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In the Closet of the Vatican:
Power, Homosexuality, Hypocrisy

by frédéric martel
translated by shaun whiteside
bloomsbury, 576 pages, $30

The cursus of Frédéric Martel’s work can be expressed quite simply: He takes 576 pages to convince us that the Roman Catholic clergymen who live and work in the Vatican have made it into a modern-day Sodom, whose sins cry to heaven for vengeance; that done, he rains fire down on Lot. The author describes himself as a gay activist, ­laïciste, and non-believer, who took on the project of exposing sexual corruption in the Holy See. His targets are influential churchmen who lead double lives, outwardly professing chastity and enjoining Catholic discipline on others while indulging in homosexual frolics on the sly. Excising rot from the Church is an endeavor worthy in its own right and, were it honorably achieved, deserving of commendation and thanks. But Martel, as he cheerily admits, has no problem at all with the sex; what he sees as toxic is Catholic doctrine. For him, the cleric living a double life can regain integrity by renouncing not the sodomy, but the Catechism. He would save the rot and burn the healthy tissue.

Martel claims to have 1,500 persons as interview sources for his book, including forty-one cardinals, fifty-two bishops and monsignori, and forty-five nuncios or other embassy personnel. These numbers themselves should make us skeptical about the good faith in which he conducted his interviews. The Vatican, as he himself shows, is highly sensitive regarding the public repute of its clergy, and it is a place in which gossip travels quickly. That means it is all but impossible that ­Martel presented himself forthrightly as a man writing an exposé of homosexual corruption in the Holy See, for had he done so he could hardly have gotten near a senior prelate. It also means that the interviews he conducted must have touched on his real concerns only obliquely; had he asked tough questions about tender subjects, the word would have gotten round after one or two meetings, and doors would have been closed to him. Martel does manage to tease some bishops into indiscreet criticisms of their fellows—no small offense in their world—but here too we have reason to doubt his forthrightness. At least twice after recounting such indiscretions he makes mention of there being a compact voice recorder in plain sight (un petit Nagra bien visible). This admission would be pointless if the persons interviewed had understood and agreed to the recording, and Martel can only have included it in anticipation of protests of uncovenanted disclosures on the part of those he trapped.

Even allowing for this, the sheer extensiveness of Martel’s access is troubling. Curial cardinals erect a series of baffles—bureaucratic hurdles and security measures—between themselves and strangers. There is something ­eerie about Martel’s ghostlike ability to pass through walls and into the living quarters and private offices of so many high-ranking prelates, including those he presents as his chief villains: Cardinals Raymond Burke, Gerhard Müller, and George Pell. It is obvious that his entrée could only have been effected with the connivance of well-placed accomplices consciously withholding information that normally would be communicated by way of warning. And indeed, ­Martel admits candidly that one of the keys to his access was Msgr. Battista Ricca, the sexually compromised gay diplomat whose continued employment in the Vatican was famously defended by Pope Francis in his “Who am I to judge?” in-flight press conference. ­Ricca used his clout not only to ­arrange interviews, but to get Martel a room at the Casa Internazionale del Clero (a private hotel for clergy) and clearance into the inner corridors of the Casa Santa Marta (where the pope now lives). These are favors that would be exceptional if done for an unfamiliar Catholic priest: Performed for a non-Catholic layman, they speak of collusion.

In the course of his narrative Martel sets down in italics fourteen “rules of The Closet,” or “great laws” that we are to understand govern life inside the Vatican. Law Number 4 is this: The more pro-gay a cleric is, the less likely he is to be gay; the more homophobic a cleric is, the more likely he is to be homosexual. It doesn’t take a Karl Popper to see that this “heads I win, tails you lose” reasoning logically saws from the tree the limb it is sitting on, and—the pleasures of ­polemics apart—renders Martel’s exposé ­valueless. In Martel’s elenchus, nothing a man might say could count for evidence against his hypothesis: “As for Carlo Caffarra . . . he was so vocal in his opposition to gay marriage that this obsession gives him away.” This ­obsession.

Indeed, the interviews themselves are largely beside the point. When Martel goes to meet Cardinal ­Raymond Burke, whom he detests as a stalwart opponent of the gay agenda, he is shown into Burke’s quarters by his assistant, who apologizes for the cardinal’s postponed return (he was in a private audience—a painful one—with Pope Francis). In the end, the interview never took place. But Martel gives us a detailed description of the room:

On the table, an arrangement of dried pine cones, braided and glued together—the ornamental art of elderly dandies. A complicated lampshade. Some precious stones and dreadful religious statues. And table mats!

