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Vatican denounces reports of gay sex scandal

Allegations of blackmail, prostitution as pope steps down

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Catholic Church, Keith Michael Patrick O'Brien, gay news, Washington Blade
Catholic Church, Keith Michael Patrick O'Brien, gay news, Washington Blade

Cardinal Keith Michael Patrick O’Brien (Photo public domain)

Vatican officials this week denounced reports in the Italian press that an underground network of gay priests assigned to the Vatican organized meetings for sex and may have been subjected to blackmail.

Criticism of the press reports by a high-level Vatican spokesperson came less than a week before yet another gay-related scandal hit the Catholic Church – this time in Scotland.

British Cardinal Keith O’Brien, who has called same-sex marriage “grotesque,” announced he decided to step down a month ahead of previously announced retirement plans after allegations surfaced on Feb. 23 that he engaged in “intimate” acts with priests in the 1980s.

O’Brien denied the allegations but said on Monday he cancelled his trip to Rome this week, where he was expected to participate in the selection of a new pope. He said he didn’t want the allegations against him to overshadow the conclave of cardinals set to convene within the next week.

The Vatican immediately accepted his decision to step down from his church duties, which it viewed as a resignation.

News of the alleged network of gay priests at the Vatican surfaced last week when the Italian newspaper La Repubblica and the Italian news magazine Panorama reported that Pope Benedict XVI announced his resignation on the same day he learned of the allegations.

In a development that created an uproar at the Vatican, La Repubblica reported it received detailed information about a 300-page Vatican report prepared by three cardinals who uncovered the network of gay priests during a nine-month internal Vatican investigation.

Among other things, the report says the investigation discovered a “faction” within the Vatican “united by sexual orientation,” according to La Repubblica.

The newspaper said it had no confirmation that Benedict based his decision to resign solely on the explosive findings of the investigation. But it reported sources as saying Benedict planned to keep the findings confidential and decided to leave it up to his successor to determine how to address the matter.

“It was on that day, with those papers on his desk, that Benedict XVI took the decision he had mulled over for so long,” La Repubblica reported in its Feb. 21 edition while discussing Benedict’s resignation.

Vatican officials have since confirmed that the investigation took place but have refused to comment on its findings. Vatican spokesperson Rev. Federico Lombardi acknowledged the reports by La Repubblica and Panorama that the investigation was launched last May after one of the pope’s butlers was arrested for allegedly stealing papal correspondence and leaking it to the media.

La Repubblica reported several other findings of the investigation, including problems associated with the Vatican bank. Vatican observers in Italy speculated that various rival factions of cardinals and other Vatican officials were likely responsible for leaked information about the investigative report.

Efforts to portray rivals in a negative light are “part of the great game of the conclave, whose tools include political attacks and efforts to condition consensus,” Vatican observer and author Alberto Melloni of Bologna, Italy, told the New York Times.

Other observers have said intrigue and infighting that sometimes takes place in the process of selecting a Pope appears to be occurring at a greater intensity this time, as conservative and more progressive factions of cardinals line up behind different candidates under consideration for the papacy.

The Vatican’s Secretariat of State, its highest office, issued a statement on Feb. 23 denouncing the press accounts of the contents of the investigative report or “dossier” as “unverified, unverifiable or completely false news stories.”

In a separate statement, the Vatican said Benedict dissolved the three-cardinal investigative committee on Monday and expressed “satisfaction for the results of this investigation,” according to a report by the Washington Post.

“The Holy Father has decided that the acts of this investigation, known only to himself, remain solely at the disposition of the new Pope,” the Post quoted the statement as saying.

La Repubblica reported that the investigation uncovered an underground network of gays working at the Vatican who organized “sexual meetings” in several locations, including a sauna in Rome, a private villa just outside Rome, and a beauty salon inside the Vatican.

The newspaper also reported the investigation found some of the gay priests may have been subjected to blackmail by men not associated with the Vatican with whom they had “worldly” relations.

