I spent much of this week reading and trying to absorb the new and devastating book by one Frédéric Martel on the gayness of the hierarchy at the top of the Catholic Church, In the Closet of the Vatican: Power, Homosexuality, Hypocrisy. It’s a bewildering and vast piece of reporting — Martel interviewed no fewer than “41 cardinals, 52 bishops and monsignori, 45 apostolic nuncios, secretaries of nunciatures or foreign ambassadors, 11 Swiss Guards and over 200 Catholic priests and seminarians.” He conducted more than 1,500 interviews over four years, is quite clear about his sources, and helps the reader weigh their credibility. He keeps the identity of many of the most egregiously hypocritical cardinals confidential, but is unsparing about the dead.
The picture Martel draws is jaw-dropping. Many of the Vatican gays — especially the most homophobic — treat their vows of celibacy with an insouciant contempt. Martel argues that many of these cardinals and officials have lively sex lives, operate within a “don’t ask, don’t tell” culture, constantly hit on young men, hire prostitutes, throw chem-sex parties, and even pay for sex with church money. How do we know this? Because, astonishingly, they tell us.
So much of the information in the book comes from sources deep within the Holy See. Named and unnamed, they expose their fellow cardinals and bishops and nuncios as hypocrites, without perhaps realizing that their very targets are doing the same to them. Martel didn’t expect this remarkable candor, or, clearly, what he was about to see: “Whether they are ‘practising’, ‘homophile’, ‘initiates’, ‘unstraights’, ‘wordly’, ‘versatile’, ‘questioning’, or simply ‘in the closet’, the world I am discovering, with its 50 shades of gay, is beyond comprehension.”
Among the named sources: Francesco Lepore, a brilliant young gay Latin translator and priest. He soared through the ranks, directly serving Popes Benedict XVI and Francis, until, as a gay man, he found a way to quit his post because he couldn’t abide the double life he was forced to lead, or the rancid hypocrisy of the whole system. He says he saw everything from the inside: “He has had several lovers among archbishops and prelates; he has been propositioned by a number of cardinals, whom we discuss: an endless list. I have scrupulously checked all of those stories, making contact myself with those cardinals, archbishops, monsignori, nuncios, assistants, ordinary priests or confessors at St Peter’s, all basically homosexual.” This is not the peddling of innuendo, or salacious gossip. It’s reporting.
I’m no naïf when it comes to the gayness of the church. I’ve lived in it as a gay man for all my adult life, and my eyes are open. And so the book did not surprise me, as such, but it still stunned, shocked, and disgusted me. You simply cannot unread it, or banish what is quite obviously true from your mind. It helps explain more deeply the rants of Pope Francis about so many of his cardinals, especially his denunciations of “Pharisees” and “hypocrites,” with their sexual amorality and their vast wealth and power. “Behind rigidity something always lies hidden; in many cases, a double life,” he has said. He has excoriated “hypocrites” who live “hidden and often dissolute lives,” those who “put makeup on their soul and live off makeup”; he has exclaimed in public that “hypocrisy does a lot of harm: it’s a way of life.”
The only tiny consolation of the book is the knowledge that we now have a pope — with all his flaws — who knows what he’s dealing with, and has acted, quite ruthlessly at times, to demote, defrock, or reassign the most egregious cases to places where they have close to nothing to do. And if you want to understand the ferocity of the opposition to him on the Catholic right, this is the key. His most determined opponents are far-right closet cases, living in palaces, leading completely double lives, backed by the most vicious of reactionaries and bigots on the European and American far right, and often smarting at their demotions.
Yes, there are times when Martel overdoes it a bit. But it’s completely understandable. As a secular gay journalist, not hostile to the church, he walked into the Vatican and was simply staggered by its obvious gayness. No gay neighborhood has existed like this in the West since the 1980s. (Lepore hazards a guess that 80 percent of the Vatican’s population is gay.) And as Martel probes deeper and deeper, one theme emerges very powerfully: “Homosexuality spreads the closer one gets to the holy of holies; there are more and more homosexuals as one rises through the Catholic hierarchy. The more vehemently opposed a cleric is to gays, the stronger his homophobic obsession, the more likely it is that he is insincere, and that his vehemence conceals something.” It’s a lesson I learned reporting my own recent essay on gay priests.
