ROME — A gray stone wall on the edge of the northern Italian hamlet of Trento hides a former convent where gay priests say they were once sent to be “cured” of their homosexual tendencies. The institute was set up in 1928 by Father Paolo Venturini to offer residential accommodation for clergy who suffer from any number of maladies, from depression and addiction to pedophilic urges. But in the last few decades, according to former priest Mario Bonfante, who defied the Vatican’s urging to go, they also offered “treatment” for homosexuality in an attempt to get gay priests “back on track” through any number of means.
The atmosphere could be extraordinarily sinister. In 1983, an elderly homosexual priest by the name of Armando Bison, who was there for “treatment,” was killed in a bizarre incident during which two men drove a wooden crucifix into his skull.
Of course the environment is more civilized now, but Bonfante says that priests who came out as gay in Italy before Pope Francis was elected in 2013 were sent to the Venturini Institute to be treated with a type of multi-faceted “retraining” that mixes psychoanalysis with meditative prayer.
Now, gay priests, like the Polish Monsignor Krysztof Charamsa, whose coming out with his Spanish boyfriend last weekend rattled the Vatican on the eve of its Synod on the Family, are generally just sacked rather than sent away for rehabilitation. Charamsa, who was an aide at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, was fired not for being gay, but for betraying his promise of celibacy. He may or may not be defrocked for breaking his vows.
Bonfante’s case was different. He came out in 2012, pre-Francis, and was promptly told to go to the Venturini Institute after he announced that he was a “happy gay priest” on a Facebook posting on National Coming Out Day, October 11. He wasn’t in a relationship and maintained his vows of celibacy, but he was still told to go or to get out. He refused to go for treatment, he told The Daily Beast, which led to his defrocking. “There were two choices: be cured or be laicized,” he says. “I couldn’t deny my true self so I left the church.”
At the time, the Catholic Church under Pope Benedict XVI was a different place for gay priests. It was common practice to refer to the LGBT community as “intrinsically disordered” sinners and all but ban them from the congregations if they were open about their orientation. Benedict spoke strongly and often against the acceptance of gays in the priesthood. “Although the particular inclination of the homosexual person is not a sin, it is a more or less strong tendency ordered to an intrinsic moral evil, and thus the inclination itself must be seen as an objective disorder,” he declared famously in his usual leaden language.
Despite the kinder words, the church still describes gays and lesbians as “intrinsically disordered” in Catechism teachings, warning that homosexuality can never be accepted: “Basing itself on Sacred Scripture, which presents homosexual acts as acts of grave depravity, tradition has always declared that homosexual acts are intrinsically disordered,” according to the Vatican’s Catechism teaching website. “They close the sexual act to the gift of life. They do not proceed from a genuine affective and sexual complementarity. Under no circumstances can they be approved.”
Whether the Catechism teaching will ever be brought into line with the modern world is anyone’s guess, but Father Gianlugi Pasto, who runs the Venturini Institute, says that he no longer has gay priests in residence. “We have had them here in the past, but we are not a convent for gay priests,” he said in a very brief telephone conversation. “We treat any number of maladies, but not that.”
Progress? The three-week Synod on the Family, which has only just begun, and in strictest secrecy, may yet find a way to reconcile the warm embrace of Francis with the cold shoulder of the church. But when fundamental doctrines are on the agenda, it’s probably best not to expect miracles.