French writer Frédéric Martel, whose new book exposes the sexual secrets of the Vatican, explains how the moral rot of the Catholic Church is rooted in its clergy’s repressed homosexuality
PARIS – “We’ll have enough time for the interview,” the writer and journalist Frédéric Martel assures me. “Let’s go to a movie.” Friday evening. I’d arrived here two hours earlier in order to interview Martel about his new book, “In the Closet of the Vatican: Power, Homosexuality, Hypocrisy” (Bloomsbury, translated by Shaun Whiteside). The whole world is talking about it. For my part, I am flattered that a star author in Europe, and in the West in general, is devoting quality time to me amid the chaos he’s caught up in. His phone doesn’t stop ringing. Indeed, Martel had just returned to Paris from a two-day promotional tour in Spain and has been invited to appear on just about every possible television program.
Martel’s book was published simultaneously in a number of languages and is set to appear in dozens more. Four days after its February 20 release it already topped the best-seller lists in France, Portugal, Quebec, Belgium, Switzerland, Italy, Spain, Holland and England. The Times of London has just published a long, complimentary review by a professor of religious studies from Oxford.
Despite the time pressure, Martel, 51, insists that as background for my interview it’s important that we see Francois Ozon’s new film, “By the Grace of God.” It tells the true story of a group of men from the city of Lyon, where a pleasant-looking priest who led their Catholic youth movement abused them when they were young and left them scarred for life, physically and mentally. An entire generation of boys endured that abuse, with the knowledge of the parents and of the cardinal of Lyon. Finally, a few of them mustered the courage to expose the priest and the duplicitous cardinal who covered up for him in the diocese.
When we arrive, the movie theater at the Les Halles commercial center is absolutely packed. The reason, Martel explains, is that the newspapers and newscasts that day dwelt at length on the conviction – for covering up decades of sexual abuse by the priest – that finally forced the cardinal to go to Rome and submit his resignation to the pope, who rejected it.
Martel’s book deals with a similar subject, although from a different angle. “In the Closet of the Vatican” (whose French title is, literally, “Sodom: An Investigation Inside the Vatican”) is the result of the author’s last four-year stay in Vatican City, in the middle of the current decade, where he operated as a self-styled secret agent.
It all started when the producers of his regular program on French state radio sent him to Rome to do a story on the waves of refugees from Syria and Africa. It was there that Martel encountered for the first time a network of young migrants who were working as male prostitutes around Rome’s main train station. They told him about an extensive system of gay relationships that they maintained with junior clerics and senior figures alike in the Vatican. Martel decided to dig further.
Via the French embassy in the Vatican he submitted a request to write a book about the Church’s city-state. The request was approved, and from that moment the gates of a world that he never imagined existed were opened to him. He spoke to hundreds of priests and acolytes and dozens of high-level figures, was invited into cardinals’ intimate quarters, met young male prostitutes, talked to members of the Pontifical Swiss Guard and more. He carefully cross-checked testimonies and verified rumors with the help of information he received from the Italian police.
Over that period, Martel came and went in the Vatican, recorded his impressions, honed his insights. There’s a passage in his book in which he relates how he came upon an umbrella in the colors of the LGBT rainbow at the entrance to the Vatican’s official guest house, and wondered who it belonged to and what it was doing in this holy of holies. In a way, Martel is that umbrella: something whose presence people became accustomed to, to the point where they even stopped asking what he was actually plotting to write. He was thus able to compile valuable information about criminal immorality at the highest ranks of the Catholic Church. About sex parties and drugs inside the papal residence, about the prostitutes, the sexual harassment and also of course about the pedophilia. His findings are harrowing, fascinating, at times amusing – and worthy of being made into a film.
Of course Martel, whose book is exciting, intriguing and superbly written, is not the first person to deal with the Catholic Church in this context. In recent years we have witnessed a growing stream of films, books and journalistic revelations, in the same vein. But unlike many of those works, Martel’s 600 fact-packed pages pull no punches about what, in the author’s view, is a central reason for the immense catastrophe that has befallen the Catholic hierarchy in the past generation. In Martel’s opinion, the direct responsibility lies with none other than the veiled and repressed homosexuality of the clergy, which forces them to live a chronic lie. In other words, to long for the company of men while preaching to their flocks against any such attraction and cravings of the flesh as such.
