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Cardinal O'Brien and the Vatican: Sex, Power and the Corruption of the Closet

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Cardinal Keith O'Brien, Britain's highest-ranking Catholic cleric until he resigned last week, now admits that he did in fact engage in inappropriate "sexual conduct" with priests, as the Vatican scandals rock on in the wake of Benedict XVI's resignation. But O'Brien's story appears to underscore a larger, more pervasive reality about the dangers of the closet in society, and how it can be a corrupting force when combined with power, as I pointed out in a post a few weeks ago about former New York City Mayor Ed Koch.

Powerful closeted gay men, driven by an almost pathological fear of being exposed, many times engage in two often destructive activities: 1) speaking out against gays and homosexuality, or courting those who are anti-gay, in a desperate attempt to show that they are not gay themselves, and 2) seeking sex through risky channels, feeling that they have no choice because they're unable to freely have sexual encounters via public, everyday social situations, like dating or going to bars or public places.

We've seen this over and over again: the homophobic hypocrite caught trying to have gay sex in public restroom stalls or posting nude photos online. However, another way that the powerful and closeted seek sex is by engaging in workplace sexual harassment and abuse of men who are compromised (sometimes, but not always, closeted and conflicted themselves) and fearful of being fired from their jobs if they rebuff these sexual advances.

Cardinal O'Brien, who stepped down in the wake of accusations from four priests that he'd made unwanted sexual advances toward them, fits the mold entirely. He was once considered a voice of tolerance in the Catholic Church in the United Kingdom, a cleric who strayed from church doctrine. But clearly under pressure from Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI, he began to rail against homosexuality. As the highest-ranking Catholic cleric in Great Britain, as marriage equality began being debated by politicians, he was expected to speak out against gays forcefully. And that he did, calling homosexuality a "grotesque subversion." As Catherine Deveney, the Observer reporter who broke this story, notes:

This is not about the exposure of one man's alleged foibles. It is about the exposure of a church official who publicly issues a moral blueprint for others' lives that he is not prepared to live out himself. Homosexuality is not the issue; hypocrisy is. The cardinal consistently condemned homosexuality during his reign, vociferously opposing gay adoption and same-sex marriage. The church cannot face in two directions like a grotesque two-headed monster: one face for public, the other for private.

Meanwhile, according to the four men who've come forward, O'Brien made sexual advances during times when he could exploit his role as their superior and mentor. One of the men told Deveney that "the cardinal was his spiritual director and used bedtime prayers as an opportunity to make advances to his young student."

This kind of abuse has probably occurred as long as homophobia has been around. Powerful closeted gay men are victims of society's bias, but they in turn use their power to victimize many others. In my first book, Queer in America: Sex, the Media and the Closets of Power, published in 1993, I discussed a Washington politician, "The Legislator," who voted anti-gay while he sexually harassed and abused his aide, "Keith." (I didn't identify The Legislator because I had agreed to protect Keith's privacy in return for his valuable story, though many publications at the time speculated about who he was.) Keith had found The Legislator inspiring ever since he was a boy and jumped at the chance to work for him on Capitol Hill. Keith was conflicted about his own sexual desires, realizing that he may be gay but not wanting to come to terms with it. He believes that The Legislator sensed and exploited that confusion as well as his role as Keith's boss. Several times Keith found himself in sexual encounters with The Legislator, not wanting to say no to a man who had an influence on his future, while also feeling terribly wronged. He spent years in therapy dealing with the guilt, all the while watching The Legislator (whom he eventually privately confronted) vote against gays.

Stories about the corruption of the closet among the powerful abound from the halls of Congress and the backlots of Hollywood to the power centers of cities and towns throughout America and around the world. While many people are forced to be remain closeted in a society that is still often homophobic, the closet nonetheless should never be seen as a healthy place. It suffocates its occupants and, when combined with power, has them victimizing many others. In the case of Cardinal O'Brien, it's not just the men he allegedly abused who were the victims but millions around the world who are subject to the Catholic Church's hypocritical and virulent verbal attacks on LGBT people.