News Analysis

Truth and fiction in a new Vatican exposé

Frederic Martel

In the Closet of the Vatican: Power, Homosexuality, Hypocrisy is the English title of the major book by the French sociologist and gay rights advocate Frédéric Martel. Written in the classic French style of long-form journalism, with which Anglophone readers may be acquainted but likely not accustomed, the book can read like a meandering yarn.

Martel’s conversational style is that of the raconteur. While he tells a captivating story, some of the claims he advances in the book – major and minor – may be difficult to nail down. Some of the media coverage has also conflated claims of Martel’s interviewees with claims Martel himself advances.

One of those is that 80 per cent of clerics working in the Vatican are gay. That figure is a rough estimate offered by Francesco Lepore, a former priest of the Diocese of Benevento, who spent several years working in the Roman Curia.

There is a good deal that is of interest in Lepore’s story, Martel’s account of which – Lepore said in a piece for the Italian magazine L’Espresso – contains “some inexactness”. For example, the phone call Lepore claims to have received from Pope Francis on October 15, 2013 (Martel gives the date as October 15, 2015), in which Pope Francis allegedly praised the “courage” and “sincerity” Lepore demonstrated in writing a letter to the Holy Father, detailing his story and his decision to leave ministry, part of which includes the discovery of pornographic material on his work station at the Vatican.

In the passage, Martel also recounts that “Pope Francis explicitly thanked Francesco Lepore for privileging ‘discretion’ about his homosexuality, a form of ‘humility’ and ‘secrecy’ rather than a deafening public coming out.” That may be the case, but one would want Lepore to tell us in his own words – and it is the sort of thing that one would like to ask Pope Francis, if one had the chance.

Much has been made of the extensive research Martel reportedly put into the work: 1,500 interviews for 400 hours of recorded conversation with “41 cardinals, 52 bishops and monsignori, 45 apostolic nuncios, secretaries of nunciatures or foreign ambassadors, 11 Swiss Guards and over 200 Catholic priests and seminarians,” Martel says in his acknowledgments. That sounds impressive ­– and about right for four years of work on a single story.

The problem is not establishing that Martel spoke with the people with whom he says he spoke, or that the people with whom he spoke said the things Martel says they said. The question is whether the things people tell him are true.

This is the case on the micro-level, and the macro-level: for instance, with the claim that there is an active and influential gay sub-culture in the Vatican. Actually, that’s the way news outlets reported the claim. Martel describes the thing as a rhizome – a creeping rootstalk – which is a fascinating botanical metaphor. Only, how does one corroborate that?