The Catholic Thing
Beware the Catholic Hucksters Print E-mail
By Austin Ruse   
Friday, 18 July 2008

A real Italian smoothie named Raffaello Follieri swept into to town a few years back and turned lots of heads. Handsome, young, debonair Follieri told a remarkable tale.

He said he was connected to the highest levels of the Vatican. Indeed, the nephew of the Vatican Secretary of State was on his board. He claimed that he had bundles of cash, and he was here to make everyone rich. His pitch was that his contacts at the Vatican gave him unique access to unused and depressed church property in the United States, which he would snap up for a song and then turn into handsome profits for everyone.

Follieri is now under house arrest in his multi-million-dollar apartment in New York, released from jail on a $21 million bail which, remarkably, he was able to raise. It turns out that he was a con man.

I met Follieri in Washington when he made his first overture to U.S. Catholic conservatives. He was visiting the Catholic Information Center, a bookstore and chapel that is the crossroads of all things orthodox in Washington, D.C. Follieri eventually raised millions of dollars, got himself a starlet girlfriend, and made deep contacts not only with orthodox Catholics, but also with the Clintons. He promised the Clintons that with his contacts he could guarantee them the Catholic vote. He ended up bilking one of Bill Clinton's closest friends, grocery store magnate Ronald Burkle, out of millions of dollars. So far as I know, no one on the Catholic right knew that he was also playing footsie with the pro-abortion left.

A few years before Follieri's grand entrance, another Catholic blew into town promising big things. He said that he had a database of every voter in America, broken down by congressional district, and that he was willing to turn that to the Catholic cause. He let it be known that he was planning a Catholic rally on the National Mall and that he could get a million people to attend. In his telling, all this would lead to the largest rally ever held in Washington D.C. In addition, he had a good website and it was said that it drew the most web traffic in the Catholic world.

Maybe that was true. It was easy to be taken in. I was. I served on his advisory board until I became uneasy. When I tried to withdraw, it took a year for my name to be removed. He is now under indictment in California for allegedly bilking cash from Catholics, including groups of nuns.

Con men always take advantage of human nature; the desire for money, power, and fame runs broad and deep. Toss in the desire to do something for the Church, too, and now you’ve really got an explosive mixture, ripe for exploitation.

Because of our particular history, Americans seem more aware of the Elmer Gantry types, ministers who sell salvation in tents or on TV. It's hard for freelance Catholics to trade on the Catholic name because we have the institutional Church and the hierarchy, which hampers hucksters from salvation-selling, but leaves them free to promise wealth, power, and Washington’s greatest obsession: access.

There was one Catholic who offered White House briefings to those who made large donations to his private organization and did a brisk trade. I have seen a gaggle of Catholic millionaires gathered like school girls around another very young man, a kid really, who offered them --- legitimately --- access to the national policy debate. But in fact, he was offering access to party politics. Not that such an exchange is necessarily untoward or unheard of. But inexplicably, these wealthy donors thought they needed the kid when all they needed was to max out their giving to the candidate and toss another $25,000 to the party. Lots of doors would open for them. It is into this milieu that the huckster steps, offering dreams to the naïve and gullible.

This sort of practice has grown in recent years as the bishops have been reluctant to handle dissident Catholic politicians in any decisive way. Many good people and groups have sprung up to fill this gap, but so have others that are not so savory. It is hard sometimes to tell the difference and the good ones are sullied by the bad. But a good rule of thumb is to look for a sense of mission as opposed to a sense of self. Good organizations focus on goals and not their own role and importance. When what you see is self-promotion, self-aggrandizement, assertions of self importance, it is a sure sign that something is amiss.

It’s sad to have to say this in an election year: but beware the Catholic hucksters.

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