The gist of what Martel says is that there is a very high proportion of closeted gays among the Church’s leadership who cannot under any circumstances admit their sexual proclivity. On the contrary: They deny it in self-defense, protect each another’s sexual licentiousness, collaborate with reactionary regimes around the world, persecute homosexuals and incessantly preach against what’s considered sexual permissiveness – including total rejection of the use of contraceptives and vigorous antagonism to abortion.
Martel: “On the face of it, we all know, or at least can conjecture, that the Catholic Church, and in particular those in the senior positions of its hierarchy, is a paradise for gays, for the simple reason that priests are commanded to be chaste and are forbidden to take wives. And there is nothing more suitable for a young man who wants to hide his sexual inclination toward men than to devote himself to the priesthood. In the book I explain how this illusory paradise deteriorated into a true hell, into a sinful, wicked Sodom, whose inhabitants found themselves imprisoned within it for all time with no hope of breaking out of the circle of denial and hypocrisy that have seemingly become second nature to them.
“I identify the cause of the catastrophe in the sexual-liberation revolution, which made the Church even more homosexual and at the same time even more homophobic and even more in denial of its own naked truth. I believe that now, with the exposure of so many cases of sexual abuse, pedophilia and sexual corruption within the Church, that it has reached a point of no return. Something has to change drastically. But it’s not clear to me how anything can be changed there.”
This isn’t the first time that Martel, a self-aware person who came out of the closet at a young age, has confronted a similar morally corrupt phenomenon as a writer-journalist. “In the Closet of the Vatican” is actually a continuation, perhaps at a more sophisticated level both in terms of detail and style writing, of his first book, “The Pink and the Black, Homosexuals in France Since 1968,” which caused a storm on its publication in France in 1996. In it Martel deals with the rise of the gay liberation movement in the West and accuses the LGBT community in France of being in denial of the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s. The gay hangouts in Paris were highly profitable businesses at the time; moreover, it was convenient for people to seize on the foolish idea that AIDS was a lie being spread by American conservatives. Thoughts I already had were confirmed when I read “The Pink and the Black,” and were subsequently included in my 1999 Hebrew-language novel “Ziffer and His Kind”: namely, that gays are not more “sensitive” or more “affable” or more “peace loving” or more “art loving” or more “nattily dressed” than others. And, like any minority that feels persecuted, their feeling of being persecuted, and their zealousness to preserve their separate identity, can have a positive effect, but also a very destructive one.
“In the Closet of the Vatican” reinforces the thesis of “The Pink and the Black.” But if the new book also, by its nature, foments scandal, this time it made Martel an overnight star.
Benedict XVI’s despair
That success is not self-evident from the author’s perspective. Frédéric Martel was born into a farming family from a small, unemployment-plagued village adjacent to the Forest of Avignon. As such, he belongs to a breed of people who seem not to have been born to succeed. Only those who are acquainted with “deep France” know how many obstacles stand in the way of a young person who was born in the ostensibly colorful French periphery, and wants to extricate himself from it and bask in the sweet smell of success. The odds are against him, because in order to be counted among France’s intellectual elite, you must graduate from one of Paris’ prestigious high schools, where most of the students are from distinguished families, get through two more years of grueling studies, before being hand-picked to go on to the leading institutions of higher learning, such as the École Normale Supérieur, from where the road is paved to a tenured position in the civil service.
Martel had no chance of entering that respected and predictable track. But, unlike many people of his generation and background, neither did he yield to the stifling provincial life into which he was born. He worked hard to obtain a doctorate in social sciences, followed by a part-time job in state radio, a journalistic position on the online magazine Slate, and a lecturer’s appointment at Zurich University of the Arts, to which he travels back and forth each week. For a time he was France’s cultural attaché in Bucharest, afterward in Boston.
I met him 22 years ago, shortly after the publication of “The Pink and the Black.” He’d come to Tel Aviv as a freelance journalist in order to write a series of articles about the life of gays in Israel. Betwixt and between he wrote books, some of which shook up France, among them “Culture in America” (2006), in which he spoke about America’s great advantage over French culture in terms of originality and creativity. He attributed the languidness of French culture to its dependence on government budgets and the absence of competition for them. That the French readership didn’t like hearing this goes without saying.
