Sunday, April 08, 2012

An angry priest pulled all his parish's money out of the BofA and opened accounts at a small local bank, called on his flock to do the same

Father Robert Rien, of St Ignatius at Antioch, a Catholic church east of San Francisco, speaks with a crisp buoyant voice that belies his 65 years. When he is angry it fairly crackles.

This Lenten season he is angry at America's big banks, so angry he has pulled all his parish's money out of the Bank of America and opened accounts at a small local bank.

He has called on his flock to do the same and joined a nationwide interfaith movement dedicated to divesting from the major banks. They see Lent as the perfect time to spread the word.

''We have a mandate from the gospels to act,'' says Father Rien.

''Jesus went to the temple and he challenged the banking system of his day. He said, 'you are thieves and marauders, you are wrong in what you are doing'.'' On Ash Wednesday this year a group of San Francisco clergy spilled ashes outside a Wells Fargo ATM and called for a foreclosure sabbatical, invoking the Biblical term for the ancient practice of forgiving debts.

It is hard to exaggerate how poorly America's banks have treated their customers throughout the financial crisis that saw about 4 million homes being foreclosed upon, and Father Rien's voice crackles away as he discusses it.

The banks helped precipitate the financial collapse by selling mortgages to people who could never afford them. When the financial system collapsed they accepted a $US205 billion ($199.2 billion) bailout from taxpayers, but once refinanced they refused to help homeowners by modifying their mortgages.

''I actually went to a meeting in Washington and I said to Tim Geithner [the Treasury Secretary and author of the bank bailout], that he had to make them help, but he said there was nothing he could do. I was astounded,'' says Father Rien.

But it was the outright fraud by America's big banks that finally made Father Rien an activist for the first time since he was ordained 40 years ago.
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