Et des napperons! I’m not sure why the final exclamation point is justified, but almost certainly Burke was guilty of a risible faux pas in interior decoration. It doesn’t occur to Martel that the pine cones and dreadful statues might be gifts from persons cherished more for their humanity than their fashion sense, nor that an adult male might furnish a room for purposes other than a display of taste. Still, he ridicules Burke as a “drama queen” (thus in the French) with the appearance of “a vindictive old woman.” In getting through the door Martel got what he needed, and so can proceed to interview clerics antipathetic to Burke who, alas, do not have names, but disparage him nonetheless. “Cardinal Burke is the very thing he denounces,” a cleric close to Francis states starkly. The same man believes that the pope might have had him in mind in 2017 when he denounced “‘hypocritical’ priests with ‘made-up souls.’” Similar treatment is accorded others of Martel’s target conservatives: ­Cardinals Müller, Pell, Sarah, ­Meisner, ­Caffarra, and, above all, Ratzinger. We are assured, without evidence, that they are guilty of fanaticism, ­viciousness, violence, apocalyptic violence, and, somewhat redundantly, “­homophobia.”

A parenthesis. The aversion that healthy persons have for paraphilia no doubt has divergent and complex tributaries—biological, psychosocial, cultural—that are worthy of serious examination and analysis. But the word “homophobia” is an ­etymologically uncouth formation which, outside of scare quotes, will be used only by an ideologue or a dunce. Its utility is solely polemical, collapsing ­morally disparate motives into a single slur. There being insufficient genuine hatred available today to drive the turbines of social change desired by many, that hatred, as the Jussie Smollett affair has shown, must sometimes be fabricated so as to discredit one’s adversaries in the culture wars—most urgently when ­rational argument presents a less-than-­certain victory for the revolutionary. “Homo­phobia” is a semantically and morally reckless term; it should be retired from the lexicon.

Martel also interviewed, and names, a number of men who had worked as priests in the Vatican or ecclesiastical Rome. They are all homosexual and tell remarkably similar stories of masking their true libido, being sexually importuned by important priests and bishops, and finally throwing over employment, priesthood, and faith in order to live openly with a male partner. All are deeply embittered against the Church and Church teaching, and this bitterness must be taken into account in assessing the reliability of their testimony. There are common voids in their accounts: None admits to having succumbed to a superior; none admits to having himself importuned someone less powerful—for example, a seminarian or lay employee; none admits to mischief in gay bars. Yet the bulk of their testimony has the ring of truth, especially with respect to the blind-eye toleration permitted by their superiors to discreet homosexual recreation, and the willingness of the same superiors to cover up indiscretions that become known, provided silence is maintained by all parties. The picture is one of a “controlled schizophrenia” (the notorious phrase of Klaus Fuchs), whereby outward propriety is maintained, circumspect misbehavior is ignored or abetted, and efforts at reform or amendment are ­mysteriously blocked at every turn.

One claim must be challenged head-on. Martel quotes ex-priest Francesco Lepore as saying that, when he confessed “internal conflicts” to a priest of Opus Dei, “what I didn’t know was that he would betray me and tell everyone around him” (raconter cela autour de lui). I lived and worked for sixteen years in ecclesiastical Rome and never heard of such a thing happening anywhere, to anyone. Notwithstanding the prima facie unlikelihood of the situation, the confessor surely would have known he was himself committing not only a mortal sin, but one so grave he could not seek absolution without the prior remission of ­censure reserved to the Holy See. Either Lepore should identify the Opus Dei priest by name—in which case, let justice take its course—or the claim should be recanted and the passage withdrawn.

Though the preceding specimen is the most serious of its kind, it is lamentably typical of Martel’s shoddy use of sources, especially when he imputes gravely sinful and perfidious delinquency to others. When the source is named, the offending cleric he informs against is not (“Sometimes I find monsignori, archbishops and cardinals making passes at me”); conversely, when the offending cleric is named, the source who informed on him is not (“I was told by someone close to him . . .”). 

One jaw of the vise is always missing; they never come together in a grip. Martel’s revelations, even when most useful in the cause of reform, all slip away into innuendo:

[Archbishop Paul] Marcinkus was homosexual: he had a weakness for Swiss Guards. He often lent them his car, a metallic grey Peugeot 504 with a lovely leather interior. At one point I remember that he was going out with a Swiss Guard and it lasted for some time.