Nor are many in the Catholic Church pleased by what Martel has written about the Vatican. I ask him why people opened doors to him without suspicion, and remind him that he told me that some leaders of the Church in France have been spreading a rumor that the book was commissioned by the present pope, Francis, in order to besmirch his opponents in the Church hierarchy. He dismisses such accusations vehemently: “Nonsense. I succeeded in penetrating the Vatican because I am French. If I were an Italian journalist, they would never have shared their secrets with me. I didn’t arouse their suspicion because I looked like a harmless curiosity.”
During the years when he was virtually one of the family in Vatican City, relates Martel, he was a target of lustful glances and erotic strokes wherever he went. One senior religious figure he wanted to speak with scheduled their meeting for the evening and emphasized that this was exactly the time he took his shower. Another one grabbed his penis.
I ask Martel whether the trigger for writing the book was related to his undergoing himself, as a young person, experiences similar to those we heard about in Ozon’s film. He assures me that this is not the case, even though he attended a Catholic school until the age of 13. He remembers vividly the charismatic village priest in his town and writes about him with unabashed fondness in the epilogue. His name was Louis. Afterward Martel learned that Louis was gay and also that he died of AIDS.
Similarly, the book paints a positive picture of Pope Francis. After all, he’s trying with all his might to eradicate pedophilia among priests and to expunge as much as possible the hypocrisy that has become ingrained among the clergy, particularly in regard to homosexuality. But not all of Francis’ predecessors receive the same treatment. Martel aims his criticism especially at two popes who, in his view, caused the Church colossal damage and are in large measure responsible for its moral deterioration, hypocrisy and tendencies toward prevarication: the German pope Joseph Ratzinger, who was Pope Benedict XVI (2005-2013), and Pope Paul VI (1963-1978).
Martel: “When Ratzinger grasped that Europe was no longer buying the Church’s conservative and homophobic views, and that the enlightened West as a whole was moving toward permitting gay marriages, he made a mistake and befriended the worst of the dictatorships, including conservative Muslim countries that persecute gays. That was also Church policy during the era of Pope Paul VI.”
But the steel walls of conservatism were only a façade. Behind them, inside the Vatican, he says, a Sodom existed amid activities “including chemsex parties [gay sex and hard drugs] that took place within the papal residence itself. In my book I write about this episode, which occurred during the period of Benedict XVI and was uncovered in the time of the present pope – about parties that were large group orgies in which sex and hard drugs sometimes mixed into a dangerous cocktail and the guests wore provocative clothing. All that information exploded in the Italian press back in the summer of 2017. It transpired that Msgr. Luigi Capozzi, the private secretary to Cardinal Francesco Coccopalmerio for about 10 years, had been arrested by the Vatican gendarmerie on suspicion of organizing sex-and-drug parties in his private apartment in the Vatican.
“Capozzi, whom the pope greatly esteemed, lived in a wing of the papal residence itself,” Martel continues. “I know the building well, because I dined there many times. One of its entrances opens onto sovereign Italian territory; the other into the Vatican. Capozzi’s wing was thus ideally situated for organizing parties of this kind. On the one hand, the Italian police didn’t have authorization to search it – the same was true with respect to his diplomatic vehicle – because he was situated within the Vatican. But on the other hand, he could leave his apartment without passing by the Pontifical Guard, because one door exited directly to an area of Italian state jurisdiction. Since then it’s all been exposed in the media. Capozzi was hospitalized in the Pius XI clinic and has not been seen in public again. Well, a trial for the use and dissemination of hard drugs hasn’t yet been held, so he is still presumed innocent.”
This is not the only affair that Martel mentions from the period of Benedict XVI. He devotes a special chapter to the pope’s visit to Cuba in 2012. The visit, which was supposed to be a historic event in one of the last bastions of communism, devastated the pope. Backed by testimonies of high-level figures in the Vatican who accompanied the pope on the journey, and offering a vivid, concrete description, the chapter captures the despair that seized the pope when he grasped the scale of the homosexual prostitution and the pedophilia within the ranks of the Church there. What was flagrantly monstrous in the Cuban case was that the Castro regime knew what was going on within the Church and turned a blind eye, in return for the full cooperation of the Havana archbishopric with the regime.
All this led to the Benedict’s resignation in 2013, Martel suggests. A resignation, he writes, that was exceptional though not unique in the history of the Church. The formal reason was the pope’s poor health, but in the author’s view, he stepped down in the wake of the total despair caused by the Cuba visit. Martel goes a step farther. He hints – at first, gently – at the possibility that the tormented conscience of the pope Joseph Ratzinger in the homosexual realm were also part of a “personal drama.”
