Reports That Cardinal Cody Diverted Church Funds

After almost two turmoil-ridden decades as archbishop of one of the largest Roman Catholic dioceses in the United States, John Patrick Cody was accused in a series of articles in the Chicago Sun-Times of having diverted tax-exempt church funds to the benefit of two family members. U.S. attorneys had been investigating the cardinal since late 1980.

Summary of Event

John Patrick Cody was a difficult person. Particularly after the Second Vatican Council decreed that the governance of the Catholic Church should become more democratic, his authoritarian style of leadership had become increasingly out of step with the times. Rumors existed that the priests of the Archdiocese of New Orleans sang a Te Deum (a Catholic hymn of praise) in delight at being rid of him when he was transferred to Chicago. Cody himself regarded this change as key to his ambitions because Chicago was a cardinalatial see, that is, an archdiocese whose incumbent was traditionally made a cardinal by the pope. Some priests even claimed Cody saw Chicago as a stepping-stone to becoming the first pope from the United States. [kw]Chicago Sun-Times Reports That Cardinal Cody Diverted Church Funds (Sept. 10, 1981)
[kw]Cody Diverted Church Funds, Chicago Sun-Times Reports That Cardinal (Sept. 10, 1981)
Cody, John Patrick
Roman Catholic Church;and John Patrick Cody[Cody]
Greeley, Andrew M.
Sherwood, Carlton
Cody, John Patrick
Roman Catholic Church;and John Patrick Cody[Cody]
Greeley, Andrew M.
Sherwood, Carlton
[g]United States;Sept. 10, 1981: Chicago Sun-Times Reports That Cardinal Cody Diverted Church Funds[01970]
[c]Publishing and journalism;Sept. 10, 1981: Chicago Sun-Times Reports That Cardinal Cody Diverted Church Funds[01970]
[c]Corruption;Sept. 10, 1981: Chicago Sun-Times Reports That Cardinal Cody Diverted Church Funds[01970]
[c]Law and the courts;Sept. 10, 1981: Chicago Sun-Times Reports That Cardinal Cody Diverted Church Funds[01970]
[c]Religion;Sept. 10, 1981: Chicago Sun-Times Reports That Cardinal Cody Diverted Church Funds[01970]
Wilson, Helen Dolan
Wilson, David
Bernardin, Joseph Louis

By 1981, Cody had become an embattled ruler surrounded by angry subjects. His own priests had accused him of deception and dishonesty, and the laity was writing letters of complaint to the Vatican about his high-handed policies. The endless conflicts had made major inroads into Cody’s health, and his once rosy cheeks had grown sallow and hollow with the ravages of congestive heart failure. However, he refused to even consider allowing a younger bishop to take over any of his duties and did all he could to conceal his worsening health from both his archdiocese and the Holy See. A stint working in the Vatican as a young priest had taught him the ins and outs of court intrigue, and he had plenty of information that could be used against the Vatican if the congregation of bishops were to attempt to move against him. He even had threatened to reveal some choice secrets in 1979 when Cardinal Sebastiano Baggio, cardinal-prefect of the congregation of bishops, had tried to compel him to resign shortly before the death of Pope Paul VI.

Only the aging Pope Paul’s death, followed by the successive elections of the two John Pauls, saved Cody from being replaced, or at least forced to accept a coadjutor (a situation in which Cody would have become a figurehead and his nominal subordinate would have exercised the actual authority of the archdiocese). John Paul I reigned for a mere thirty-three days, not enough time to consolidate his power and move against Cody, and John Paul II did not wish scandal in one of the most important dioceses in the free world to distract from his moral efforts against the Soviet bloc. Thus, any further opposition to Cody would have to come not from the Vatican hierarchy but from the grass roots within his own archdiocese.

How the information about Cody’s questionable financial dealings reached the Chicago Sun-Times, one of the city’s two leading daily newspapers, is uncertain, but Father Andrew M. Greeley remains suspect. Almost from the beginning of Cody’s tenure as archbishop, Greeley had been an outspoken critic of the cardinal’s methods of administration. Greeley’s novel The Cardinal Sins, which was published in 1981, featured a villain who was a thinly disguised version of Cody and came to an ignominious (shameful) end. Greeley was accused of plotting to “get” Cody on the basis of some private papers he had entrusted to the archives of Notre Dame Notre Dame University University in South Bend, Indiana. However, he later claimed the papers were no more than musings about possibilities, not a plan for action.

Carlton Sherwood, an investigative journalist, wrote a series of articles about Cody, and his first consultation was with Greeley. The first of these articles, published by the Chicago Sun-Times on September 10, 1981, announced that a federal grand jury investigation was already under way into Cody’s administration of church finances. The U.S. Attorney’s Office had been investigating Cody’s administration of the archdiocese’s treasury since the fall of 1980, one year before the Chicago Sun-Times series appeared.