The source? “A layman close to the archbishop who worked in the Vatican at the time.”

Martel devotes a chapter of his book to conversations with male prostitutes, mainly migrants from Romania and Muslim Africa who operate in the vicinity of Rome’s main train station. Here, too, we encounter a reliability problem. Prostitutes live in a shadowy space at the edge of legality and public decency. One can’t imagine they open up cheerfully to strangers about their business. An investigative journalist doesn’t solicit an interview from a male prostitute the way he would from a grocer or ­welder; the very means by which he overcomes the prostitute’s mistrust make him less trustworthy to us. Clearly the rent boys who agree to talk to ­Martel catch on quickly to what he wants to hear: “We work around the Piazza della Repubblica,” says one. “It’s a square for people from the Vatican. Everyone here knows that. The priests take us by car. They take us home or, more often, to a hotel. . . . I’ve got regulars who are cops . . . but I prefer priests. When we go to the Vatican they pay us very well because they’re rich.” One of the saddest passages in the book describes these young men going to cybercafés to Skype their mothers in Tunis or Bucharest and lie to them about the fine jobs they have in Italy. The reader regrets he has no better reporter than Martel here, because many disclosures, if reliable, might provide a fulcrum for genuine reform. One of the rent boys sorrowfully admits that, at age twenty-seven, “I’m on the way out. Often the priests walk by; they greet me . . . but they don’t pick me up.”

Martel later takes us to a gay sauna in the Via Aureliana where, we’re told, “frolicking is possible and legal.” The property block itself, he says, was purchased by the Vatican. Martel chats with the sauna manager Mario Canale, who tells us: “At the Europa Multiclub we receive lots of priests and even cardinals. And every time there’s a jubilee, a synod or a conclave, we ­realize immediately: The sauna is fuller than usual. Thanks to all the visiting priests!” Martel’s seemingly effortless access to Canale might seem puzzling, given his status as an investigative journalist, until one realizes that the same passport that gets him into the sauna office got him into the Casa Santa Marta; the gay underworld is a network of interconnected tunnels, so to speak, permitting covert travel into places inaccessible to others. His ­larva’s-eye view of ecclesiastical Rome is made possible, paradoxically, by the world of intrigue and collusion he claims to deplore.

The more homophobic a cleric is,” Martel insists, “the more likely he is to be homosexual.” Let’s imagine Martel were writing in 1850, and that the object of his investigation were not the Vatican but the University of Oxford. The Oxford of that era was as exclusively male as is the Vatican of our own. By statute, the fellows of Oxford colleges were unmarried and mostly Anglican clergymen. To a mind like ­Martel’s, the choice for celibacy is of itself evidence of homosexual propensities, and the life of a don a means of camouflaging one’s homosexuality while immersing oneself in the company of young men. In fact, in some cases Martel would be right; beyond question there ­existed homosexual dons at Oxford, some of whom led double lives and seduced or importuned students. But a Martel doesn’t stop there; all ostensible interest in Latin authors or mathematics must be a ruse employed to disguise homosexual passions the scholars were frightened to admit. Further, the clearer a man’s distaste for sodomy, the deeper his true inclination for it. Were Martel to publish a report on his findings, is it not ­obvious that it would give most comfort to the duplicitous predators and do most harm to those persons sincerely trying to rid the university of sexual mischief?

Martel’s antipathies are too strong to allow him to see and recognize even trivial exceptions to his laws. His universe admits no such being as a chaste person, hetero- or homosexual, who authentically believes the Catholic Church teaches truth; it is therefore no surprise that he failed to find such a man within the Vatican. The same investigation, with the same cast of characters voicing the same opinions, might be used by a right-wing polemicist to make the opposite case:

The Catholic Church’s strident calls for social justice are a massive fraud, nothing more than a subterfuge by which predatory priests, under the guise of care for the poor, gain sexual access to vulnerable boys in the slums of our cities and in the villages of the developing world. The louder their cries for compassion—as the Bruce Ritters and Paul Shanleys scandalously attest—the deeper their hidden crimes.

By an irony of self-devouring malice, Martel dies by his own sword—a shame, because the real dragon remains to be slain. 

Paul Mankowski, S.J., writes from Chicago.

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