‘Two worlds of misery’
The chapter that follows expands on the story. Martel recalls Ratzinger’s eccentric attire, which perplexed even the most innocent of believers. For example, the raucous pink costume he wore on a visit to an Italian prison, or his extravagant Ray-Ban sunglasses, the red shoes that peeked out from beneath the papal robe and generated rumors, and other accessories that didn’t clearly didn’t conform with the Church’s demand for modesty among its believers. And there was also, he writes, the handsome young priest Georg Ganswein, Ratzinger’s personal aide and lover. Though in this case Martel is not the first to make his claim. He draws on a previous scandalous German-language book about Ratzinger, “The Holy Sham,” from 2010, by a young Bavarian theologian, David Berger.
Martel also devotes a long chapter to the man who, in his view, was the most abhorrent pope of all – Paul VI, one of the strictest and most conservative leaders of the Catholic Church. In the face of the sexual revolution, in the 1960s, this pope toughened the Church’s stance: against the pill, against masturbation, against homosexuality. But as in many cases in which it turned out afterward that the most ardent combatants against sexual permissiveness were also the prime suspects, Martel elaborates on the rumors and gossip that were rife in the Italian press about a romantic relationship between the pontiff and a theater and TV actor named Palo Carlini, the vigorous denials and the ultimate dismissal of suspicions by none other than Ratzinger himself, who signed the decree that led to the title “Venerable,” and later sainthood, being conferred on Paul.
But forbidden affairs in the Vatican itself are not the hard core of Martel’s book. Far more shocking, though also amusing, is the chapter about how male escorts and prostitutes (Arab Muslims preferred) are procured – from the area of the Termini, Rome’s main railway station – by the Vatican. Here the information is first-hand, Martel having done the fieldwork himself. He explains the method to me: “In order to investigate the sexual ties between Muslim male prostitutes from around Rome’s central train station and Catholic priests in the Vatican, I interviewed in the course of three years about 60 Rome prostitutes, in most cases with the aid of an interpreter.”
From which language to which language?
“In order to familiarize yourself with the world of male prostitutes around Rome’s central station, you need to be multilingual and speak Romanian, Arabic, Portuguese and Spanish. I was helped a great deal in learning about these goings-on by a young man named Mohammed, who in return for a drink or a meal gave me information about what was happening in the neighborhood. Mohammed is a Tunisian who works with two friends, Billal and Sami, as prostitutes in Rome. I had another collaborator, Gabi, a young Romanian sex worker from Bucharest. He told me that from his point of view, the busiest days for work are Fridays, when the priests leave the Vatican in civilian attire, and Sunday afternoon, when the boredom in the Vatican drives them outside. He can identify them by the crucifix around their neck when they disrobe, but also without that – by the stress they’re under. Sometimes the priest takes him in to the Vatican. If the priest is a bigwig, they tell me, he will get paid generously, sometimes 100 or 200 euros instead of the usual 50 to 60. Some of them showed me proudly the phone numbers of the priests they visit regularly.
“I know of four cardinals who took their prestigious prostitutes to mansions or luxury apartments outside the Vatican and sometimes even to the papal summer residence at Castel Gandolfo. Outwardly, all four are totally homophobic, and they also somehow arrange not to pay with their own money for the expensive sexual services – about 2,000 euros per evening.”
Sounds like a well-oiled business venture.
“Let’s say that in general, the prostitutes’ daily schedule amazingly matched the priests’ schedule. Early in the morning, and during the day, I met with priests, bishops and cardinals for interviews. They weren’t willing to meet for professional discussions after 6 P.M. In the evenings. by contrast, I interviewed the male prostitutes, who didn’t start work until 7 o’clock. In other words, the priests were free to talk to me when their hustlers were sound asleep, and my interviews with the hustlers took place when the clergymen were already tired from their daily labors. I needed to understand that these two worlds of sexual misery were mutually coordinated.”
Let’s talk about the Pontifical Swiss Guards. In your book you tell about a guard named Nathanael who opens his heart to you.
“I met secretly with Nathanael – which is of course a fictitious name – about a dozen times. He told me what truly bothers him about his service in the Vatican: the insistent and sometimes aggressive courtship of a number of cardinals. Nathanael is not gay and also not what’s known as gay-friendly. He told me he was outraged by the courtship and even told me the names of the cardinals. He, who vowed to be ready to lay down his life for the pope, was disgusted at what he saw.”
