other wartime victims,” said Chicago Tribune reviewer Trine Tsouderos.

They may not know about the money-laundering for the American mafia or the political slush funds disguised as benevolent sounding charities. Or how the Bank was used to support the anti-Communists in Poland and the right-wing Nicaraguan Contras. Or the Vatican Bank’s role in the demise of Italy’s largest private bank. Or the assassinations. . . . In short, it’s “an extraordinarily intricate tale of intrigue, corruption and organized criminality—. . . not widely known among more casual church watchers—from Pius XII down to Benedict XVI,” says Linker.

Pope Francis is now taking concrete, meaningful steps to reform the Bank and limit its activities. He’s letting the sunshine into an institution that for many years did not operate like a normal financial institution. It did not conduct independent audits, and it had a scanty, periodically destroyed, paper trail.

Posner’s book was almost 22 hours long, and though Parks’s narration was excellent, there were so many characters, I wish I’d read it instead of listened, so I could flip back through to remind myself who was who (the affiliate link below is to the paperback). Nevertheless, the overall picture resounded clear as a church bell.

***Blonde Ice

spy, espionage, reading

(photo: David Lytle, creative commons license)

By RG Belsky — This is the third crime mystery in the series featuring New York Daily News reporter Gil Malloy, dogged practitioner of a fading profession. Written in the first person, it holds you close to the genial Malloy and his ups and downs—reportorial, romantic, and bureaucratic.

On the up side, Gil Malloy has fallen into what may be the scoop of the year: a beautiful blonde serial killer is targeting married men cheating on their wives. Malloy’s print editor Marilyn Staley and his internet/social media editor Stacy Albright want to milk the sexy story for all it’s worth. Keeping these two antagonists happy could be a second career. Another plus, Malloy’s adored ex-wife Susan shows promising signs that all is not well with hubby #2. Is there a chance? Capstone to his good luck, Malloy has a juicy job offer from the man likely to be New York’s next mayor.

On the down side, Malloy discovers the scoop through Victoria Issacs, who tells him her husband’s gone missing. In a former life, Issacs was the infamous prostitute Houston. When Malloy wrote a Pulitzer-nominated feature article about her several years back, neglecting to disclose his quotes were all second-hand and he’d never actually met the elusive Houston, criticism of him and the paper was withering. He nearly lost his job, and the stress cost him his marriage. Saying too much about Issacs now will reveal that Malloy actually knows her real identity and, probably worse, has concealed it from his editors.

But Houston’s secret isn’t keepable when a hotel maid finds Walter Issacs dead. The knockout blonde who went up to the room with him has disappeared. As the murders keep coming, the chase is on: NYPD after the killer, and Malloy after the story.

Malloy is a regular-guy kind of narrator with a wisecracking exterior that makes for some lively banter in the newsroom and in his efforts to get back between the sheets with Susan. His colleagues keep telling him his constant jokes can wear thin. He knows that, but can’t seem to stop himself. It is, in fact, his armor.

Frustratingly, Staley, Albright, and NYPD detective Wohlers repeatedly jump to conclusions about the case, based on their assumptions and a remarkable lack of definitive evidence. The narrative glosses over various routine questions that arise in murder investigations. How is it possible there was no forensic evidence at any of these violent crime scenes? No long blonde hair, for instance? How did a woman overpower these much larger, fit men? Drugs are an obvious possibility, but there’s no mention of toxicology tests of the victims until Chapter 49. Although this book is not a police procedural, Malloy’s proximity to the investigation and his evident skills as a reporter suggest he should be asking questions exactly like these.

Despite these quibbles, it’s fun to spend time with Gil Malloy on another wild ride. Author Belsky is an experienced New York journalist who perceptively describes the woes and conflicts in today’s news business and conjures a realistic, energetic New York City, too.

