A new book paints a picture of rampant homosexuality in the Catholic Church but builds castles on the sands of rumours and innuendo, writes TP O’Mahony.
If Pope Francis is facing a blowback from the conviction of Cardinal George Pell — who was the Vatican’s finance chief — for sexually abusing two choirboys in 1996 when he was Archbishop of Melbourne, and negative reaction to the global summit on clerical sex abuse (the latter being the greatest crisis facing the Catholic Church since the Reformation), then there will be further distress for him caused by the shocking revelations contained in a new book.
Entitled In the Closet of the Vatican, it was written by Frederic Martel, a French journalist, and paints a picture of rampant homosexuality at all levels in the Catholic Church.
The main focus, inevitably, is on the Vatican of which the author has this to say: “The Vatican has one of the biggest gay communities in the world, and I doubt whether, even in San Francisco’s Castro, the emblematic gay quarter, though more mixed today, there are quite as many gays!”
Sub-titled ‘Power, Homosexuality, Hypocrisy’, the book was published in eight languages and in 20 countries on the day the global summit opened in Rome, and it is an unrelenting expose in which homophilia is depicted as often lurking behind homophobia.
Martel cites a comment made by Pope Francis as showing an acute awareness of this: “Behind rigidity there is always something hidden, in many cases a double life”.
To this Martel adds his own observation: “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”.
That some very senior figures in the Church lead double lives is at this stage well attested to.
Some prominent Cardinals – George Pell being one of them, Theodore McCarrick and the late Alfonso Lopez Trujillo of Colombia are others – who have been most vociferous in condemning homosexuality, the use of condoms even in the battle against AIDS, and methods of family planning that involve any form of artificial contraception, have been exposed as sexual predators, abusing altar boys, seminarians and other young males. This is a deeply disturbing situation, but Martel is given to much exaggeration.
The author’s central preoccupation is the “homosexualisation of the Church” – and he purports to find it everywhere. Even Pope Paul VI doesn’t escape.
Yet it never gets beyond rumour. And in Rome, especially in the Rome of the Vatican, the rumour-mill never sleeps, and its nefarious produce is often employed to devastating effect.
In his acclaimed biography of Paul VI, Peter Hebblethwaite never even alludes to his sexuality. Why? Because there was never any factual basis for the claim that he was gay. Yes, we know there is a gay culture in the Vatican and always has been. And there have been scandals from time to time. The VatiLeaks that caused so much pain to Benedict XVI were, among other things, the latest manifestations of this culture.
The reality Martel describes certainly exists; that’s not the issue. The issue is whether it is as widespread, as pervasive, as brazen as he asserts. If it is, then the Vatican is truly a can of worms, and the complicity and cover-up runs through all echelons, to the very top. And it isn’t just the Vatican.
In a book that runs to 555 pages, Martel says his investigation was conducted in 30 countries.
It all proved too much for Benedict XVI who was overwhelmed by what he learned, and prompted his abdication in February 2013. According to the author the decisive moment for that Pope was his visit to Cuba in 2012. What he found there sickened him. According to Roberto Veiga, who was director of a Catholic journal and worked directly for ten years with Cardinal Jaime Ortega, and who talked to Martel, the Cardinal, who had played a key role in organising the Pope’s visit, had been involved in covering up sexual abuse by clergy in Havana. This set the process leading to Benedict’s abdication in motion.
When Francis was elected in April 2013, he was very much an outsider in Rome. Not since Giuseppe Sarto, who as Pius X was Pope from 1903 to 1914, has there been such an outsider – somebody who neither studied nor worked in Rome before becoming Pope.
This gave Francis certain advantages, but also left him disadvantaged. He had to learn to cope with the Roman Curia, a complex organisation staffed at the upper end by ambitious and even ruthless prelates, jealous of their own power. But Francis, behind the smiles and the easy-going appearance, has turned out to be a hard man.
What the book confirms is there is a real need to reassess the long 25-year pontificate of Karol Wojtyla. We know from other sources – most notably God’s Politician by David Willey, the BBC’s Vatican correspondent, and The Pope in Winter by John Cornwell – that there was a “dark side” to the first Polish Pope.
As John Paul II he turned a blind eye to the burgeoning clerical sex abuse scandal, even shielding the notorious paedophile Marcial Maciel, the Mexican priest who founded the order of the Legionnaires of Christ, and arranged for Cardinal Bernard Law to be moved to Rome after the Boston Globe exposed his role in covering up widespread sex abuse of children by priests. In Rome Law enjoyed diplomatic immunity, putting him beyond the reach of the US courts.
“Marcial Maciel was probably the most diabolical figure that the Catholic Church has given birth to and raised over the past 50 years,” writes Martel.
All of this is true. It was left to Benedict XVI to finally banish the Mexican, who died in 2008, and who should have faced criminal charges.
A book that badly needed editing, it is episodic in structure and the self-indulgent author meanders all over the place, building castles on the basis of rumour, innuendo, allusion and gossip.
The central weakness was succinctly highlighted by Guillaume Goubert, editor-in-chief of the French Catholic daily La Croix: “There is also his propensity to see everything through the prism of homosexuality, even when it’s about politics or money.
In this sense, In the Closet is a gay book that is self-referential, a term that the author often uses to describe the Church. A much more serious aspect is that Martel makes no clear distinction between those who practice homosexuality and those who, while they may have homosexual leanings, do the utmost to remain faithful to their commitment to celibacy.”
If the situation in the Vatican is only half as bad as this book claims, then the best course of action might be for Francis to abandon the place altogether and move to Avignon, where the “Palace of the Popes” (the residence of Popes from to 1309 to 1377) still stands.
In the Closet of the Vatican by Frederic Martel is published by Bloomsbury at £25stg