And so it’s not that huge a surprise to see how influenced Paul VI was by gay Catholic writers of the time. And it’s highly predictable that John Paul II’s pontificate, which launched a new war on homosexuals, turns out to be the gayest of them all — and the one most resistant to any inquiry into stories of sex abuse. His right-hand man and successor, Joseph Ratzinger, (the future Pope Benedict XVI) personally received notification of every claim of sex abuse in the church under John Paul II, ignoring most, and made the stigmatization and persecution of sane, adjusted non-abusive gay people across the globe his mission instead. There wasn’t a theological dissident he didn’t notice and punish, but barely a single pedophile he found reason to expose. As for America, Martel notes what is already in the public record:
“Cardinal Wakefield Baum of Washington, recently deceased, lived for many years with his personal assistant … Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, former Archbishop of Washington, … was well known for his ‘sleeping arrangements’ with seminarians and young priests whom he called his ‘nephews’ … Archbishop Rembert Weakland was ‘outed’ by a former boyfriend … One American cardinal has been banned from the Vatican and sent back to the United States for his improper conduct with a Swiss Guard. Another American cardinal, the bishop of a large city in the United States, ‘has lived for years with his boyfriend, a former priest’, while an archbishop of another city, a devotee of the Latin mass and a man much given to cruising, ‘lives surrounded by a flock of young seminarians’, a fact confirmed to me by Robert Carl Mickens, an American Vaticanologist familiar with the gay lifestyle of the senior Catholic hierarchy in the United States.”
The revelations keep coming, page after page. For example: Martel explains how two of John Paul II’s favorite cardinals — whose nicknames within the Vatican are Platinette (after a drag queen) and La Mongolfiera — set up an elaborate and elite prostitution service that continued through the papacy of Benedict XVI, and was financed from the Vatican coffers. We know this through police records from the eventual criminal proceedings, where the actual ringleaders remained anonymous and without charges, because of the Vatican’s diplomatic immunity. Here are some of the minutes of the recorded phone conversations from the trial: “‘I won’t tell you any more. He’s two metres tall, such and such a weight, and he’s 33.’ ‘I have a situation in Naples … I don’t know how to tell you, it’s really not something to miss … 32 years old, 1 metre 93, very handsome.’ ‘I have a Cuban situation.’ ‘I’ve just arrived from Germany with a German.’ ‘I have two blacks.’ ‘X has a Croatian friend who wanted to see if you could find a time.’ ‘I’ve got a footballer.’ ‘I’ve got a guy from Abruzzo.’”
Martel is taken aback by the way in which many of his interviewees openly hit on him and, especially, his young assistant. Being gay, he notices things a straight reporter might not. His ears prick up when Cardinal Burke’s assistant casually informs him of the archenemy of Francis: “She works from home.” He sees the cruising all around him. He notices simple things that some might call innuendo, but any gay man will instantly recognize, like the fabulous interiors of the gay cardinals’ palaces, always with their “assistants” or young “relative” on hand. Or he simply describes Burke’s appearance: “The 70-year-old cardinal [is] sitting on an asparagus-green throne twice as large as he is, surrounded by silvery drapery. He wears a fluorescent yellow mitre in the shape of a tall Tower of Pisa, and long turquoise gloves that look like iron hands; his mozzetta is cabbage-green, embroidered with yellow, lined with a leek-green hood revealing a bow of crimson and pomegranate lace.”
Then there’s simply the reporting. Some of the most conservative clerics concede the truth of the book on the record. Or take Martel’s interaction with the Swiss Guards, one of whom vents: “The harassment is so insistent that I said to myself that I was going straight home. Many of us are exasperated by the usually rather indiscreet advances of the cardinals and bishops.” Or the prostitutes who keep elaborate records of their clients, and have already caused huge scandals in Italy. Or a confessor-priest in Saint Peter’s who guides Martel into the Vatican with the words: “Welcome to Sodoma.” Martel double-checks rumors until he can confirm them. Of course, many of these sources remain unnamed. The very subject matter makes that unavoidable. But critics of the book — and the defensivedismissals of it as mere salacious gossip are already out there — have to argue that Martel is a liar, a fabulist, a con artist, who faked these remarkable interviews. I don’t buy it.
If you want to find a figure who crystallizes all this hypocrisy in the narrative, it would be the late Colombian cardinal, Alfonso López Trujillo, tasked by John Paul II in the 1970s to rid Latin America of liberation theology, and then to launch a global crusade against homosexuality and the use of condoms. While he was in Colombia, Trujillo toured the country on a witch hunt for progressive prelates. How do we know? Trujillo’s own master of ceremonies on these trips tells us: “López Trujillo travelled with members of the paramilitary groups … He pointed out the priests who were carrying out social actions in the barrios and the poorer districts. The paramilitaries identified them and sometimes went back to murder them. Often they had to leave the region or the country.”