****Mary McGrory: The First Queen of Journalism

washington-star

The old Washington Star building; photo: wikimedia

By John Norris – You think women in journalism have a long way to go when you consider how being young, glamorous, blonde of hair and white of tooth seem to be hiring criteria, and when you learn how sexual harassment of them is more common than seems possible in 2016 (for organizations that make their living exposing secrets, after all). But then you read Mary McGrory’s compelling life story, written by John Norris—a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress—and realize the distance traveled is pretty far after all.

McGrory was from Boston, the first person in her Irish Catholic family to finish college, and she began her newspaper career at the bottom of a very tall ladder. She worked for a time in Boston, as an assistant to the Herald Traveler’s literary editor, but the quality of her writing propelled her to a position as assistant book critic at the Washington Star. The nation’s capital in 1947 was a boomtown, full of change, openness, mobility.

Six years later, Mary’s badgering of Star editor Newby Noyes led him to assign her to write a series of political profiles, and Mary began spending time with the men she’d be writing about for the next half-century, including new Senate minority leader Lyndon Baines Johnson.

The positive reception the profiles received garnered her a plum assignment: covering the Army-McCarthy hearings in 1954. From there she covered the Eisenhower-Stevenson campaign of 1956, becoming one of the nation’s most respected reporters and colorful commentators on the political scene.

After the Washington Star folded in 1981, the Washington Post snatched her up. She wrote for that paper for twenty-two more years, though the Star was always her first love. She covered multiple Presidential campaigns, the Kennedy presidency was a miracle for Mary, pushing all her loyalty buttons—Boston, her faith, and her admiration of the family.

The fates of those brothers were intimately, personally felt. By contrast, she loathed Richard Nixon: “If he were a horse, I would not buy him.” Her name appeared on his infamous “enemies list.” Regarding the Gore-Bush campaign of 2000, she said the race was a “battle between the unlikeable and the unprepared.”

Although well known for her scorching prose, Mary’s life off the page is also fascinating. It seems she had one or more affairs with prominent politicians and journalists, and LBJ once propositioned her. She was a great party-goer and -giver. Her entire time in Washington, she regularly volunteered at St. Ann’s Infant and Maternity Home—a refuge for young unmarried women—and arranged with Ethel Kennedy for the children to have swimming parties at Hickory Hill, the Robert Kennedy family home in Virginia. She persuaded Hillary Clinton to visit at Christmas in 1995, the year journalist Tim Russert played Santa Claus. These children were the stand-ins for the children Mary, never married, didn’t have.

Indefatigable Mary McGrory, pioneer woman in journalism, astute and opinionated, winner of a Four Freedoms Award and a Pulitzer Prize for Commentary, mentor to women journalists, had a stroke at her desk in 2003 and her health—and worse, her powers of speech—never recovered. Her simple tombstone in Antrim, Mass., reads exactly the way she wanted it to:  name, dates, and the inscription “Newspaper Woman and Volunteer.”

“Baseball is what we were, and football is what we have become.”–Mary McGrory

“In a Surprise Move, God . . .”

Inverted Pyramid, Louvre

photo: Derek Key, creative commons license

Is the inverted pyramid dead? That trusty journalistic technique that crams all the basic information about an event—the who, what, when, where, why and how—into the fewest possible words at the top of the story, then proceeds to fill in decreasingly important details?

Award-winning hard-boiled crime novelist Bruce DeSilva thinks so, and said as much during a panel at the recent Deadly Ink conference in New Jersey. DeSilva was a prize-winning journalist before becoming a novelist seven years ago and worked on stories winning nearly every journalism prize, including the Pulitzer.

DeSilva apparently was warming up for a turn on the Writer’s Forensics Blog, where he goes into the flaws in the pyramid in more detail, repeating this “what the Bible would have been like if a journalist wrote it” example:

In a series of surprise moves intended to bring all of creation into existence out of what leading scientists call the ‘singularity,’ before energy, matter or even time existed, God yesterday said, ‘Let there be light,’ according to reliable sources close to the project.

