Cardinal Keith Michael Patrick O’Brien (Photo public domain)
Vatican officials this week denounced reports in the Italian press that an underground network of gay priests assigned to the Vatican organized meetings for sex and may have been subjected to blackmail.
Criticism of the press reports by a high-level Vatican spokesperson came less than a week before yet another gay-related scandal hit the Catholic Church – this time in Scotland.
British Cardinal Keith O’Brien, who has called same-sex marriage “grotesque,” announced he decided to step down a month ahead of previously announced retirement plans after allegations surfaced on Feb. 23 that he engaged in “intimate” acts with priests in the 1980s.
O’Brien denied the allegations but said on Monday he cancelled his trip to Rome this week, where he was expected to participate in the selection of a new pope. He said he didn’t want the allegations against him to overshadow the conclave of cardinals set to convene within the next week.
The Vatican immediately accepted his decision to step down from his church duties, which it viewed as a resignation.
News of the alleged network of gay priests at the Vatican surfaced last week when the Italian newspaper La Repubblica and the Italian news magazine Panorama reported that Pope Benedict XVI announced his resignation on the same day he learned of the allegations.
In a development that created an uproar at the Vatican, La Repubblica reported it received detailed information about a 300-page Vatican report prepared by three cardinals who uncovered the network of gay priests during a nine-month internal Vatican investigation.
Among other things, the report says the investigation discovered a “faction” within the Vatican “united by sexual orientation,” according to La Repubblica.
The newspaper said it had no confirmation that Benedict based his decision to resign solely on the explosive findings of the investigation. But it reported sources as saying Benedict planned to keep the findings confidential and decided to leave it up to his successor to determine how to address the matter.
“It was on that day, with those papers on his desk, that Benedict XVI took the decision he had mulled over for so long,” La Repubblica reported in its Feb. 21 edition while discussing Benedict’s resignation.
Vatican officials have since confirmed that the investigation took place but have refused to comment on its findings. Vatican spokesperson Rev. Federico Lombardi acknowledged the reports by La Repubblica and Panorama that the investigation was launched last May after one of the pope’s butlers was arrested for allegedly stealing papal correspondence and leaking it to the media.
La Repubblica reported several other findings of the investigation, including problems associated with the Vatican bank. Vatican observers in Italy speculated that various rival factions of cardinals and other Vatican officials were likely responsible for leaked information about the investigative report.
Efforts to portray rivals in a negative light are “part of the great game of the conclave, whose tools include political attacks and efforts to condition consensus,” Vatican observer and author Alberto Melloni of Bologna, Italy, told the New York Times.
Other observers have said intrigue and infighting that sometimes takes place in the process of selecting a Pope appears to be occurring at a greater intensity this time, as conservative and more progressive factions of cardinals line up behind different candidates under consideration for the papacy.
The Vatican’s Secretariat of State, its highest office, issued a statement on Feb. 23 denouncing the press accounts of the contents of the investigative report or “dossier” as “unverified, unverifiable or completely false news stories.”
In a separate statement, the Vatican said Benedict dissolved the three-cardinal investigative committee on Monday and expressed “satisfaction for the results of this investigation,” according to a report by the Washington Post.
“The Holy Father has decided that the acts of this investigation, known only to himself, remain solely at the disposition of the new Pope,” the Post quoted the statement as saying.
La Repubblica reported that the investigation uncovered an underground network of gays working at the Vatican who organized “sexual meetings” in several locations, including a sauna in Rome, a private villa just outside Rome, and a beauty salon inside the Vatican.
The newspaper also reported the investigation found some of the gay priests may have been subjected to blackmail by men not associated with the Vatican with whom they had “worldly” relations.
“When you have this culture of secrecy and guilt and repression you have conditions which foster the potential for blackmail and for manipulation,” said gay British journalist and former priest Mark Dowd in an interview with CNN.
The cardinals who headed the Vatican investigation have been identified as Julian Herranz of Spain; Jozef Tomko of Slovakia; and Salvatore De Giorgi, the former archbishop of Palermo.
The British newspaper The Guardian broke the story about Cardinal O’Brien’s alleged “gay” scandal in a story in its Feb. 23 edition.
According to The Guardian, three priests and a former priest, all from Scotland, filed a complaint against O’Brien with the Vatican’s ambassador to Britain one week before Benedict announced his resignation.
One of the complainants, The Guardian reports, charges that O’Brien “developed an inappropriate relationship with him, resulting in a need for long-term psychological counseling.”
Another, identified only as “Priest A,” described being visited by O’Brien and “inappropriate contact between the two took place,” the newspaper reported. “Priest B” claims he was invited to spend a week at the then archbishop’s residence, where he encountered “unwanted behavior by the cardinal after a late-night drinking session.”
The Guardian said “Priest C” had been seeing O’Brien for counseling over personal problems and alleges that O’Brien “used night prayers as an excuse for inappropriate contact.”
The four who filed the complaint called on the Vatican ambassador to take steps to prevent O’Brien from going to Rome to participate in the conclave to select a new pope, saying the papal selection process would be tainted if the cardinal was part of it.
O’Brien, who announced he had cancelled his trip to Rome the day after The Observer published its story, said he would obtain legal counsel to fight the allegations, which his accusers say took place in the 1980s.
The press reports about the alleged network of gay priests at the Vatican reportedly involved consenting adults, and the allegations against O’Brien involved adult victims. But the revelations of these developments prompted news media outlets in the U.S. and Europe to bring up longstanding allegations of the sexual abuse of children by pedophile priests that have plagued the Catholic Church for more than two decades.
Organizations representing victims of sexual abuse by priests have called on the Vatican to bar cardinals in the U.S. and elsewhere from participating in the selection of a new pope if they knew about priests that sexually abused juveniles but did not act to stop the abuse.
Francis DeBernardo, executive director of New Ways Ministry, a Maryland-based group that advocates for LGBT equality within the Catholic Church, told the Blade the unfolding gay sex scandal, if true, is due in part to the Vatican’s harsh position on homosexuality.
“They have created a situation where people can’t express their sexuality in healthy ways,” he said. “They can’t even deal with their sexuality in the open. So it creates a climate of suspicion and a climate of fear.”
Jeannine Gramick is a Roman Catholic nun who co-founded New Ways Ministry and serves as national coordinator for the National Coalition of American Nuns. She told the Blade she is hopeful that the scandal would nudge the church into adopting a more tolerant position on gays.
“I think the impact it should have is to point out the hypocrisy of having a very negative stance about homosexual activity between loving persons and the private secret condoning of activity that is not in the context of a committed relationship,” she said.
“So my hope is that it will bring about a re-examination of the church’s approach to sexuality to become more realistic and honest,” Gramick said.