ROME -- For years, perhaps even centuries, it has been an open secret in Rome: Some prelates in the Vatican hierarchy are, in fact, gay. But the whispers were amplified this week when Pope Francis himself, in a private audience, appeared to have acknowledged what he called a "gay lobby" operating inside the Vatican, vying for power and influence.
Speaking to a meeting of the Latin American and Caribbean Confederation of Religious Men and Women on June 6, Francis discussed a dossier he had received from his predecessor, Benedict XVI. "The 'gay lobby' is mentioned, and it is true, it is there. … We need to see what we can do," Francis said in Spanish, according to a loose summary of the meeting posted on a Chilean Web site, Reflection and Liberation, and later translated into English by the blog Rorate Caeli.
On Tuesday, the Vatican spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, did not deny the reports of Francis' remarks, saying only that he had no comment on a private meeting. Late Tuesday, the Latin American group, the regional organization for priests and nuns of religious orders, known by its Spanish acronym, CLAR, confirmed the remarks and issued an apology, saying it was distressed that its summary had been published on the site.
The "gay lobby" has long been the subject of speculation in Vatican circles, and references to it emerged most recently in juicy, unsourced reports in the Italian daily La Repubblica and a newsweekly, Panorama, ahead of the March conclave in which Francis, the former Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Buenos Aires, was elected.
The reports said that before his sudden retirement on Feb. 28, Benedict XVI had been worn down by corruption scandals -- including what the reports described as a network of gay priests inside the Vatican who used blackmail to gain influence and trade in state secrets.
The reports said that a secret dossier compiled by three cardinals Benedict asked to investigate a leaks scandal at the Vatican last year had revealed the network, which also included lay people who were aware of homosexual clerics inside the Vatican and who were in a position to blackmail them.
At the time, the Vatican Secretariat of State called the reports "unverified, unverifiable or completely false."
To the world's 1.2 billion Catholics, the notion that there may be gays in the Vatican -- an institution that teaches that active homosexuality is a grave sin -- may come as something of a shock. But veteran watchers of the Roman Curia, or Vatican hierarchy, were unfazed by Francis' remarks.
One Vatican official, speaking only with customary anonymity, said he was not surprised that Francis had spoken of a "gay lobby," but noted that the summary lacked "context and tone."
"If you have an institution as big as the Vatican, there are some who will be homosexual, some maybe actively so," said the Vatican official. "But whether there's collusion or internal cooperation, I've certainly not been aware of it."
Others said the remarks were in line with the new pope's emphasis on openness.
"A lobby of those who blackmail each other proliferates if you don't talk about it, if there's no air," said Alberto Melloni, a Vatican historian and director of the John XXIII center in Bologna, a liberal Catholic research institute. "He's right to talk about it. It breaks the mechanism in which omertà favors the use of blackmail. If no one talks about it, it's a powerful weapon. In that way, he's cut the issue down to size and conveys the sense that reforming the Curia is easy."
"This is a question of blackmail and blackmailability, not homosexuality," he added.
Two of the biggest internal threats to Benedict's papacy, including the scandal of leaked documents, were driven by factions within the Vatican who used leaked information to vie for power. Those scandals contributed to Benedict's decision to cede the papacy to someone with greater strength to discipline the Vatican hierarchy.
Writing in La Repubblica on Tuesday, Paolo Rodari, a Vatican expert, said Francis also mentioned the "gay lobby" in a meeting last month with bishops from Sicily.
In the summary of Francis's remarks to the Latin American group, the pope said he was moving ahead with improving Vatican governance, including with a committee of eight cardinals that he named in April. "I am very disorganized; I have never been good at this," Francis is quoted as saying. "But the cardinals of the commission will move it forward."
In its statement, the group said that it had not made a recording of Francis' remarks, but that those present, half a dozen men and women, wrote a summary of his points for their personal use. "It's clear that based on this one cannot attribute with certainty to the Holy Father singular expressions in the text, but just the general sense," the statement said.
The summary also quoted the pope as saying that he had not imagined he would be elected pope. He said he had come to Rome "only with the necessary clothes, I washed them at night, and suddenly this. … And I did not have any chance!" the summary read. "In the London betting houses I was in 44th place. Look at that. The one who bet on me won a lot, of course!"
Gaia Pianigiani contributed reporting.world
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.