His point was that the transition from the artificiality of journalese to writing fiction is difficult. The two require a completely different voice. In fiction, the depiction of events is more realistic in that they generally unfold chronologically, with the wwwwwh answers coming near the very end, not in the first sentence or two.

Needless to say, other former journalists on DeSilva’s panel—including author Dick Belsky—pushed back. Belsky thinks the techniques of journalism, such as digging in and getting the story and grabbing the reader’s interest up front, do translate well. And, the profession provides a believable background for his character, investigative reporter Gil Malloy.

Fellow panelist E.F. Watkins said the hardest thing about her transition from busy newsroom to chair in a quiet office, alone, was learning not “to give things away too fast.” But, she knows how to meet a deadline and how to get her facts right.

According to DeSilva, the main lesson he learned from his journalistic career is that “writing is a job.”  A job you go to daily, in the mood or not, in the company of the muse or not. “You put your butt in your desk chair every day and write.”

Indie Documentaries: Valiant Struggles

N.J. Governor Christie

NJ Gov. Chris Christie-sez so right on his jacket (adapted from a Talk Radio News Svc photo, creative commons license)

In the last bill for the Trenton (N.J.) Film Festival 2016 were three short documentaries under the heading Made in By.  As mentioned in an earlier post, Trenton’s Film Festival offers 55 films from 16 countries in multiple categories—live action, documentary, animation, and new media. The final three from Sunday night were:

  • Two Years – a film by Lauren Hall (11 minutes), which had to be a sentimental favorite here in New Jersey, because it showed the ongoing struggle of Jersey Shore residents to rebuild after Hurricane Sandy. They are thwarted by a FEMA bureaucracy that keeps changing eligibility rules for assistance and a governor who says all the right things, but provides little help, focused as he has been on his own now-failed presidential bid. Of the 45,000 or so homes lost in the storm, fewer than 400 had been rebuilt two years later! It is now 3.5 years after the storm, and two shore residents who appeared in the film attended the screening and spoke afterwards. One is finally back in her home, the other is not.
  • PACT: A Day in the Life – by John Bynum, 14 minutes – a film whose cinematic shortcomings are easily overcome by the importance of the problem it highlights: the plight of people with chronic mental conditions in a housing-health-welfare system geared to short-term problems and remedies. The film follows one Trenton, N.J., Catholic Charities support team on its daily rounds, providing ample evidence these people are candidates for sainthood.
  • Made in BY – a 52-minute Italian film (trailer), directed by Luigi Milardi, in its U.S. premiere. The film documents the state of the creative arts in Belarus—Europe’s last dictatorship—through interviews with (mostly young) people from theater, art, music, journalism, and so on. The predominant impression is one of uncertainty—will a particular work be censored, will it land its participants in prison, or not? That creativity can thrive under such difficult circumstances is a profound testament to the human spirit.

The organizers of the Trenton Film Festival deserve a big round of applause for mounting such an ambitious and thought-provoking five-day program!

Weekend Movie Pick: Spotlight

Spotlight, Boston Globe

Rachel McAdams, Mark Ruffalo, & Brian D’Arcy James in Spotlight

Shades of Woodward and Bernstein, the based-on-a-true story Spotlight (trailer) follows the actions of an investigative journalism team way out on a limb in Catholic Boston. They’re not just in pursuit of the story of clergy child sex abuse, their mission is also to expose the shameful cover-up of abusive priests, and the institutional shortcomings that allowed them to carry on. Unlike today’s social media blowhards (and political candidates), they can’t just make accusations; they need actual proof.

A nice coincidence is the support the reporters receive from another Ben Bradlee—this one Ben Bradlee, Jr., played by John Slattery, who never has a good hair day. Like his father in the Watergate era, he lets the reporters run, even though he’s initially skeptical they’ll come up with anything.

