World

Vatican Sex Sting

It's another story the Vatican could have done without. A high-ranking church official in Rome is caught by a hidden camera making what appear to be advances to another man. The scenes, in which the priest questions the Roman Catholic church's teaching on homosexuality, are then broadcast on Italian television.

That's the position the Vatican, still trying to deal with the long-running fallout from pedophile priests, finds itself in after the official, Monsignor Tommaso Stenico—who has responsibility for matters relating to the clergy—was filmed during an encounter with a youth he was reported to have met on a gay Internet chat room.

The priest invited the young man to his office after work hours and, during the course of their conversation on homosexuality, started complimenting the youth on his appearance. The young man told the priest he was "about to commit something with me that is a sin in the eyes of God." Stenico, 60, replied: "No, I don't consider it a sin." When the youth questioned how the priest could ignore the church's teaching that homosexual acts are sinful, the priest cut short the meeting and showed him the door—but not before placing his hand on the back of his leg and saying, "You're so hot." The priest asked his guest not to talk with anyone on the way out.

Although the pictures and voices were heavily disguised by the program makers, who filmed it as part of an investigation into gay Catholic priests, Vatican officials recognised the office, confronted the priest, and promptly suspended him. Stenico has since denied he is gay and has claimed he was only pretending in order to gather information about people he believes are involved in a Satanic plot to discredit the church by seducing priests into homosexuality. "It was nothing more than an experiment," he said, "a study about the theme, and I have fallen in the trap, but I will explain it to my superiors."

Stenico will be given the chance to do that when he appears in front of a Vatican disciplinary tribunal, but his story is unlikely to convince a sceptical public. If he was indeed acting undercover, his superiors probably would have known about it. It's also unlikely he would have been authorised to act in such an underhanded way. "It's hugely embarrassing and outrageous," said one official, who cannot be named owing to the sensitivity of the issue.

The case has raised questions about the extent of homosexuality in the Vatican. Those who dismiss Stenico's explanation believe the priest may be part of a small "underground" gay community of Vatican officials. Some officials readily admit such a community exists, but according to one, "it's not a formal network through which they are able to protect themselves." Others have long regarded Rome as a haven for gay priests, sent to the Vatican because they would not survive in a parish. "Rome's famous for it," said one parish priest in Italy who asked not to be named. "They've got to go somewhere, and so are given something innocuous to do in Rome." For some, that perception was underscored last year, when a senior ranking monsignor was involved in a high-speed police chase after being pulled over in a Rome district known for male prostitution.

In defense of the Vatican, officials are at pains to point out that cases of rogue officials are rare. Vatican staff are some of the finest, they say, both in terms of moral rectitude and work performance. In an interview this week in the Italian daily La Repubblica, Cardinal Julian Herranz, head of the Vatican's disciplinary commission, said his organization is "almost out of work" because there are so few cases. "Anyone can make a mistake," he said. "But the church knows how to intervene." Herranz also described the Stenico situation as an "isolated case." "[Such cases] cause sadness, assuredly, but we are aware that these cases are exceptions," he told the newspaper.

Indeed the Vatican's response to this "abuse of office" has been applauded in some quarters. Father Robert Gahl, a professor at one of Rome's Vatican universities, praised the speed at which the Vatican acted and because it did so "not out of hypocrisy but genuine coherence to her doctrine"—evidence, he said, that the institution is in good shape. He added that the Vatican's decision to allow Stenico to defend himself at a tribunal was "proof of the church's respect for all people, whatever sinfulness or disorders with which they may be tainted."

Nonetheless, some are voicing concern that it took a television program to draw attention to this issue. As with the sexual abuse crisis that broke in 2002, many Catholics believe it shouldn't be up to the media to expose such scandals but for clergy superiors and colleagues to deal with offenders internally before the media gets hold of them. Only when these initiatives are taken at the local level, they say, could the institution truly be deemed healthy.

Ironically, some church officials even believe that it could be good for the church if Stenico's case exposes other gay officials in the Holy See. In 2005, shortly before he became pope, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger spoke about how much "filth" there was in the church, especially the priesthood. He was referring mainly to sexual abuse of minors, but many on the conservative wing of the church—who consider pedophilia to be closely linked to homosexuality—believe he was referring to practicing gay clergy as well. Herranz said this week a priority of the Holy See was to "cleanse itself from within," while respecting human rights and the rule of law. For Catholics disturbed by this case, it could be the welcome beginning of that cleansing.

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