“When you have this culture of secrecy and guilt and repression you have conditions which foster the potential for blackmail and for manipulation,” said gay British journalist and former priest Mark Dowd in an interview with CNN.

The cardinals who headed the Vatican investigation have been identified as Julian Herranz of Spain; Jozef Tomko of Slovakia; and Salvatore De Giorgi, the former archbishop of Palermo.

The British newspaper The Guardian broke the story about Cardinal O’Brien’s alleged “gay” scandal in a story in its Feb. 23 edition.

According to The Guardian, three priests and a former priest, all from Scotland, filed a complaint against O’Brien with the Vatican’s ambassador to Britain one week before Benedict announced his resignation.

One of the complainants, The Guardian reports, charges that O’Brien “developed an inappropriate relationship with him, resulting in a need for long-term psychological counseling.”

Another, identified only as “Priest A,” described being visited by O’Brien and “inappropriate contact between the two took place,” the newspaper reported. “Priest B” claims he was invited to spend a week at the then archbishop’s residence, where he encountered “unwanted behavior by the cardinal after a late-night drinking session.”

The Guardian said “Priest C” had been seeing O’Brien for counseling over personal problems and alleges that O’Brien “used night prayers as an excuse for inappropriate contact.”

The four who filed the complaint called on the Vatican ambassador to take steps to prevent O’Brien from going to Rome to participate in the conclave to select a new pope, saying the papal selection process would be tainted if the cardinal was part of it.

O’Brien, who announced he had cancelled his trip to Rome the day after The Observer published its story, said he would obtain legal counsel to fight the allegations, which his accusers say took place in the 1980s.

The press reports about the alleged network of gay priests at the Vatican reportedly involved consenting adults, and the allegations against O’Brien involved adult victims. But the revelations of these developments prompted news media outlets in the U.S. and Europe to bring up longstanding allegations of the sexual abuse of children by pedophile priests that have plagued the Catholic Church for more than two decades.

Organizations representing victims of sexual abuse by priests have called on the Vatican to bar cardinals in the U.S. and elsewhere from participating in the selection of a new pope if they knew about priests that sexually abused juveniles but did not act to stop the abuse.

Francis DeBernardo, executive director of New Ways Ministry, a Maryland-based group that advocates for LGBT equality within the Catholic Church, told the Blade the unfolding gay sex scandal, if true, is due in part to the Vatican’s harsh position on homosexuality.

“They have created a situation where people can’t express their sexuality in healthy ways,” he said. “They can’t even deal with their sexuality in the open. So it creates a climate of suspicion and a climate of fear.”

Jeannine Gramick is a Roman Catholic nun who co-founded New Ways Ministry and serves as national coordinator for the National Coalition of American Nuns. She told the Blade she is hopeful that the scandal would nudge the church into adopting a more tolerant position on gays.

“I think the impact it should have is to point out the hypocrisy of having a very negative stance about homosexual activity between loving persons and the private secret condoning of activity that is not in the context of a committed relationship,” she said.

“So my hope is that it will bring about a re-examination of the church’s approach to sexuality to become more realistic and honest,” Gramick said.

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Federal Government

Attorney details the harms of waiving anti-discrimination rules for religious universities

Incentives aligned for continuation of anti-LGBTQ discrimination

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The Lyndon Baines Johnson Building, Washington D.C., headquarters of the U.S. Department of Education (Photo Credit: GSA/U.S. Dept. of Education)

Democratic lawmakers re-introduced the Tyler Clementi Higher Education Anti-Harassment Act on Friday, which marked the 13th anniversary of the 18-year-old New Jersey college student’s death by suicide after he was targeted with homophobic harassment by his peers.

The bill, which establishes cyberbullying as a form of harassment, directing colleges and universities to share anti-harassment policies to current and prospective students and employees, was introduced by U.S. Senators Tammy Baldwin (Wis.) and Patty Murray (Wash.), along with U.S. Rep. Mark Pocan (Wis.), Chair of the Congressional Equality Caucus.

