Sex, secrets and lies in the closet of the Vatican

A new book suggests the more homophobic a Vatican official is, the more likely he is to be gay. Its author, Frédéric Martel says there is a culture of repression and hypocrisy at the heart of the Roman Catholic Church

Between the Vatican and the papal castle on the River Tiber in Rome runs a passageway built into a high wall that once allowed popes to flee secretly from attacking armies. The passageway crosses the Borgo neighbourhood, which boasts shops selling frilly robes to priests, restaurants feeding gossiping cardinals and a café in which a French writer is telling me hair-raising tales of rampant homosexuality at the Holy See that would send a pope fleeing down that passageway again. Listing the claims he has packed into his new book, Frédéric Martel starts with the estimate that 80 per cent of the priests working behind the walls of the Vatican are gay, not to mention up to 70 per cent of students in Rome’s seminaries, where Grindr is consulted alongside the gospels.

Then there are the priests cruising for rent boys at the Roma Termini station who refuse to wear condoms, and the story of the prelate who once insisted on having noisy sex with his boyfriend at the Vatican residence where Pope Francis now lives.

“The Vatican has one of the biggest gay communities in the world,” says Martel, toying with his macchiato. “I doubt whether, even in San Francisco’s Castro District, the emblematic gay quarter – even if it’s more mixed today – there are quite as many gays.” The fact that the Catholic Church publicly denounces homosexuality as “objectively disordered” and calls gay sex “contrary to the natural law” makes the Vatican’s secret sex life “a big lie from a little state – what we in French call un mensonge d’état,” he adds. Fifty years after the Stonewall riots in New York that sparked the gay liberation movement, the Vatican “is the last bastion to be liberated”, claims Martel, calling it “Stonewall’s last fight”.

But what gets him most of all, and forms a central thesis of his book, In the Closet of the Vatican, is this claim: “The more homophobic a priest is, the greater chance he himself will be homosexual.”

Martel, 51, knows the quiet, backstreet café we are in after meeting Vatican contacts here during the four years he researched his book. His confidants included 28 self-confessed gay prelates from within the walled confines of the Vatican, the 110-acre city state that is the world’s smallest nation and which tucks neatly into the middle of Rome.

Martel also got a flat in a Vatican-owned building in Rome occupied by priests and was invited to stay in spare rooms in the large apartments used by senior church men inside the Vatican, 60ft from Pope Francis’s flat. “I never hid who I was – it only takes two clicks on a computer to see I have written about homosexuality – but once I was inside, prelates opened up to me. It got very gossipy,” he recalls.

“Even the sight of my microphone on the table during interviews wouldn’t stop people saying, ‘This one is sleeping with this one.’ ” Some of the flirting he experienced inside the walls was “pretty aggressive”, he adds. But he is not interested in naming names. “I am pretty happy they are gay like me, and can love and have a sex life. What I am interested in is the system, the hypocrisy they are all a victim of.”

Martel has a track record of raising hackles. A well-known writer and broadcaster in France, he has previously challenged the role the French government takes in promoting national culture and angered some in the gay community by alleging it initially ignored the Aids epidemic.

What he found amazing about the Vatican was that so few have chronicled its sex life, and he quickly discovered he had the perfect entrée.

“A Vatican specialist would lose his job covering this, while Italian newspapers are often afraid of the topic,” Martel says. “And a straight reporter would not understand the codes.”

Martel’s investigation starts with seminaries, where for many years, young men struggling to repress their homosexuality could find sanctuary from a homophobic society – before later emerging as respectable priests – while killing off their sexual urges by sticking to the rule of celibacy.

Just like Francesco Lepore, who signed up to a seminary in southern Italy to “bury” his homosexuality, then became a top Latin scholar at the Vatican before quitting over his double life.

As one of Martel’s key sources, it is Lepore who put the total of homosexuals at the Vatican at 80 per cent, and who claims in the book that a fellow priest working at the Vatican’s saint-making department died of an Aids-related illness “to the indifference of his superiors”, and was “buried with great discretion at dawn to avoid a scandal”.

Martel’s own stint inside the walls leaves him with the impression that “more than half” the Vatican’s priests are gay. At the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the impressively named descendent of the Inquisition and the body that monitors sexual mores, he believes “at least” five of the twenty cardinals on the supervisory board live with a boyfriend.

It is not all bottled up – reports do trickle out from time to time, starting with the amazing account of chemsex parties held in a Vatican apartment by one priest who allegedly supplied cocaine and cannabis vodka to guests and even installed red lights before the Vatican police broke up the fun last year.

The priest reportedly thought he had it all figured since his apartment was in a building on the perimeter of Vatican territory, with one entrance giving onto a Rome street, meaning guests could get in without being seen by the pontifical Swiss Guards. Since the flat was in the Vatican state, Italian police could not touch it.