Crusading journalists are a social corrective we have largely lost in the era of declining newsroom budgets and staffs and the competition for sound bites and snarky bits. The reporters in this film reporters fill the job description, pushed by a fierce desire to expose the truth. Sometimes, of course, that leads to more truth than they might desire—closer to home truths of different kinds. They’re after the kind of story that wins Pulitzers (and did), but more important to the journalists, they know it’s an important story for the affected families and a sobering story about how evil can hide in plain sight.

The principals include the Boston Globe’s new editor, Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber) and his investigative “Spotlight” team, led by Robby Robinson (Michael Keaton of the pursed lips), with reporters Michael Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo, who sticks his head out like a turtle, so eager is he to grab onto the story), Sacha Pfeiffer (Rachael McAdams), and Matt Carroll (Brian D’Arcy James). The actors do a fine job, as do Stanley Tucci and Billy Crudup in smaller roles.

As written by Tom McCarthy and Josh Singer and directed by McCarthy, the film is a “magnificent nerdy process movie—a tour de force of filing cabinet cinema,” says Justin Chang in Variety. Yet it is never uninteresting. Even better, it is never sanctimonious.

The film’s tension comes from fear that the Church will find out what the Globe is up to and exert its considerable influence to put a stop to it or—and almost worse from the reporters’ point of view—the Boston Herald will scoop them. If they can delay publication until they have proof top Church leaders knew about the abuse, it would be impossible for them to persist in the “few bad apples” claim.

In sum, “A taut story, well-told,” says Jim Lane in the Sacramento News & Review.

Rotten Tomatoes critics rating: 98%; audiences 96%.

***The Turk Who Loved Apples

apples

(photo: shellac)

By Matt Gross – Glowing reviews of this 2013 book by the former “Frugal Traveler” and “Getting Lost” columnist for the New York Times, made me want to read it. As a young man, Gross picked up and moved to Ho Chi Minh City and from there explored more of Southeast Asia, worked for a local Vietnamese newspaper, and eventually got himself various travel writing gigs. In 2006, the Times gave him a budget for a three-month, around-the-world trip, which was to establish his “frugal traveler” identity. This, he says, was the job “everybody called ‘the best job in the world’—and an opportunity ripe for fucking up.” Which he did, at first.

The book is a mix of his travel experiences, which I enjoyed tremendously, and ruminations on the larger meaning of travel, which weren’t as interesting. The requirements for travel have changed for him over the years—from carrying a single bag to traveling with a wife and infant, from the ability to set his own schedule to being part of a family with all its competing needs. Truthfully, staying home has come to have its own satisfactions.

Across his whole travel-writing career, Gross visited “fifty or sixty countries,” ate their food (whole chapter on the resultant digestive laments), learned to cook much of it, and wrote hundreds of articles for the Times and others. He sums up everything he learned about traveling frugally in two pages in the middle of the book, which can be boiled down further to: use the Web to find deals and recommendations on airfare, lodging, and food. Airfare: use local and in-country airlines. Lodging: stay with others where you can, Airbnb, works when you can’t. Food: be adventurous. Social life: find local connections through Facebook friends-of-friends-of-friends.

The book’s full title is The Turk who Loved Apples and Other Tales of Losing My Way Around the World, which refers to his early days, as he was learning how to travel, yes, relatively frugally. Through an organization called World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms—a network of farmers who will provide volunteers free food and lodging in exchange for some farmwork—he stayed a few days on a rural apple farm in Turkey. Gross bonded with this farmer, an engineer who’d left his profession to do what he loved, and learned from that encounter that frugality “was not an end unto itself but one of the many traveler’s tools, a means of getting closer to exotic lands and foreign peoples.” And getting closer to people—from fellow expats in Ho Chi Minh City to refugees in Calais to members of his wife’s and even his own family—is what Gross is all about.