Advocacy groups including the Tyler Clementi Foundation, the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, and The Trevor Project have endorsed the legislation, which comes as issues concerning anti-LGBTQ harassment in institutions of higher education have earned renewed scrutiny on Capitol Hill and beyond.

Earlier this month, the Washington Blade connected with an expert to discuss these and other subjects: Paul Southwick, a Portland, Oregon-based litigation attorney who leads a legal advocacy group focused on religious institutions of higher education and their treatment of LGBTQ and other marginalized communities.

On Tuesday, he shared a statement responding to Friday’s reintroduction of the Tyler Clementi bill, stressing the need for equal enforcement of its provisions in light of efforts by conservative Christian schools to avoid oversight and legal liability for certain federal civil rights regulations:

“We are still evaluating the bill regarding how the bill would interact with the religious exemption in Title IX,” Southwick said. “We fully support the expansion of anti-harassment protections for students and corresponding requirements for educational institutions.”

He added, “We also believe that such protections and requirements should extend to students at taxpayer funded, religiously affiliated educational institutions, regardless of whether those institutions claim, or receive, an assurance of religious exemption from Title IX regulations” through the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights.

Baylor University’s unprecedented Title IX exemption

In response to a request from Baylor University, a conservative Baptist college located in Waco, Texas, the Education Department in July granted a first of its kind religious-based exemption from federal regulations governing harassment, a form of sex-based discrimination proscribed under Title IX.

Southwick explained that during the Obama administration, the federal government began to understand and recognize discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity as forms of sex-based discrimination covered by the statute. The Biden-Harris administration issued a directive for the Education Department to formalize the LGBTQ inclusive definitions under Title IX, with a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking that is now underway at the agency.

Beginning with the Department’s 2010 “dear colleague” letter clarifying the administration’s view that discrimination against LGBTQ people constitutes sex-based discrimination under the law, Southwick said the pushback from religious schools was immediate. In the years since, many have successfully petitioned the Education Department for “exemptions so they can discriminate against queer, trans and non-binary people,” but these carveouts were limited “to things like admissions, housing, athletics.”

No one had argued that “federally funded educational institutions [should] have no regulation by the federal government as to whether they’re protecting their students from harassment,” he remarked – at least not until the Baylor case.

Addressing the unprecedented move in a letter to the Department on September 5, U.S. Reps. Mark Takano (D-Calif.), Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), Greg Casar (D-Texas), Joaquin Castro (D-Texas), and Veronica Escobar (D-Texas) urged the agency to “clarify the narrow scope of this exemption and assure students at religious institutions that they continue to have protections against sex-based harassment.”

Southwick told the Blade other members of Congress have expressed an interest in the matter, as have some progressive nonprofit groups.

Asked for comment, a spokesperson for the Department confirmed receipt of the lawmakers’ letter and said the agency will respond to the members.

The Department’s issuance of the exemption to Baylor came despite an open investigation into the university by its Office of Civil Rights over a Title IX complaint brought in 2021 by Southwick’s organization, the Religious Exemption Accountability Project (REAP), on behalf of a queer student who claimed she was subjected to homophobic abuse from other students while university officials to whom she reported the harassment failed to intervene.

It is not yet clear whether the agency will close its investigation as a result of its decision to exempt Baylor from Title IX’s harassment rules.

Veronica Bonifacio Penales, the student behind the complaint against Baylor, is also a plaintiff in REAP’s separate class action lawsuit challenging the Education Department’s practice of waving Title IX rules for faith-based colleges and universities – which, the plaintiffs argue, facilitates anti-LGBTQ discrimination in violation of the 14th Amendment’s equal protection clause.

The case, Hunter v. U.S. Department of Education, is on appeal before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit.

Other religious schools are likely to follow Baylor’s lead

Southwick said the agency’s decision in the Baylor case “puts students at risk of harassment without a civil remedy against their school’s failures to properly address harassment,” adding, “Taxpayer funded educational institutions, whether religious or secular, should never be permitted to escape oversight from OCR in how they handle anti-harassment claims from LGBTQIA+ or other students protected by federal non-discrimination law.”