Despite the racy reports, Martel says the atmosphere in the Vatican’s gay milieu was closer to the Fifties, fuelled by what he calls in French médisance, or rumour-mongering. “They can be some of the meanest people, referring to other priests using the female form. It’s typical of people who are locked into double lives, who don’t accept their nature. The closet is the place of the most incredible cruelty. And the Vatican is one huge closet.”

While experimenting with his computer inside the Vatican, Martel discovered a nanny state was at work, pushing priests to stay on the straight and narrow.

He tried to access erotic sites, only to find they were blocked by a Vatican message advising him to call an internal number. On another occasion a message told him the site had been blocked by the “security police” of the Vatican.

Afraid of having their phones tapped, he says, priests used secure apps such as Signal or Telegram, or purchased anonymous second phones to get on to the gay dating app Grindr.

Discretion is not always the rule, Martel claims, recounting how a Swiss Guard told him he had to defend himself from the advances of prelates. But being discreet, he says, ensures being part of what is known in the Vatican as “the parish”, which can lead to promotions by similarly orientated bishops and cardinals who feel comfortable having men around them who also lead secret double lives. He also saw the strong bonds between senior churchmen and the younger men they nurture as protégés, propelling them through the ranks to senior positions. “These people can’t have families, so they are creating their own,” he says.

It was Pope Benedict, after his shock resignation in 2013, who claimed he had “broken up” the power of a “gay lobby” that was seeking to influence decisions in the church.

But Martel says that despite his startling homosexual head count at the Vatican, and despite the promotions handed out to discreet gays, talk of a “gay lobby” is far-fetched.

“Every cardinal who is in the closet is in his own little closet,” he says. “They may have a lover, a confidant, a protector, but they are isolated, which means that when they get in trouble, they fall, while the system remains. A lobby forms to change a system, but these people don’t want to change it. All they want to do is protect their own secret lives.

“That is why some bishops and cardinals I interviewed, even when they are themselves gay, seemed sincerely startled by the extent of homosexuality within the Vatican.”

Within the walls of the Vatican the Fifties came to an end in 2013, when the newly elected Pope Francis made his famous “Who am I to judge?” remark about gays, signalling his greater tolerance of homosexuality, capped by his statement to a gay man last year, “God made you that way and loves you as you are.”

But in the upside-down world of the Vatican, the reaction by homosexuals to the new approach was fear rather than relief, says Martel.

In the book he quotes Luigi Gioia, an Italian Benedictine monk, who neatly sums it up: “For a homosexual, the church appears to be a stable structure. That’s one of the explanations why many homosexuals chose the priesthood. And yet when you need to hide, to feel secure, you need to feel that your context doesn’t move. You want the structure to be stable and protective, and then you can navigate freely within it. Yet Francis, by wanting to reform it, made the structure unstable for closeted homosexual priests. That’s what explains their violent reaction and their hatred of him. They’re scared.” Martel adds, “Francis is said to be ‘among the wolves’ [a reference to a 2015 book about divisions in the Vatican], but it’s not quite true: he’s among the queens.”

Things should have shifted after the sexual revolution in the Sixties. After all, young men afraid of their own homosexuality felt less of a need to lock themselves up in a seminary as the world outside became more tolerant of gays. “That’s why the number of seminarians declined – as the world moved from the criminalisation of homosexuality to the criminalisation of homophobia,” says Martel.

But gay men were still signing up, he says. “They have tended to come from more right-wing backgrounds, and therefore suffer from even more self-hatred over their homosexuality, or come from Africa, where homophobia is still widespread.”

Quizzing seminarians for the book he came up with a figure of 60 to 70 per cent homosexuality among their ranks today, including one who said he was trying to stay pious by not having sex with his Grindr contacts until the third date.

That is the kind of story that has Catholic conservatives in a lather over Pope Francis’s tolerance towards homosexuality. If anyone is to blame for gay sex in the Church, they argue, it is him. The conservative attack on Francis peaked last year when a dissident cleric, Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò, called on the Pope to resign, blaming him for promoting Theodore McCarrick, a former Archbishop of Washington, despite widespread allegations of his appetite for bedding seminarians.

Conservatives not only link Francis’s gay tolerance to a surge in gay clergy but also to the plague of sexual abuse of minors by priests. Homosexuals, they argue, are naturally predisposed to abusing minors, so if you tolerate gays, you are encouraging abuse.

Martel dismisses the link, but does see an indirect connection. “The majority of priests and bishops who have covered up for abusers are homosexual – they are afraid that they will be exposed if an abuse scandal erupts. They are afraid to accuse an abuser in case he responds, ‘I was guilty, but what about your boyfriend?’ ”

So will Catholic conservatives, who are alarmed about gay priests, like Martel’s book? Unlikely, since he contends that the more conservative and homophobic Catholics are, the more likely it is they are themselves secretly homosexual. “To quote Hamlet, ‘The lady doth protest too much, methinks,’ ” he says.