Were there other members of the Swiss Guard who complained?
“Yes. After I left the Vatican I met with a former member of the Swiss Guard. Like his colleague, he said he had been sexually harassed dozens of times by senior Vatican figures. One method, he said, is to summon a guard to the bedroom on some pretext. Another is to leave a gift with a calling card on a guard’s bed. This guard told me that he realized there was no way he could complain about the sexual harassment, because they get threatened that if they talk they will not be able to find work, but also vice versa: If they don’t talk, the Church will help them find a job when they return to their civilian life in Switzerland.”
You write about the Church’s war on masturbation. Can you explain to me the cause of this obsession to intrude so flagrantly on others’ privacy?
“I interviewed quite a few graduates of seminaries. In my estimation, 75 percent of those who attend the seminaries are gay. All of them told me that in our day, masturbation, which in the past was a subject not mentioned in public, has become, at the Vatican’s instructions, a central issue in the training of priests. The reason is no longer the biblical injunction against spilling your seed in vain, but the need to exercise totalitarian supervision over the young man who is cut off from his family and from his body: It’s the negation of personality in the service of the collective. The Church’s opposition to masturbation became an idée fixe, utterly insane, with the result that those who masturbate necessarily live in a kind of ‘closet’ within a closet – a kind of doubly locked homosexual identity. What a shame for the Church, which is fighting masturbation more than it is fighting pedophilia. That says it all.”
Aren’t you afraid of libel suits?
“I have full documentation and irrefutable proof for every claim I make in my book. On top of which every detail was scrutinized by my lawyer, William Bourdon. In some cases he did ask me to tone down overly piquant details.”
I met the energetic lawyer over a dinner that I cooked in Martel’s apartment on Saturday evening. So far, Bourdon said, sighing with relief, no libel suits have been filed by clergymen. During the table talk, which revolved also, of course, around the upcoming election in Israel, I learned that the unusual expertise that Bourdon displayed about Israeli politics stemmed from the fact that his brother, Jerome, is a professor of communications at Tel Aviv University.
The Israeli connection
There’s an Israeli angle in Martel’s book. In fact, it can be said to be a very significant angle, without which the book might never have been written. Martel was in Israel a few years ago to write a series of articles about how the use of high-tech in agriculture. During his trip, he incidentally took an interest in whether there were archaeological remains from the biblical Sodom and where it was located: in Israel or Jordan. All the experts told him that attempts to corroborate Bible stories by means of archaeology will never produce an unequivocal answer.
His personal quest for the biblical Sodom is a lovely chapter – but in the end it didn’t make it into the Vatican book for reasons of length. On the Jordanian side of the Dead Sea, says Martel, he met archaeologists who associated the ancient Sodom with Tall el-Hammam, northeast of the Dead Sea, where they were excavating. Some time later, he visited the Israeli side. Biblical Sodom, on this side, is a distant concept that has nothing in common with the accelerated development underway in the area. He says he was amazed by the moshavim, the kibbutzim, the grand hotels. With Aviad, a local kibbutznik, Martel visited Lot’s Cave and climbed Mount Sodom. And he learned that Sodom wasn’t destroyed because its inhabitants were gay; that’s what the Church teaches, but not what the Bible says.
Nevertheless, he decided to title the original French edition of his book about the Vatican “Sodoma.” Because, just as in the original Sodom, the prime sin was not homosexuality but a general corruption of moral standards that could not be remedied other than by the place being destroyed down to its very foundations – so, too, perhaps, his outlook on the Vatican: a place rife with homosexual activity but where homosexuality itself is not the core of the problem. That problem, rather, is the general destruction of moral virtues, of which homosexuality is just one element, although it’s not clear whether it’s the cause or the outcome of the situation. Unlike the fate of the biblical Sodom, Martel foresees, with appropriate caution, the possibility of repair under the rule of the present pope, Francis, who for the first time has refused to surrender to the Church’s traditional homophobic approach. Instead of rebuking gays, he uttered the very consoling rhetorical question, “Who am I to judge you?”
Frédéric, I think your book should be the basis for a grandiose film that will allow people to see with their own eyes all the unbelievable things that you experienced during your four-year investigation.
“I’ve thought of that. I already have six proposals from American producers to make a film out of it. The problem is that no one will say to the camera what they told me. And certainly they won’t open the hidden doors of the Vatican for me, as they did before.”