It is being reported that Pope Francis recently told an audience of South American prelates that there is indeed a “gay lobby” in the Vatican. The pronouncement, if that’s what it actually was, is predictably being interpreted in various ways. Some see the statement as a long overdue admission of a fact that has always been ignored but is hardly a secret based on revelations regarding priestly conduct that have flooded the media over the past two decades. Following the lead of the Italian media, there has also been considerable speculation that homosexuals in the Vatican might well have been subject to blackmail, prompting the pope’s concern because of possible linkages to the recent Vatileaks exposure of confidential curial and papal documents.

Some media accounts also recall the speculation centering on the premature resignation of Pope Benedict XVI that circulated when he stepped down in February suggesting that there might well be some kind power struggle fueled by leaks of information initiated by well-placed homosexuals, forcing the pontiff to resign rather that confront a new scandal that would do more damage to an already reeling church. The Italian iconoclastic newspaper La Repubblica—and also Panorama magazine, which was famously involved in the Niger uranium story—claimed that high-level clergy “united by sexual orientation” were being blackmailed by outsiders linked to them.

It is my belief that, far from speculating, Pope Francis was being precise in his comment.  He referred to a homosexual lobby, speaking in Spanish but using the English words “lobby gay,” as Italian and Spanish speakers frequently do, with precisely the same meaning as for English speakers. So he was not commenting on homosexuals in the Vatican in general sociological terms, nor was he necessarily referring to blackmail. He was speaking of a politically organized and disciplined interest group, and it should be noted that the comment came immediately after remarks about the pervasiveness of malfeasance within the Holy See, a phenomenon that he described as a “stream of corruption.”

I have some additional evidence to back up the interpretation that Francis was speaking about what might be referred to as an “integral part of the Vatican power structure.” There have been a number of homosexual scandals at the Vatican over the past 20 years, but only one involved a senior official close to the pope. That occurred in 1998, when the newly appointed Commander of the Swiss Guards, Alois Estermann, died together with his wife and one of his own guardsmen. It was undeniably a murder-suicide, though there have been books written about who actually killed whom first and what the motive might have been. Most investigators have concluded that Estermann was an active and promiscuous bisexual who regularly had relations with his young guardsmen.

The Vatican police report was essentially a whitewash, concluding officially that Estermann and his wife had been killed by a guardsman who had been passed over for promotion. But papal security officials became concerned about possible broader ramifications of the incident, immediately launching a secret investigation into homosexual activity among both clerics and lay officials living and working in Vatican City. Preliminary inquiries determined that there existed what appeared to be a large and well organized group of homosexuals who networked and cooperated by sharing information and taking action to advance certain agendas. Ironically, it did not appear that the group was involved in addressing or influencing obvious political or moral themes such as the church’s actual position on homosexuality. Rather the “lobby” was involved in widespread corruption, sometimes cooperating with Italian criminal figures to exploit Vatican diplomatic privileges, customs immunity, money laundering opportunities through the Institute for Religious Works Bank, and other opportunities to profit.

Pope John Paul II ordered his security team to intensify the investigative process, to include naming names involved in the homosexual activity, assessing their vulnerability to blackmail, and determining what sorts of documents and Vatican facilities they might have access to. A major European corporation, which was run by a Catholic family known to the pope, was approached to obtain an outside investigative resource, as the Estermann case had revealed that the pope’s guards might themselves be corrupted and part of the conspiracy. The corporation in turn contacted several former Central Intelligence Agency officers who had worked in Rome for advice and paid for the secret travel of a senior papal security official to the United States for a meeting.

The official presented the tentative conclusion that what he referred to as a “cabal” consisting of homosexuals was operating in the Vatican and engaged in numerous criminal acts that were damaging to the papacy as an institution and threatening the credibility of the pope himself. He explained that as in any large organization, the pope was a chief executive who frequently relied on subordinates for an array of options regarding potential policies. If the process for determining those options were corrupted by damaging leaks and other clandestine activities connected to criminal interests, the result would inevitably be bad.

The official asked for advice regarding what might be done to set up a clandestine intelligence-type operation to find out who was involved and what might be behind the apparent criminal connections, assistance that the CIA officers subsequently provided.

There is, of course, no way for outsiders to determine if the Vatican’s initial assessment regarding a gay status in statu was correct, but it appears to have been corroborated in a secret report given to Benedict XVI shortly before he made his decision to step down. The Roman Catholic Church’s position on homosexuality is somewhat ambiguous, condemning the act as a sin, i.e. “adultery,” while at the same time often turning a blind eye regarding it among the priesthood. Any American Catholic official well placed enough to know the facts would quite likely admit that there have been seminaries in the U.S. that were largely run by homosexuals and which were networked with the broader gay community to attract novitiates. Pope Benedict’s own policy towards gay priests was that any actively homosexual man would be barred from the priesthood, though past transgressions might well de facto be ignored.

What is most interesting is that the current pope would refer to homosexuals in the Vatican as a political entity—a lobby, presumably one that is organized to advance its own sometimes narrowly perceived interests. Commentators have already noted that it is unlikely that the mild-mannered and thoughtful Pope Francis will initiate some kind of witch hunt directed against gays, but the sad tale of Vatican corruption is certainly on his agenda, and the two issues might well be inextricably linked.

Philip Giraldi, a former CIA officer, is executive director of the Council for the National Interest.