****Go Like Hell

Ford, Le Mans, auto racing

Legendary Ford GT40 (photo: SamH for English language Wikipedia, Creative Commons license)

By A. J. Baime, read by Jones Allen. Perhaps an overcorrection to the glacial pace of the last book I listened to, Go Like Hell: Ford, Ferrari, and Their Battle for Speed and Glory at Le Mans, as they waged classic duels of machine and driver in the French countryside.

There’s just enough biography of Henry Ford II (the Deuce) and Enzo Ferrari to understand the motivations of these two rivals, willing to stake their fortunes, their companies’ futures, and (all too often) their drivers’ lives on this grueling competition. The Deuce believed—correctly—that supremacy in the racing circuit would lead to sales of Ford cars. The components that had to be developed to survive the 24-hour race at Le Mans were testaments to product reliability as well as power, and many advances originally developed for racing vehicles—such as independent suspensions, high-performance tires, disc brakes, and push-button starters—have found their way into passenger cars.

For Enzo Ferrari, whose interest in consumer cars was always secondary to racing, the point was being the world’s best and proving it in the world’s most prestigious and dangerous sports car race, Le Mans. If you’re at all familiar with auto racing’s “golden age,” the big names are all here: Carroll Shelby, A. J. Foyt, Dan Gurney, Phil Hill, John Surtees, Ken Miles, Bruce McLaren, and an upstart kid from Nazareth, Pennsylvania, who took the pole position in the Indianapolis 500 the year I saw the race, Mario Andretti. To get an idea of the speeds they achieve, Baime noted that at top speed they complete the 100-yard distance of a football field in one second.

This was a fast, fun read that shifts between Dearborn, Shelby’s racing car development team working for Ford in Southern California, and Ferrari’s workshop in Maranello, Italy. For a Detroit girl like me, whose grandfather, father, and many uncles worked for the Ford Motor Company, it was a thrill a minute! But even for people whodon’t get goosebumps when they hear those Formula One engines roar, Baime’s cinematic recreation of the classic Le Mans races of 1965, 66, and 67, with all their frustrations, excitement, and tragedy is a spectacular true story.

Times have changed, and these past battles have faded. But, hope is on the horizon. According to a 5/22/15 Jordan Golson story in Wired, new rules under consideration “could make Formula One exciting again.” Yea to that!

A movie of Go Like Hell, starring Brad Pitt and Tom Cruise, has been “in development” for some time. Meanwhile, there are two classics below.

Amanda Knox: The Final Chapter

Italy, street

Perugia street scene (photo: Giovanni Dall’Orto, creative commons license)

Working on a crime thriller set in Rome, I’ve had to try to come to grips with the eccentricities of the Italian judicial system. As a result, I’ve maintained a strong interest in the long saga of Amanda Knox and her Italian former boyfriend, Raffaele Sollecito. The pair was convicted, acquitted, convicted again, and now acquitted again for the final time in the 2007 murder of Knox’s British flatmate, Meredith Kercher, in Perugia, Italy.

U.S. journalist Nina Burleigh went to Italy for the first trial, lived in Perugia in the lead-up to it, and intended to write a book about a young American abroad who went off the rails and became involved in a horrific crime. Instead, as she recounts in her excellent book,The Fatal Gift of Beauty, she was soon convinced by both the lack of evidence and the treatment of the accused that Knox and Sollecito are indeed innocent. Her book also explores some of the reasons behind the Italian media and public’s apparent eagerness that “Foxy Knoxy” be found guilty.

To this day, opinion about the case is strongly divided. Most prominently, Kercher’s family remains convinced of Knox’s guilt. Former FBI Agent Steve Moore provides a useful understanding of why people, especially families, tend to maintain their belief that an accused is guilty, regardless of subsequent evidence and courtroom decisions. (A heartbreaking documentary film about this phenomenon is West of Memphis, covering the case of convicted teens dubbed the “West Memphis Three.”)

