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Pope Francis greets the crowd as he arrives for his weekly general audience in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican, March 5, 2014. (ALESSANDRA TARANTINO/AP)
Pope Francis greets the crowd as he arrives for his weekly general audience in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican, March 5, 2014. (ALESSANDRA TARANTINO/AP)

John Doyle

The basis for a fine thriller – money, sex, corruption Add to ...

Is it drama that you want? Is it, perchance, stories of seediness, mobsters and corruption in high places? How high the place? Well, there’s the Vatican.

Few dramas airing right now can match the story told in Holy Money (Sunday, CBC NN 10 p.m., on The Passionate Eye). Oh sure, the current Pope has the image of an awesome guy – for a Pope, anyways. Man of the people, sensible guy with old-fashioned values and an appetite for change. He is swiftly remaking the image of the Papacy.

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But image is surface. What’s really going on in the Vatican is a high-stakes battle over money and power. Pope Francis, we’re told, wants to shift the institution away from a culture of crime and crookedness.

Such as? “Priests charged with corruption, donations diverted to pay for sex, dioceses in bankruptcy, money-laundering inquiries and, at the core of it all, the dirty dealings of the Vatican Bank,” according to promotional material for Holy Money. “The foundations of the Holy See are being rocked by one financial scandal after the other and, despite the appearances, Pope Francis faces an uphill struggle.”

In the doc, the man asserting all this is not some tabloid reporter: He’s an expert on the Italian Mob. That’s John Dickie, a University College of London historian and the author of the book Cosa Nostra: A History of the Sicilian Mafia.

It’s not just that there is a suggestion of vague ties to the Mafia. It’s the bizarre and secretive ways that funds are handled by the Vatican Bank. “When it comes to money, this is one of the sloppiest organizations on Earth,” one expert asserts. We’re told that 85 per cent of Catholic dioceses that have experienced embezzlement. We also hear about a priest known as “Father 500 Euros” who was charged not long ago with laundering millions of euros through Vatican Bank accounts.

This is what Pope Francis faces – an institution formidably rich but lax about regulation and hostile to transparency. There is also the matter of money that must be paid out from lawsuits connected to sexual abuse by Catholic priests. It seems the Pope is trying to clean house and set new and higher standards. But, it would appear, it’s not a battle the Pope can win easily.

“If these reforms are going to take place, the Pope is going to need support,” says Robert Mickens of The Tablet, a Catholic newsweekly. “It’s not really clear that there is a strong body of support behind him right now. He’s thrown off a lot of people, not only at the Vatican.”

There you have the basis for a fine thriller – money, sex, corruption and people interested in covering up misdeeds – and yet it’s real. Holy Money is not so much an exposé as a deeply disturbing investigation of people who believe they are beyond reach, and still ask for prayers and money from the believers.

Also airing this weekend

Crisis (Sunday, NBC, 10 p.m.) has been described as one of those network attempts to mimic the dynamic of cable dramas. And that’s correct. It’s a 13-episode series, fast-paced and full of tension, with a central premise meant to lock viewers in for its short run. It also comes with some talent attached – the creator is Rand Ravich, who also mounted the wonderful NBC series called Life, which starred Damian Lewis, pre-Homeland, as a cop who had been framed, imprisoned and then released to live a very fraught life.

Here, the “crisis” is a bizarre mass-kidnapping. A school bus from a high school in Washington, D.C., filled with children of the rich and powerful, is heading out on a field trip. The kids we meet, including the son of the U.S. president, aren’t the nicest of teens. But somebody wants them – all of them – for reasons unknown. The bus is stopped and the kids are taken hostage. Along with the kids is one dad (Dermot Mulroney). In the hostage-taking mayhem, a Secret Service agent manages to save one of the kids. That kid will provide a unusual perspective on the school and his fellow students.

What happens then is the meat of the drama – the parents, all of them powerful, begin pushing the FBI to get the situation resolved and the kids released. Or are some parents part of a larger plot? Into the situation strides one mom, businesswoman Meg Fitch (Gillian Anderson). Here, Anderson is wonderful – a charismatic figure, tough as nails and intimidating. What does she want? The plot twists this way and that in the first two episodes, by turns all action and then family drama. It’s good and worth your time.

Follow on Twitter: @MisterJohnDoyle

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