‘Sickening’ confessions of a Vatican guard
French writer Frederic Martel spent four years meticulously researching In the Closet of the Vatican, a revealing and detailed account of corruption and hypocrisy at the heart of the Vatican. In this edited extract, he explores the deeply secretive life of the Swiss Guards who protect Catholicism's holiest men.
Swiss Guard Nathanaël encountered two problems at the Vatican: girls and homosexuals. The scarcity of the former and the omnipresence of the latter.
I met Nathanaël by chance, when I was staying at the Vatican. I was a bit lost in the maze of stairs and he showed me the way. He wasn't shy; we fell into conversation.
At first I thought that Nathanaël was one of the contractual staff who intervened within the Vatican if things went wrong. The blue overalls that he wore that day made him look like an ordinary Italian worker. So I was surprised to see him a few days later in the red, yellow and blue 'gala' uniform: he was a Swiss Guard! A Swiss Guard with a toolbox!
I contacted Nathanaël again some time later, on another stay in Rome, and then I encountered his polite but firm refusal to see me again. I would later learn that this was one of the rules imposed on the Swiss Guard. For reasons I shall not go into here, he did agree to talk to me in the end, and we developed the habit of meeting at the Café Makasar, in the Borgo, only a few minutes' walk from the barracks of the Swiss Guard, but far from the places frequented by either Monsignori or tourists and hence discreet in a way that suited both of us.
Tall, with a long face, charming, Nathanaël was clearly very sociable. At our initial meeting, he told me his first name (altered here) and his telephone number; his surname was revealed to me only subsequently, and inadvertently, when I entered his details on my smartphone and his mobile number was automatically 'matched' with his Google + account.
However, Nathanaël isn't on Instagram or Facebook, and there is no photograph of him on Google Images, according to a strict Vatican rule that imposes extreme discretion on the Swiss Guard.
"No selfies, no profiles on social media," Nathanaël confirms to me.
Girls and homosexuals, as stated, are the two problems that the Swiss Guard faces at the Holy See. Since taking the job, he has managed to sleep "with 10 girls", he tells me, but the obligation of celibacy is a nuisance.
And the rules are strict.
"We have to be at the barracks before midnight and we can never stay out. We are forbidden to be in a couple, since marriage is only authorised for senior officers, and it is strictly forbidden to bring girls back to the barracks. We are discouraged from meeting them in town, and denunciation is sometimes encouraged."
These prudish obsessions of the old bogeymen at the Vatican bother Nathanaël, who considers that the essential questions, involving the sovereign missions of the Guard, are not taken into account - questions concerning the security of the pope, which in his view leaves much to be desired.
I tell him that I have frequently returned to the Vatican via the gate called Arco delle Campare - the most magical of all, beneath the clock to the left of St Peter's in Rome - without having to show any kind of ID, and without my bag being searched, because a cardinal or an ordinary priest living inside had come out to fetch me.
I showed him a key I had which allowed me to enter the Vatican, without any inspection, when I returned to the apartment in which I was staying. The Swiss Guard was troubled by my experiences.
During about a dozen secret meetings at the Café Makasar, he revealed to me what really troubled him in the Vatican: the sustained and sometimes aggressive advances of certain cardinals.
"If just one of them touches me, I'll smash his face in and resign," he tells me in explicit terms.
Nathanaël isn't gay, or even gay-friendly: he tells me of his revulsion at several cardinals and bishops who tried it on with him (and gives me their names). He was traumatised by what he had discovered in the Vatican in terms of double lives, sexual advances and even harassment.
"I've been disgusted by what I've seen. I still haven't got over it. And to think that I took a vow to 'sacrifice my life' if necessary, for the pope!"
In the course of my investigation, I interviewed 11 Swiss Guards. Apart from Nathanaël, whom I saw regularly in Rome, most of my contacts were made on the military pilgrimage to Lourdes or, in Switzerland, with former guardsmen whom I was able to meet during more than 30 stays in Zurich, Basel, St Gallen, Lucerne, Geneva and Lausanne. They have been reliable sources for this book, informing me about the morals of the Curia and the double lives of many cardinals who have, matter-of factly, flirted with them.
Like Nathanaël, Swiss Guard Alexis had passes made at him by dozens of cardinals and bishops, to the point that he thought of resigning from the Guard.
"The harassment is so insistent that I said to myself that I was going straight home. Many of us are exasperated by the usually rather indiscreet advances of the cardinals and bishops."
Alexis tells me that one of his colleagues was regularly called in the middle of the night by a cardinal who said he needed him in his room.
Other similar incidents were revealed by the press: from the inconsequential gift left on the bed of a Swiss Guard, along with a visiting card, to more advanced passes that could be called harassment or sexual aggression.
"It took me a long time to realise that we were surrounded, at the Vatican, by frustrated men who see the Swiss Guard as fresh meat. They impose celibacy on us and refuse to let us marry because they want to keep us for themselves, it's as simple as that. They are so misogynistic, so perverse! They would like us to be like them: secret homosexuals!"
Nathanaël, when his service is over and his 'liberation' completed, never expects to set foot in the Vatican again, "except on holiday with my wife".
Another Swiss Guard, interviewed in Basel, confirms to me that the homosexuality of the cardinals and prelates is one of the most frequently discussed subjects in the barracks, and the stories they hear from their comrades further amplify the experiences they have had themselves.
Speaking with Alexis, as with Nathanaël and the other Swiss Guards, we mention precise names, and the list of cardinals and bishops who have made passes at them is confirmed, proving to be as long as Cardinal Burke's cappa magna.
Even though I know about the issue, these statements still surprise me: The number of the elect is even larger than I thought.
Why did they agree to talk to me so freely, to the extent that they are surprised by their own daring? Not out of jealousy or vanity, like some cardinals and bishops; not to help the cause, like most of my gay contacts within the Vatican. But out of disappointment, like men who have lost their illusions.
This is an edited extract from In the Closet of the Vatican: Power, Homosexuality, Hypocrisy by Frederic Martel (Bloomsbury $34.99). Out now.