The federal investigation centered on Cody’s relationship with Helen Dolan Wilson, an elderly woman whom he called a cousin but in fact was the stepdaughter of his aunt. They had been raised together, and after Helen had been divorced by her husband, he had seen after her and her young children. When her son, David Wilson, had become older and entered the insurance business, Cody had given him diocesan insurance contracts for the successive dioceses he headed. By the time Cody was transferred to Chicago, David had left the insurance business, and the two entered a real estate partnership that involved selling archdiocesan properties for secular use.

Although there was some effort to portray Helen as Cody’s mistress, both of them insisted that their relationship was in the manner of brother and sister. Of far greater interest was the financial nature of their relationship. Although Helen had never held any position more responsible than that of church secretary, and her former husband had left her nothing, she enjoyed a condominium in one of Chicago’s Gold Coast high-rises and a vacation home in a tony area of Florida, as well as numerous furs, jewels, and other expensive possessions. Cody’s extreme secretiveness about his administration of the archdiocese’s finances, combined with his closing of several archdiocesan facilities on the basis of supposed lack of money, lent credence to the conclusion that he had diverted it to Helen and her family.

The question was of interest to the U.S. attorney because of the tax-free status of religious institutions and funds. If Cody had transferred church money to private use, he would have violated U.S. tax code. The newspaper series claimed that up to one million dollars had been diverted by Cody.

Cody’s response to the accusations only escalated the situation. He regarded any call for accountability as an affront to his authority as archbishop. Rather than document his handling of the archdiocese’s finances, he accused the Chicago Sun-Times of anti-Catholicism. Many Chicago Catholics, even some who had previously been unhappy with Cody’s administration, felt obligated to come to the defense of the archbishop against supposed attacks on the Church as a whole. Cody also made himself so inaccessible that a federal marshal could deliver a subpoena to court only by cornering the cardinal in a church sacristy as he was vesting for an important Mass.

Cody’s position was saved only by revelations that Greeley had been involved in pointing Sherwood toward the cardinal’s financial dealings. Cody’s supporters were able to spin it as a supposed plot, and they suggested that Archbishop Bernardin of Cincinnati, a widely popular prelate whose name had been put forth as a possible successor to the see of Chicago, had been a coconspirator with Greeley. By shifting attention to Bernardin, Cody was able to gain just enough of a reprieve that his worsening health would forestall any further investigation.


In the end, Cody never was formally indicted of any crime. He spent the first several months of 1982 convalescing in the archbishop’s residence when he was not actually in the hospital. On April 25, he died in his sleep of a heart attack, and many in the archdiocese breathed a collective sigh of relief. Pope John Paul II appointed Bernardin as Cody’s successor and subsequently created Bernardin a cardinal at the next consistory. Bernardin made it plain on his first public appearance as archbishop of Chicago that he regarded his mission as that of a conciliator, and he invited all who held grudges against Cody to set their burdens down.

To lay to rest questions of fiscal wrongdoing, Bernardin hired the accounting firm of Arthur Anderson (implicated in the Enron Corporation Enron scandal of 2001) to examine the archdiocese’s books. It found that while Cody had occasionally mingled funds in ways that were not in accordance with generally accepted accounting principles, there was no evidence of actual fraud or diversion of funds. However, Bernardin would spend the rest of his tenure in Chicago dealing with the long-term damage to relationships within the local church, and the stress may have contributed to his death by pancreatic cancer. Cody, John Patrick
Roman Catholic Church;and John Patrick Cody[Cody]
Greeley, Andrew M.
Sherwood, Carlton

Further Reading

  • Greeley, Andrew M. Confessions of a Parish Priest: An Autobiography. New York: Pocket Books, 1987. Written while some of the principals of the scandal were still living, this book by Greeley reads as somewhat evasive because individuals cannot be named.
  • _______. Furthermore! Memories of a Parish Priest. New York: Forge, 1999. A second volume in the memoirs of Cody’s chief public critic in the archdiocese. Names Helen Dolan Wilson in the scandal.
  • Kennedy, Eugene. My Brother Joseph: The Spirit of a Cardinal and the Story of a Friendship. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1997. Includes material on Cody’s last years and Bernardin’s arrival in Chicago.
  • Larsen, Roy. “In the 1980’s, a Chicago Newspaper Investigated Cardinal Cody.” Nieman Reports 57, no. 1 (Spring, 2003): 66-68. A look back at the investigation by U.S. attorneys of the diversion of church funds by Cody, with a focus on the scandal’s financial aspects.
  • Thomas, Gordon, and Max Morgan-Witts. Pontiff. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1983. History of the elections of the two John Pauls that also touches on the Cody scandal.
  • Yallop, David A. In God’s Name: An Investigation into the Murder of Pope John Paul I. New York: Bantam Books, 1984. Claims that Cody knew of the circumstances that led to the death of John Paul I.

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