Pope Francis may have had this in mind in a speech to Vatican prelates in 2016 when he mentioned people with “rigid” views, stating, “Behind the rigidity there is something hidden in a person’s life.” I ask Martel if that means Francis’s inner circle is devoid of closet gays. He raises an eyebrow.

For Martel, however, it’s the hypocrisy of the anti-Francis coterie that rankles. Despite his best intention not to name names and refrain from outing prelates, he makes an exception for one of the Church’s fiercer homophobes, Colombian cardinal Alfonso López Trujillo, who died in 2008. An opponent of condoms, which he claimed were ineffective against the spread of Aids, López Trujillo was a close ally of the conservative Pope John Paul II, and campaigned against gay marriage. But at the same time, he was bullying seminarians into having sex with him, according to a former assistant quoted by Martel.

“His speciality was novices. The most fragile, the youngest, the most vulnerable. But in fact he slept with anybody. He also had lots of prostitutes,” said the assistant.

“He finished his sexual relations by beating them, out of pure sadism,” added the cardinal’s former master of ceremonies, Alvaro Leon. “His targets were young men. White with blue eyes, particularly blonds; not Latinos, Mexican types, for example – and certainly not blacks! He hated blacks.”

Martel stands by his sources. “I met his assistants, masters of ceremonies and one of the priests who found him prostitutes,” he says. “López Trujillo was the symbol of the church’s schizophrenia.”

Martel says the same homosexuality he discovered at the Vatican has flourished in dioceses around the world, starting with Cuba, where in the Nineties Sunday evening mass at Havana Cathedral became a gay pick-up point. Priests were meanwhile pouring into Cuba for sex holidays with male prostitutes. It was here, during his 2012 visit, that Benedict – already worn down by Vatican sleaze – was so shocked by the sex life of priests and the abuse committed he decided to resign, Martel claims.

He quotes local Catholic journalist Roberto Veiga González: “Benedict’s trip to Cuba was chaotic. The Pope was in an altered state, saddened and deeply overwhelmed by what he had just learnt about the extent of sexual abuse in the Cuban Church. Why he continued with his trip I don’t know. Only one thing is certain: he would decide to resign barely a week after his return from Cuba.”

As he tells his story, Martel is joined in the café by a tall man with a shaved head, bushy beard, and earring, who is wearing a scruffy Oakland Athletics hoodie and smells faintly of cigars. To my surprise, Martel introduces him as his source Francesco Lepore, the former priest and Vatican Latin expert who once wrote a collection of essays that was so admired in the Vatican that Pope Benedict wrote the preface.

These days he is editing an Italian online gay magazine and writes a blog, Gaia Vox, about homosexual rights in both Italian and in Latin, the latest chapter in an amazing life story.

Seeking to stifle his homosexuality, Lepore entered a seminary in southern Italy at 18, becoming a brilliant scholar and heading to Rome to study at the Opus Dei-run Pontifical University of the Holy Cross, only to discover gay life was hardly being stifled.

“It was a world I thought I had exorcised,” he recalls. He had a five-month affair with a priest, followed by waves of guilt and a feeling of abandonment after it ended. “I felt dirty. I felt like abandoning my vows.”

But he stuck with it, and his career took off in 2003 when he was hired as a Latin expert by the office of the Vatican’s secretary of state, effectively the Vatican’s prime minister. With the job came a flat at Casa Santa Marta, aka Domus Sanctae Marthae, the residence that Francis moved into in 2013 when he decided to give up his lavish papal apartment.

Joining other residents in the communal dining room, Lepore found the bawdy conversation often turned to the homosexual exploits of senior churchmen. “They referred to them in the feminine and joked about how they were protected,” he says.

One priest even brought a young man in to share his apartment at Casa Santa Marta. “He claimed he was a family member, but we could hear the cries coming from his room.”

Meanwhile, Lepore was himself dating again and the subject of gossip that led to debate among his superiors about sending him back to his local diocese. His defenders won out and he was transferred to the Vatican archive, under French cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran.

“I was increasingly uncomfortable with my double life, so offered them a way out, accessing gay websites from the computers, knowing they were watched.” He was asked to leave the Vatican and has never forgotten Cardinal Tauran’s parting words. “He said, ‘You were naive,’ which says it all,” Lepore says.

Plunging into Rome’s gay life, Lepore continued to bump into familiar faces from the Vatican in gay saunas and while out cruising. “That brought home to me the hypocrisy of a church in which such a high number of senior officials live very active gay lives,” he says.

Angered by the protection he saw afforded to gay prelates, Lepore complained in a letter to Francis when the Pope was elected in 2013.

To his surprise, he got a call back. “On October 15, 2013, I was on the street when my phone rang. It was the Pope speaking,” he recalls. “He said, ‘I am calling to tell you that I admire you and I was moved by your letter.’ Then he offered me his blessing.”

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© Closet of the Vatican: Power, Homosexuality, Hypocrisy, published by Bloomsbury on February 21 at £25