Inside Father Dinh’s Closet
A glass meth pipe and thong underwear found in a locked closet, a blindfold found inside a nightstand drawer, and sex toys found behind a mirror on the floor. Those are just a few of the items Livermore police detectives removed from the living quarters of Father Van Dinh inside the rectory of St. Michael Catholic Church as they investigated the priest for rape in 2017, according to a police report viewed recently by NBC Bay Area’s Investigative Unit.
Days before detectives served that search warrant at the church, Dinh’s accuser said the priest blindfolded and raped him inside the priest’s bedroom. The former seminarian’s accusations, equal parts horrific and bizarre, were detailed in the police report.
On Monday, Dinh’s accuser filed a lawsuit against the Diocese of Oakland and Bishop Michael C. Barber.
The media account identifies the accuser as “John Doe” to protect his identity. More:
Doe told NBC Bay Area that Dinh, who he considered a trusted spiritual adviser at the time, offered to set him up with a job as a receptionist at a friend’s office. But before going to meet with Dinh’s friend, the priest invited him for breakfast at the rectory of St. Michael, Doe said.
Doe says he was lured there under false pretenses.
“He sat me down in a chair and gave me a gift bag,” Doe said. “In the gift bag he had oils, and chocolate, and underwear. He grabbed me and he said, ‘I want to give you a massage.’ I was frozen. I was in shock.”
Doe says Dinh pushed him down on a mattress, took his clothes off, and began massaging his body with baby oil against his will.
“Dinh was breathing fast and started to say, ‘Woody, Woody, what’s your fantasy?’” the civil complaint stated. “In the past, Dinh had told Plaintiff he resembled the character “Woody” from the movie Toy Story.”
In vivid detail, Doe recounted being blindfolded, having his hands tied in front of him, and raped.
“I was frozen, I couldn’t move,” Doe said.
After the ordeal was over, Doe says Dinh told him to rest in bed while he made breakfast. That’s when Doe said he ran from the rectory.
“Immediately after escaping Dinh’s residence, Plaintiff drove to the residence of another priest and told him that Dinh had sexually abused him against his will,” the civil complaint stated. “The priest immediately reported the incident to Gloria Espinoza, a representative for the Diocese.”
Four days later, the Diocese alerted the police. Good grief, people, what’s it going to take? You cannot trust the Diocese in these matters. Call the cops yourself!
“Woody, Woody, what’s your fantasy?” A meth pipe and sex toys. Nope, no gay priest problem in the Catholic Church, not at all.
I finished Frederic Martel’s supposed blockbuster,In The Closet Of The Vatican, the other night. I wrote about the first 40 percent of the book last week, and promised to get back to you after I’d read the rest of it, which have to do with the pontificates of John Paul II and Benedict XVI. I’ve been trying to figure out what to say about the rest of the book. I was thinking of writing a lengthy analysis, but honestly, it’s not worth it.
The book is a piece of trash, but more importantly, it is a massive blown opportunity to shed serious analytical light on a big, complex problem within the Catholic Church. Andrew Brown’s generally favorable review in The Guardian gives you a general overview of the book. Excerpt:
Although he distinguishes sharply between homosexuality and paedophilia, Martel believes that life in the closet predisposes priests to cover up for each other. All institutions operate on loyalty and fear of scandal, but beyond those factors the Catholic church is full of men who feel neuralgic, he claims, about guilty secrets. Such men need not consciously conspire against the public; they just have an instinctive knowledge that the public need never know.
The most obvious complaint against Martel is that he can’t prove much of what he alleges. He claims to have recordings of most of his interviews: one certainly wants to hear the moment when a prominent conservative cardinal’s assistant refers to him as “elle”. But such recordings couldn’t for obvious reasons be published. Many of his most vivid informants are veiled in anonymity: one cardinal is referred to by the nickname of a famous prostitute, and so on. Perhaps this is inevitable. The gay and honest Dominican father James Allison once said that the Vatican is “a honeycomb of closets” where everyone’s secrets are known, but only to a few.
Here’s what is true and important in the book:
- the priesthood in the Catholic Church has become a haven for gay men
- the respect that ordinary Catholics have for the clergy has been a façade behind which priests — including bishops and cardinals — have carried out active sex lives for many, many years
- Not every gay priest has sex with minors, or approves of such, but the secrets of the closet mean that those who do have sex with minors often get away with it because they are in a position to blackmail sexually active bishops and cardinals; this is where the broader phenomenon of closeted gay priests intersects with the criminal abuse scandal
- Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI presided over a Vatican riddled with sexual corruption
These are things that I, and many others who have read widely on the Catholic abuse scandal, and reported on it, have known for years are true. The problem is being able to document it. As I’ve said here many times, I knew that Cardinal McCarrick was guilty of molesting seminarians (but not the abuse of minors) back in 2002, and had several sources on the matter — credible men, both priests and laymen, who were in a position to know. Not one of them would go on the record, or provide documents to back up their accusations. From a legal and professional point of view, my hands were tied. Other journalists knew what I did, and had to treat these allegations the same way.