The pubblico ministero (Mignini) plays a pivotal role in an Italian courtroom, somewhat like a prosecutor in a U.S. court, but with greater powers. For much of the period of legal wrangling in the Knox/Sollecito case, the prosecution was handled by a poster-man for Italian jurisprudence gone amok, Giuliano Mignini, whose erratic logic was amply documented in Douglas Preston’s true-crime book,The Monster of Florence, about a serial killer who prowled “lovers’ lanes,” primarily in the 1970s and early 1980s. Preston has called the case against Knox one “based on lies, superstition, and crazy conspiracy theories.”

It certainly is a tale with many confusing elements—Amanda’s changing story, which was one of the chief marks against her, the investigators’ mistakes in securing evidence from the crime scene, the conflicting interpretations of the DNA evidence, and especially the clash of cultures when privileged foreign students indulge their freedoms far from home, oblivious to their conservative environment, an issue Moore discusses in this thoughtful blog post.

The story has fascinating characters, irredeemable tragedy at many levels, and the ability to evoke partisanship for or against out of proportion to the definite facts of the case. One can only hope that either when the court reveals its reasoning in finally acquitting Knox and Sollecito, which is to occur with 90 days of the reversal, or at some subsequent but not too distant time, the Kercher family can be persuaded that in the loss of their beloved daughter and sister, justice was achieved.

**** 1 Dead in Attic: After Katrina

New Orleans, Katrina

The New Orleans “bathtub ring” (photo: Vicki Weisfeld)

By Chris Rose – This collection of newspaper columns from the New Orleans Times-Picayune in the days and months following Hurricane Katrina is, as the cover says, “a roller-coaster ride of observation, commentary, emotion, tragedy, and even humor”—whose shaky pilings are sunk into the physical, economic, and emotional debris of a devastated city.

Rose reports unflinchingly about the horrors and about the small personal triumphs the city’s residents experienced as they tried, not always successfully, to scrabble back to some kind of normalcy. Collectively, his writings probably better than anything else I’ve read answer the question people asked at the time, “Is New Orleans worth it?” His love of the city—its music, food, culture, and traditions, but mostly its people—soaks every page like floodwater.

The ongoing calamity didn’t stop when the wind and rain ceased, but went on and on in the form of poor government decision-making, ill-conceived emergency and reconstruction plans, rapacious utility companies and developers, loophole-seeking insurance schemes, lost possessions and people. To report on it, Rose got out and about, bicycling through the devastated areas, recording the citizenry’s stories. And some stories they were!

Rose’s close attention to these trials was not without its costs. A little more than two months after the disaster, he began one of his essays by quoting the people who said to him, “Everyone here is mentally ill now.” It took a while for him to recognize it—almost seven months—though his wife, his editor, his friends, and his readers tried to convince him much earlier, but he, too, was breaking under the strain. “I feel as if I have become the New Orleans poster boy for posttraumatic stress, chronicling my descent into madness for everyone to read,” he wrote in late March 2006. A few months later, he wrote about his yearlong battle with depression and what he was, finally, doing about it.

He’d been the city’s cheerleader, encouraging people to be strong and stand tall and celebrate what they still had, and his admission of needing serious help loosed a response from thousands. “It boggles the mind to think of how many among us are holding on by frayed threads, just barely, and trying to hide it as I was for so many months.” Even acknowledging that, he ended an essay about his depression with words of encouragement and purpose: “Find some way to shine a light. Together, maybe we’ll find our way out of this.”

New Orleans, Katrina

House destroyed, chandelier intact (photo: Vicki Weisfeld)

This collection of essays is one of those compilations where the whole is so much more than the sum of the parts. Yes, there’s repetition among them; yes, his messages are often the same. But the reader cannot help but think that if only the people’s situation were improving faster, he wouldn’t have had to hammer his message home so hard and so often. I pictured him in many ways like the John Goodman character in the first season of Treme—outraged and caring and providing his testimony. The difference is that the real Chris Rose stuck it out.