An Italian magazine that went undercover to report on the sexual hijinks of three gay priests in Rome is causing a major headache for Pope Benedict XVI at a time when his record on dealing with the sexual abuse of children by clerics was already an intractable crisis for the Catholic Church.
But in this case there is actually enough blame to go around so that nobody should be pointing fingers.
First off, there are the journalistic ethics of the tabloid news magazine, Panorama
, which published its expose' on Friday. Panorama is owned by Italian prime minister and media magnate Silvio Berlusconi, who has had more than a few ethical
and personal troubles of his own.
But more than Berlusconi, the problems center on the Panorama reporter, Carmelo Abbate, who conducted the three-week "investigation" by using hidden cameras as he followed three priests -- two Italians and a Frenchman -- to gay clubs and as they had sex with other men, including an accomplice of Abbate, a gay man who was brought along apparently to help the journalist's credibility.
The weekly magazine's editor, Giorgio Mule, insists
that the investigation "was not aimed at creating a scandal but showing that a certain section of the clergy behaves very differently."
Yet the magazine also calls the behavior of the three priests "deeply disturbing," and most would surely agree -- and will be tempted to buy the issue, as Mule must have expected. (He did not explain how the cover shot of a priest's hands clutching a rosary and his fingernails painted a bright lavender was not aimed at creating scandal -- or selling copies.)
Secretly filming priests -- or anyone -- in their private lives, and especially while having sex with a "honey pot" apparently brought along for the purposes of entrapment, is so far beyond the pale of journalistic standards that it makes Andrew Breitbart
look like Walter Cronkite.
Panorama offered a fig leaf by saying that it would not reveal the priests' names or any other details about them, but that may not be protection enough for the men.
In fact, the Diocese of Rome, which is headed by the Bishop of Rome, a.k.a. Pope Benedict XVI, is undertaking an investigation to uncover the identity of the clerics and says it will "rigorously prosecute" anyone else who has engaged in conduct "unworthy of priestly life," which pretty much means gay priests.
Indeed, the response by church officials in Rome is another disturbing element of the sordid tale, though it is hardly a surprise given the Vatican's ham-handed media strategy during the past months of new sexual abuse revelations -- reactions that have more often than not worsened the scandal and the image of the church and the pope.
After the Panorama expose' was published, officials of the Vicariate of Rome (churchmen who oversee operations of the diocese for the pope, who is usually busy tending his global flock) issued a statement calling on priests like those cited in the magazine article to come out of the closet and leave the priesthood.
Priests who are living "a double life," said a statement
from the Vicar of Rome, "have not understood what the Catholic priesthood is and should not have become priests" in the first place.
"Consistency demands that they be discovered. We do not wish them ill but we cannot accept that because of their behavior the honor of all the other priests is dragged through the mud."
Under Pope Benedict, the Vatican has taken strong measures to try to weed out gay men from the priesthood, whether they are sexually active or not. Part of this is in response to the sexual abuse scandal, which many in the Vatican -- and the rest of the hierarchy -- believe is due to the behavior
of homosexual priests.
There is little statistical or scientific basis for that conclusion, and it also overlooks two other facts: One, that mismanagement and cover-ups by bishops were the root cause of the scandal of the sexual abuse of children by clerics, and two, that there are many gay priests and bishops -- not a few in the Vatican itself -- who have served with great distinction and as faithful celibates.
Moreover, it is telling that church officials reacted with such vehemence to the Panorama report and not to other similar stories.
In May, for example, dozens of Italian women who have had longstanding relationships with priests sent Benedict a letter
asking him to abolish mandatory celibacy so that they could live openly and faithfully with their paramours. The story made a splash in Europe, but the Vatican largely ignored it. Rome has also done little about the many priests, particularly in the developing world or rural areas, who often live as man and wife with a lover, or worse, those Casanova clerics -- a minority, to be sure -- who have regular flings with various women.
On the other hand, the trio of priests targeted by the magazine have only themselves to blame, and while they are certainly not the only clerics -- straight, gay or otherwise -- to engage in hypocritical hedonism, their behavior has certainly cast another unjustified shadow across the reputation of all priests.
Above all, however, their actions have effectively launched a witch hunt that could result in problems for the many fine gay priests who are serving humbly and chastely -- and perforce in the closet -- and not dancing half-naked in clubs and donning their cassocks to have sex with virtual strangers.
"Gay priests giving gay priests a bad name," as Bryan Cones, managing editor of U.S. Catholic, aptly titled his column
on the episode.
"The problem is that only these gay priests are the news, not all the other gay priests who labor faithfully, honoring their commitments along with their straight brothers as best they can," Cones writes. "We don't hear their stories because they can't tell them for fear of expulsion. And that isn't right."
"On this matter, the church's real problem is the closet," he concludes. "I must agree with the Vicar of Rome that it would be helpful if gay priests would come out -- so we could thank them for their faithful service, especially as they have been unjustly tarred with 'causing' sex abuse. Unfortunately, our church leadership at this time is not creating the kind of open and safe space that would allow for such honesty."