An explosive story last week that Italian police had caught a ceremonial official at the Vatican running a homosexual prostitution ring came as little surprise to many in Italy.
La Repubblica newspaper revealed that Angelo Balducci, a papal “gentiluomini” (an usher who helps greet dignitaries), paid Thomas Chinedu Ehiem, a 29-year-old Nigerian and chorister at St. Peter's Basilica, to procure him homosexual prostitutes.
Italian police stumbled across the ring through wiretaps used for another investigation into Balducci’s involvement in political corruption.
Such homosexual “rings” have been rumoured to exist within certain groups working in Vatican institutions, although very few are thought to be involved.
It may be partly for this reason that the Italian media have already moved on and are more interested in the other corruption charges facing Balducci (he is currently in custody on charges of “management irregularities” as chairman of Italy’s Board of Public Works, something he denies).
Yet many are asking how such a staffer could have been recruited to work so close to Pope Benedict XVI. Balducci isn’t a priest but as a gentiluomini (a gentleman of the papal household) he is a member of a prestigious lay group of Vatican officials who receive dignitaries and heads of state visiting the Vatican.
Part of the problem in this recruitment process dates back to the 1960s. Pope Paul VI, who called the Roman Curia “our ancient and praiseworthy court,” reformed large parts of it, doing away with much of the hereditary nobility that ran it, and making entrance into such privileged positions more “democratic.”
Since then, many of these officials have been recruited on account of their charitable contributions to the church or for other worthy reasons. Of the 100 or so gentiluomini, around 70 are Italians from a variety of prestigious backgrounds, ranging from ambassadors and politicians to notaries and accomplished businessman.
But whereas it was susceptible to the very Italian trait of nepotism, now it is more a case of cronyism, with a number admitted mainly because they were acquainted with the right people.
Many at the Vatican, mostly non-Italians, therefore see reform in this area as absolutely necessary if selection of Vatican staff is to be improved. Others would like to see more root and branch changes take place involving more extensive investigations into other departments and institutions where such homosexual “rings” are thought to exist.
Hopes were raised that would happen in 2007 when the Vatican promptly suspended a Vatican official working who was secretly filmed chatting up a male reporter. But senior officials viewed it as an “isolated” case and took no further action.
Whether Pope Benedict XVI will order such an inquiry now is doubtful; Italian commentators pointed out that the Balducci case didn’t even make the pages of the Vatican newspaper, L’Osservatore Romano.
What some believe could happen, though, is the development of a culture in the Roman Curia in which those involved in any illicit practices feel comfortable coming forward and getting help, or where colleagues feel happy reporting on such incidents internally before they make the morning newspapers.
The church’s season of Lent, a time of prayer and penitence, is now taking place, making now perhaps the most appropriate time to make such changes. But whether the Italians who dominate the Curia would allow it is another question altogether.
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