Buoyed by Baylor’s successful effort, requesting exemptions to Title IX rules for purposes of allowing the harassment of LGBTQ students, faculty, and staff is likely to become routine practice for many of America’s conservative institutions of higher education, Southwick said.

The nonprofit group Campus Pride maintains a list of America’s “absolute worst, most unsafe campuses for LGBTQ youth,” schools that “received and/or applied for a Title IX exemption to discriminate against LGBTQ youth, and/or demonstrated past history and track record of anti-LGBTQ actions, programs and practices.”

193 colleges and universities have met the criteria.

Many of the thousands of LGBTQ students enrolled in these institutions often have insufficient support, Southwick said, in part because “a lot of the larger civil rights organizations and queer rights organizations are very occupied, and rightly so, with pushing back against anti-trans legislation in the public sphere.”

Regardless, even in America’s most conservative schools like Bob Jones University in Greenville, South Carolina, Liberty University in Lynchburg, Virginia, and Hillsdale College in Hillsdale, Michigan, Southwick noted that pro-equality students, faculty, and staff have pushed for change.

He added that while there are, no doubt, young people who harbor anti-LGBTQ views, “they often become much more progressive the longer they’re in school, because there’s just queer people coming out everywhere, you know, and it’s hard to hate people who are your friends.”

The powerful influence and role of financial incentives  

Southwick said meaningful reform at the institutional level is made more difficult by the reality that “financial incentives from the government and from the market are aligned to favor the continuation of discrimination.”

“Once the money stops flowing, they will almost all instantly change their policies and start protecting queer students,” he said, but added that colleges and universities have little reason to change without the risk that discriminatory policies and practices will incur meaningful consequences, like the loss of government funding and accreditation.

Another challenge, Southwick said, is the tendency of institutions of higher education to often prioritize the wishes and interests of moneyed alumni networks, boards of trustees, and donors, groups that generally skew older and tend to be more conservative.

Southwick said when he and his colleagues at REAP discuss proposed pro-LGBTQ reforms with contacts at conservative religious universities, they are warned “over and over again,” that “donors will be angry.”

Following the establishment of nationwide prohibitions against segregation and other forms of racial discrimination with passage of the federal 1964 Civil Rights Act and the U.S. Supreme Court’s decisions in Brown v. Board of Education (1954), which applied to public schools, and Runyon v. McCrary (1976), which covered private schools, Southwick noted that “A lot of Christian schools and college colleges continued to deny admission to black students.”

One by one, however, the so-called “segregation academies” would permanently close their doors or agree to racial integration, Southwick said – buckling under pressure from the U.S. government’s categorical denial of federal funding to these institutions, coupled with other factors like the decision of many professional associations to deny membership to their professors and academics.

Another important distinction, Southwick added: unlike Title IX, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 “does not have a religious exemption.”

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Africa

South African police arrest seven men linked to kidnapping of Grindr users

Advocacy groups welcomed arrests, urged authorities to investigate other cases

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(Photo by Rarraroro via Bigstock)

South African LGBTQ organizations have welcomed the arrest of seven suspects linked to a series of kidnappings liked to Grindr.

Several Grindr users in South Africa in recent months have been kidnapped for ransom through the dating app.

The South African Police Service said the seven suspects were arrested following an investigation into the kidnapping of an 18-year-old Wits University student on Sept. 19.

SAPS said suspects demanded $1,500 for the student’s release. Authorities set up a sting operation and a breakthrough came on Sept. 20 when they identified an ATM where one of the suspects was expected to withdraw the ransom money. Officers placed one of the suspects under arrest as soon as he arrived, and he agreed to show them where the victim was being held captive.

