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.
How did all this come about? Was there a similar situation in the Church during the Middle Ages, for example? And if so, what’s new in Martel’s book?
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.”