The same confidante shows Martel the precise apartment in Medellín where Trujillo “took seminarians, young men and prostitutes.” Another associate explains that Trujillo’s specialty was novices: “The most fragile, the youngest, the most vulnerable. But in fact he slept with anybody. He also had lots of prostitutes.” His previous aide explains further: “López Trujillo beat prostitutes; that was his relationship with sexuality. He paid them, but they had to accept his blows in return. It always happened at the end, not during the physical act. He finished his sexual relations by beating them, out of pure sadism.”
In Colombia, Martel is presented with many witness statements from the men Trujillo had sex with. When Trujillo was promoted to Rome, the reckless excesses went into overdrive. A Curia source tells Martel: “Everyone knew that he was homosexual. He lived with us, here, on the fourth floor of the Palazzo di San Calisto, in a 900-square-metre apartment, and he had several cars! Ferraris! He led a highly unusual life.” And what was Trujillo’s task in Rome? You guessed it: president of the Pontifical Council for the Family! This was the figure who spearheaded the war on gays in the 1980s and 1990s, who forbade the use of condoms, who spread the lie that condoms don’t protect anyone from HIV. And yet when he died, Benedict XVI gave the homily at the funeral mass.
I’ve offered just a glimpse of the revelations in the book. I urge every Catholic to read it, however difficult that may be. It will also be fascinating to see how the various factions within Catholicism will respond to it. Some liberals — the Jesuit Jim Martin and Frank Bruni — fret that this book provides the far right with all the ammunition they need to wage a new war on homosexuality in the church. Martin is obviously embarrassed by what he calls “an ocean of gossip and innuendo,” although he doesn’t argue that anything in the book is untrue. But if the Catholic right wants to weaponize the book, they’ll have to take on their own icons, John Paul II and Benedict XVI, and a whole range of their closest allies in the church. And the core thesis of the book — which is that it is the hypocrisy of the closet that is the real problem — is not one the right will be able easily to absorb.
My own view is that all that matters is the truth. “Be not afraid!” as John Paul II once said. “Of what should we not be afraid? We should not be afraid of the truth about ourselves.” Critically, Martel reaches the same conclusion I did recently — the omertà of the closet was a core reason for sex abuse. Gay priests felt unable to report pedophiles or abusers or hypocrites because they too could be outed by the abusers and forced out. There is no vast organized conspiracy. There is no “gay lobby.” There is a “honeycomb of closets,” often insulated from each other, built on deception and self-hatred, that amounts to a system where protecting the image of the church became far more important than saving children from rapists. There can be no meaningful reform until this closet is ended, and the whole sick, twisted syndrome is unwound.
How do you do that? The crisis is so profound, the corruption so deep, the duplicity so brazen that only a radical change will help. Ending mandatory celibacy is no longer an option. It’s a necessity. Women need to be brought in to the full sacramental life of the church. Gay men need to be embraced not as some manifestation of “intrinsic moral evil” but as human beings made in the image of God and capable of mutual love, care, and support. Gay priests with integrity need to be defended as strongly as the hypocrites need to be exposed and expelled. Francis is nudging the church toward this more humane and Christian future, but the more he does so, the more fervently this nest of self-haters and bigots will try to destroy him.
As for me, someone who has wrestled with the question of homosexuality and Catholicism for much of my adult life, this book has, to be honest, been gutting. All the painful, wounding Vatican documents on my “objective disorder” that I have tried to parse and sincerely engage … I find out they were written, in part, by tormented gay men, partly to deflect from their own nature. Everything I was taught growing up — to respect the priests and hierarchs, to trust them, to accept their moral authority — is in tatters. To realize that the gay closet played a part in enabling the terrible, unimaginable abuse of the most vulnerable is a twist my psyche is having a hard time absorbing. Reading this long book, I found myself falling asleep not because it was boring. Au contraire. In some way, my psyche just couldn’t take any more. My mind and body kept shutting down.
I went to Mass last Sunday to pray about this. My parish church has long been the Cathedral of Saint Matthew, where the child molester Cardinal McCarrick presided for many years, and who was succeeded by the proven dissembler Cardinal Wuerl. One is defrocked; the other has resigned in disgrace. Since the McCarrick defrocking was the lead story in last Sunday’s print edition of the New York Times, I naïvely thought someone in authority in the Cathedral — say, the rector who gave the homily — might finally acknowledge and address the intense betrayal and pain everyone in that parish was feeling. Instead, the homily was a pitch — I kid you not — for the cardinal’s appeal. Which cardinal? The rapist or the liar?
This may seem like hyperbole, but in my view, the last drops of moral authority the Vatican might hope to have evaporate with this book. It is difficult to express the heartbroken rage so many of us in the pews now feel.