“The student was reported missing the same day by his roommate. It is reported that he was lured to the suspects through a dating site called Grindr,” said SAPS spokesperson Brenda Muridili. “Afterwards, the police conducted surveillance and arrested one suspect as soon as he arrived. He then led the authorities to the Denver Men’s Hostel (in Johannesburg), where they discovered the 18-year-old victim bound and unconscious. Six additional suspects were apprehended, and the victim was rushed to the hospital for medical attention.” 

Muridili also said there is a high possibility that the suspects are further linked to 86 similar Grindr-related cases.

“We cannot rule out the possibility because this is not the first case of its kind,” said Muridili. “We have several cases that are being investigated.”

Access Chapter 2 Media Liaison Officer Mpho Buntse said the organization welcomed the arrest, but it still worried about why such incidents continue to take place.

“We congratulate SAPS in Johannesburg for acting swiftly in arresting seven homophobes who have been using Grindr, to terrorize and torture their victims. We believe that this arrest is a firm demonstration of the force’s commitment to confront crimes of this nature. As an organization, we have been vocal in calling for swift action, as many of these cases have been reported to the organization,” said Buntse. “However, we are deeply concerned at the sporadic nature of these syndicates. Not so long ago, we celebrated the arrest of the initial Grindr kidnapping and extortion group in the area of Johannesburg, which gave rise to this newly arrested group. It raises a sharp concern as to why these groups keep emerging.”

Gauteng Police in February arrested four men who they say used Grindr to extort and victimize LGBTQ people.

“We continue to call upon members of the community, gay men in particular to limit the use of the application where it poses threats, we further acknowledge the erotic justice due to queer persons and the freedom to associate without fear and prejudice,” said Buntse. “We also commend Grindr for listening to the call to strengthen the safety of the app.”

Out Human Rights Coordinator Sibonelo Ncanana echoed Buntse, but questioned why the police are not actively investigating similar cases in other provinces.

“We are happy that seven suspects have been arrested but we need that same swiftness that happened in Gauteng to also transpire in other provinces because there are other similar cases that have not been solved or investigated that involve Grindr,” said Ncanana. “This worries us a lot but we are grateful and appreciate the swift response of the police hopefully it will extend to other provinces.” 

Ruth Maseko of the Triangle Project said LGBTQ people continue to be targeted because of their place in society, even though Grindr and other dating apps have issued warnings to their users.

“Although no dating app is necessarily safe, LGBTIQ persons can be viewed by prospective suspects as easy targets because of the stigma surrounding orientation and identity,” said Maseko. “This means that it may be the thinking of perpetrators that LGBTIQ people will not report these incidents and give in to extortion.”

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Virginia

New campaign challenges Va. guidelines for transgender, nonbinary students

Students4Trans planning rallies, walkouts across the state

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Students and Pride Liberation Project supporters hold signs supporting transgender rights at Luther Jackson Middle School in Falls Church, Va., during a Fairfax County School Board meeting in 2022. (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

A group of Virginia students have launched a campaign that challenges the state’s new guidelines for transgender and nonbinary students.

The Pride Liberation Project on Sept. 20 announced the formation of Students4Trans.

Students4Trans held a rally outside the Virginia Department of Education in Richmond on Sept. 22. Another rally will take place during the Virginia Beach School Board meeting on Tuesday.

The Virginia Department of Education in July announced the new guidelines for which Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin asked. The regulations, among other things, require parents to be informed of a student’s name and pronoun change, with the exception of “imminent risk of suicide related to parental abuse or neglect.” 

Arlington County Public Schools, Fairfax County Public Schools and Prince William County Schools are among the school districts that have refused to implement the guidelines. 

The Spotsylvania County School Board announced last month that students are required to use the bathroom that aligs with their assigned sex, and parents could choose the names and pronouns their children use at school. Two parents in Virginia Beach have filed a lawsuit that seeks to force the city’s school district to implement the new guidelines for transgender and nonbinary students.

Students4Trans has organized a student walkout on Friday to protest the Spotsylvania County School Board’s new policies.

Michael K. Lavers contributed to this story.

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