The news that the UK's most senior Catholic cleric, the anti-gay Cardinal Keith O'Brien, has resigned over allegations of unwanted sexual advances on priests, combined with last week's reports of a secret gay cabal within the Vatican that supposedly pushed Pope Benedict to resign, is explosive. The stunning news certainly bolsters the argument that the Catholic Church is in crisis and that the pope's resignation is reflective of that fact, but it's important to separate the sensationalism in this rapidly developing story, not to mention the anti-gay bias, from the facts and the probabilities.
First off, the idea that an all-powerful "gay lobby" forced Pope Benedict to resign, as some of the international media reports have insinuated, is pretty ludicrous. If there really were such an influential gay cabal, you'd better believe that Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger would not have become pope in the first place, nor would the Vatican be such a repository of blood-curdling homophobia.
But it would not be surprising if there were some truth to the report in the Italian newspaper La Repubblica that three Vatican cardinals conducted an investigation focusing on the existence of many gay men in the Vatican and produced a report on their findings. The Vatican has angrily dismissed the idea that a gay cabal led to Benedict's resignation, but it has not outright denied the existence of that investigative report. If the report had anything to do with Benedict's stepping down, it is probably that at 85 years old, he is not up to the task of purging the Vatican and the church of the secret gays whom the Vatican sees as the cause of its problems (in addition to dealing with the corruption, financial mismanagement and leaks inside the Vatican). But make no mistake: That would certainly be the plan, and, if true, it will be left to the next pope.
In recent years the Vatican has been besieged by gay scandals, which the Vatican wrongly points to as the source of its problems rather than the church's sexually repressive doctrine or its coverups for child rapists. But it's long been known that there are gays in the Vatican, mostly cowering in the closet and certainly fearful of being found out. Over the past 20 years I've spent time in Rome working on various stories, and many gay men in that city know where various Vatican priests go for sex. Back in 2000, during World Pride, which coincided with the church's Great Jubilee, word on the street was that the city of Rome had cut down the bushes at the Circus Maximus because too many Vatican priests were caught having sex in the shrubs. (But not to worry: They apparently shifted over to that old standby of outdoor gay cruising, the Monte Caprino.)
But things went far more public in 2007, when Monsignor Thomas Stenico of the Congregation for Clergy was videotaped by Italian TV, in a sting via hidden camera, with a man he'd met in an online gay chat room whom he'd brought back to his Vatican apartment for sex. In 2010 Vatican usher Angelo Balducci, a so-called "Gentleman of His Holiness," was exposed via police wiretaps as running a prostitution ring out of the Vatican, securing hot young men for a Nigerian member of the Vatican choir. As John L. Allen Jr. at the National Catholic Reporter notes, "it would be a little surprising if [those incidents] hadn't" induced the Vatican to undertake an investigation of secret gays in its ranks.
Now we have the top Catholic cleric in the UK, Cardinal O'Brien, who has railed against homosexuality, resigning over allegations that he made sexual advances on other priests, though he has denied that the allegations are true. The swiftness with which the pope accepted O'Brien's resignation, before the cardinals had even met to elect a new pope, reveals how much the Vatican is deathly afraid of how the gay issue will play out. If the allegations against O'Brien are true, the story would expose to the world the hypocrisy and self-loathing of powerful men who condemn homosexuality -- and blame the ills of the world on it -- while they may be secretly gay themselves. It's unlikely that Benedict resigned because he was pushed out by a powerful "gay lobby"; it's more probable that he's just too frail to deal with this mess.
That will be left to the conclave of cardinals who, in the next few weeks, will elect the new pope. They'll meet to do so in the Sistine Chapel, as they've done for centuries. Of course, that room's ceiling frescoes were painted by the man-loving Michelangelo Buonarroti, who was inspired to paint the muscle-bound figures in "The Last Judgement" by the men he met in Renaissance-era gay bathhouses and brothels, according to one Italian art historian. And it is under those frescoes of male hustlers and gay bathhouse tricks cast as prophets that the cardinals will decide who is going to be the next pope and thus who will likely purge the Vatican of its secret homosexuals.