In the Closet of the Vatican: Power, Homosexuality, Hypocrisy
By Frederic Martel
555 pp., $34.99
This book exposes the extraordinary scale of the double lives to be found among the most powerful section of the Catholic hierarchy. At 555 pages it is both a door-stopper and a jaw-dropper — and there are another 300 pages available online.
The author is careful not to criticise the Catholic Church overall, but focuses on the hypocrisy of “the majority of those in the College of Cardinals and the Vatican”. It presents a shocking catalogue of sexual hypocrisy, sexual abuse, financial corruption and far-right activities. To give the book greater weight, it was published simultaneously in eight languages and 20 countries.
It is already a best-seller in Poland and Latin America. In languages other than English it carries the title Sodoma, which is a slang term used by some members of the Curia when referring to the Vatican.
Frederic Martel, a gay French writer, researcher, academic and journalist, spent four years with his team of 80 researchers investigating the subject, interviewing nearly 1500 people in 30 countries. They spoke with 41 cardinals, 52 bishops and archbishops and 45 apostolic nuncios. During the interviews many of them came out to him — and a few came on to him.
Martel concludes that most of the Catholic Curia, the cardinals who wield power in the Church, are active homosexuals. Moreover, he found that the most heatedly anti-gay prelates were themselves gay. Ironically, tolerant, compassionate, gay-friendly bishops and priests were almost unfailingly straight.
The rule on priestly celibacy meant for centuries that young Catholic gays in repressive, patriarchal societies could find socially accepted lives only by becoming priests. Their lack of attraction to women was unnoticed if they entered the seminary.
As LGBTI liberation movements swept the world, the number of priestly vocations has plummeted. But liberation has been resisted in the Vatican.
For those inhabiting the Vatican closet, the simple rule is they can do whatever they like in private as long as they hammer away at homophobia and “family values” in public. Besides housing closeted gays, it is also a perfect environment for paedophiles.
Actively homosexual prelates who are not child sex abusers will attempt to keep others' abuses secret because they are afraid of being “outed” if a spotlight is shone on the whole structure. It leads to more than just spectacular hypocrisy; it can cover violent and criminal behaviour.
Among the harrowing tales Martel relates is the story of Cardinal Alfonso López Trujillo, the Colombian who headed the Pontifical Council for the Family.
During the rabidly anti-communist papacy of the John-Paul II, Trujillo found favour by opposing the Liberation Theology current among Colombian priests. He gave the names of dozens of leftist priests to death squads, who then murdered them.
Trujillo’s fund-raising successes with Colombia’s drug barons endeared him to the Vatican. But it was in his international campaign against birth control in defence of “the family” where he really made his mark.
He ranged the world, especially visiting Thailand and the Philippines. Why there? Because the “rent boys” are cheap and plentiful.
Trujillo had a particular taste for young sex workers. He violently raped them and then beat them up.
At the same time, he publicly proclaimed that condoms are “not part of the solution” for AIDS. He also campaigned against expressions such as “safe sex”, “gender theory” and “family planning”.
When he died in 2008, Pope Benedict XVI celebrated a papal mass in his honour.
Another astounding tale is that of Marcial Maciel, the Mexican priest who established and led the Legion of Christ movement. He was known as the greatest fundraiser for the Catholic Church and a prolific recruiter of new seminarians.
However, he also sexually abused young seminarians, had a number of children by a couple of different women, one of whom was a minor – and sexually abused his own children. There were many serious complaints against him which the Vatican failed to act on for decades until the scandal could no longer be denied.
Martel encountered something that anybody close to Catholicism can identify: the foundations of the Church are cracked, but in those cracks there is still life. He interviews many progressive priests who work among the poor and who celebrate Masses for the LGBTI community.
The last character I was expecting to meet in this book is American alt-right figure, Steve Bannon. But Bannon has assembled a pipeline of money from right-wing US foundations to establish a new conservative movement within Catholicism, called the Dignitatis Humanae Institute (DHI). The DHI has gained control of an Italian monastery and installed a gay-hating prelate in charge.
The DHI intends to train its own seminarians to create an attack force of reactionary priests enforcing Catholic family teachings and homophobia.
Bannon regularly visits the Vatican. Not to meet Pope Francis, but to conspire against him with ultra-right members of the Curia — who are nearly all gay.
Perhaps the most shocking stories Martel recorded were of the refugee male sex workers in Rome. His interviews at the Vatican were during daylight hours, his interviews among the sex workers at night.
“I gradually worked out that these two worlds — these two kinds of sexual poverty — were intrinsically interwoven,” he says.
He found the sex trade servicing priests is a “well established business”. August is bad for trade, because the priests are on holiday and the Vatican is empty.
One sex worker tells him the priests are easy to spot. “They’re not used to living,” he says. “They’re unhappy, they’re not alive; they don’t love.”
What more damning accusation of failure could be ascribed to the Church, which is meant to represent God’s love on Earth?
Pope Francis called the Curia together in 2014 and listed “15 ailments” among them, including the “terrorism of gossip,” “spiritual Alzheimer’s” and of living “hypocritical” double lives. He has said that some of those most vehemently opposed to homosexuality were living “scandalous” lives themselves.
Many of Martel’s interviewees expressed hostility towards Francis. They are unsettled because they perceive that the Pope is slowly rooting out the worst of the hypocrites, sometimes forcibly retiring elderly Cardinals, at other times “promoting” one out of a powerful position and into a job where there is nothing to do.
Martel believes that many in the Curia are simply waiting for Francis to die with the aim to better control the conclave that elects his successor — but others, with Bannon, are actively plotting.