ROME—Some might say it was doomed from the start. Even Pope Francis has warned that expectations are far “too high” for his three-day summit on clerical sex abuse being held here from Thursday to Saturday. The mission of the meeting has been clear from day one: to make sure all dioceses around the world are “on the same page” when it comes to handling clerical sex abuse.
But from the moment it was announced last September, just as the full impact of the now-famous Pennsylvania grand jury report sent shockwaves around the world, those with other agendas were booking flights to Rome.
One such opportunist is Steve Bannon, the former strategist and campaign chairman for U.S. President Donald Trump who confirmed to The Daily Beast that he will be in the Eternal City for the summit this week. Bannon is an ardent supporter of Pope Francis’ most vocal foe, American Cardinal Raymond Burke, who is not listed as an attendee.
Together they can be expected to use the sidelines of the summit as an opportunity to rail against what they both say they believe is the root cause of clerical abuse: gay priests. And, while doing so, they will hint that Francis’ perceived leniency toward gay Catholics somehow enables the abusers.
Bannon, a thrice-divorced Catholic, told The Daily Beast last fall that he wants to get involved in the fight against clerical sex abuse. He envisions a tribunal that runs parallel to the U.S. justice system that would not only put pervert priests on trial, but also seek to smoke out gay priests from their clerical closets.
Bannon is offering logistical support to Burke, who is setting up a sort of Vatican-alternative institution for traditional Catholics and political conservatives inside the 800-year-old Trisulti monastery outside Rome.
The whole thing is being set up by the Dignitatis Humanae Institute, which is helmed by Bannon protégé Ben Harnwell, a conservative British Catholic with ties to UKIP, the party that laid the groundwork for Brexit. Harnwell undoubtedly will be at Bannon’s side during the sex abuse summit, just as he is whenever the former Trump strategist is in Rome. The monastery, where Harnwell lives with a couple of aging monks, will host a “university” currently under construction for right-wing politicians from across Europe, Harnwell told The Daily Beast. Burke will be its spiritual leader and Bannon will be its political leader and de facto godfather.
Burke, who has been scolded and sanctioned by the pope on a number of occasions and who has been relegated to the Knights of Malta stewardship on the other side of Rome from Vatican City, recently set up his own website which offers a conservative alternative to what Francis is preaching across town.
Burke and Harnwell, and to a lesser extent Bannon and Trump, also appear in what is likely to be an international bestseller: In the Closet of the Vatican: Power, Homosexuality, Hypocrisy, by French journalist and gay advocate Frédéric Martel, who will also be in Rome for the summit.
The book comes out Thursday in eight languages across 20 countries, and while Martel insists he is not conflating clerical sex abuse with the high number of gay priests, the timing of his book release surely will do just that. Martel says he conducted around 1,500 interviews over four years and 30 countries to come to a startling conclusion: 80 percent of priests who run the Vatican in Rome are gay.
The Daily Beast was able to get an advance copy of the coveted book, which is under embargo in the U.S. until Feb. 21 for those who signed the nondisclosure agreement, which this publication did not.
Martel writes of Burke: “One Vaticanologist told me the nickname by which the American cardinal was known in the Curia: ‘The Wicked Witch of the Midwest.’” And then he goes on to describe time spent waiting in the cardinal’s lavish apartment for an interview that was never to be.
“When waiting becomes awkward, I leave the drawing room at last,” writes Martel. “I take the liberty of wandering about the cardinal’s apartment. All of a sudden I happen upon a private altar in a fake iceberg setting, an altarpiece in the form of a colorful triptych, like a little open chapel, embellished with a garland of blinking lights, with the cardinal’s famous red hat in the middle. A hat? What am I saying: a headdress!”
Such gossip, entertaining as it is to read, proves nothing, of course. Martel calls Burke “a mass of contradictions,” noting none too subtly Burke’s “flamboyant style” and seeming “homophobic rigidity,” even going so far as to write “the lady doth protest too much.”
“He can stroll about in full sail, in his cappa magna, in an unthinkably long robe, in a forest of white lace or dressed in a long coat shaped like a dressing gown, while at the same time, in the course of an interview, denouncing in the name of tradition a ‘Church that has become too feminized,’” Martel concludes. “Cardinal Burke is the very thing he denounces.”
The Vatican will not comment on Martel’s book and Burke’s spokesperson Elizabeth Westhoff, who speaks for the cardinal from St. Louis, said, “His Eminence is unable to grant your request at this time.” The Knights of Malta responded to a request for comment with: “The Sovereign Order of Malta does not act as press office for Cardinal Burke.”
Martel is holding a series of book events in Rome during the summit, which will surely sow confusion about just what role homosexuality plays in the crisis. He is sympathetic to the pope, who he writes is “threatened and attacked on all sides and generally criticized. Francis is said to be ‘among the wolves.’ It’s not quite true: He’s among the queens.”
Bannon and Burke, too, will be holding court with favored journalists to hammer their point that the reason the whole crisis has exploded is not only the fault of gay priests, but the fault of Pope Francis.
The real pity about all of these distractions on the sidelines of the summit is the fact that there are also hundreds of real victims of clerical sex abuse coming to Rome. Some were abused as young boys, others as grown women. There are the children of priests who have been abandoned by their fathers, hoping to be heard, and there are nuns who have suffered in silence and pain for years whose voices are still barely above a whisper. The real risk of failure for this unprecedented sex-abuse summit is that the attention will be focused on Bannon and Burke and Martel, and that the actual victims of clerical sex abuse will be silenced once again.