If you allow yourself to report anything and everything you hear, and keep everyone anonymous — giving living bishops and cardinals who have been accused false names — then you can say anything without fear of a libel suit. This is Martel’s style. But if that’s the approach you take, then everything stands or falls on the credibility of the author’s voice. The reader has to believe that you, the author, can be trusted. The author is saying to the reader, in effect, “I’m going to take you on a tour of the Vatican’s gay underworld. The only way you can go on this trip is to be blindfolded, but don’t worry, you can trust me to describe the things around you as they really are.”
This is where Martel fails, and fails catastrophically. He is the very definition of the Unreliable Narrator. Look, I have no doubt in my mind that a lot of what is in Closet is true. The problem is that it’s generally impossible to tell what is true, or probably true, from what is mere gossip, and unfounded rumor.
(That said, it seems that Martel is on fairly solid ground in his reporting about the late Cardinal Lopez Trujillo’s brutal double life, and about homosexuality within the Cuban hierarchy — a revelation that Martel indicates was the final straw for BXVI).
If Martel wrote with care or any sense of gravity, the reader would be able to trust him more. But he doesn’t. He writes like a bitchy queen telling dishy stories at a piano bar. He is so driven by his homosexuality that he takes any information that confirms his priors as evidence. Much has been made about his anecdote reporting that the archtraditionalist Cardinal Burke’s secretary used the French pronoun “elle” — she — in referring to the cardinal in the third person. A meaningful slip, according to M. Martel! But a priest who is a veteran of the Vatican told me that “elle” is correct ecclesial French for a cardinal, and that besides, the courtesy title for “cardinal” in Italian — eminenza, which means “eminence” — is a feminine noun in Italian. Martel was so quick to believe that this was a Freudian slip that he didn’t even think about innocent explanations. This is a meaningful slip, all right, but on the part of the author Martel.
[UPDATE: A French Catholic reader says that in French, the word eminence, for cardinal, is a feminine noun. Therefore, the correct pronoun to use in reference to His Eminence (“Son Éminence”) is elle, given that the secretary was referring to Cardinal Burke as an Eminence. Martel is a Francophone, obviously, but not being Catholic, he missed the protocol. He doesn’t know what he doesn’t know. — RD]
And Martel makes his cultural politics clear: he hates JP2 and BXVI, and adores Francis, because he sees Francis as opening things up for gays in the Church. When Francis criticizes homosexuality, Martel writes that off to the trifling prejudices of an octogenerian Argentine, and not to be taken seriously. He deeply believes that Francis is a revolutionary who is going to queer the Church — and that’s a great thing. One interesting thing about Closet: Martel praises Monsignor Battista Ricca, the scandal-ridden gay prelate who was rehabilitated by Francis, and credits Ricca for giving him hospitality and access to the Vatican. Funny, but there’s not much discussion of Ricca’s repulsive double life.
We also get nothing about the private life of Father Antonio Spadaro, the liberal Jesuit who is one of the key personal advisers to Francis, and whom Martel credits with helping him on this project. Maybe Father Spadaro lives like a perfect ascetic. But the absence of him in these pages, except to be praised lavishly, is curious. And you’d think that a book like this would have a lot to say about Theodore McCarrick’s rise and fall. There’s very little. A search of the book (I have the Kindle version) reveals that McCarrick’s name turns up only 10 times in this 576-page book — and each time is only in passing. This, to me, is a dead giveaway about Martel’s agenda. How can you write a book about the Vatican’s closet, and the abuses that emerge from this world, without writing something substantive — or even speculative — about how McCarrick made use of this system to advance his own career? Could it be because McCarrick is a well-known Francis supporter, and that Francis brought him out of the cold, so to speak, and gave him important missions for the Vatican?
In The Closet Of The Vatican could have been a serious work about a serious topic, but that would have required it to have been written by a serious journalist. The book is most meaningful, I think, because it represents a changing position from pro-LGBT advocates within the Church. We are starting to see now — Stephen P. White elaborates here — a new rhetorical tack from the Catholic Left. Now, rather than denying that the abuse scandal has anything at all to do with homosexuality in the priesthood, they’re admitting that it does — but saying the problem is the Church’s teaching condemning homosexuality. One naturally sympathizes with Andrew Sullivan and other liberalizing Catholics who despise the personal hypocrisy of Church leaders who preach one thing in public, but who give themselves permission to live a contrary private life, whether promiscuous or partnered (Martel writes about both kinds). Those hypocrites deserve rebuke.
But the answer cannot be changing the Church’s teaching on something as fundamental as human sexuality, especially homosexuality. I commend to you this long review of the book by Father James Alison, an openly gay Catholic priest who is cited favorably as a source in Martel’s work. Alison endorses the book, and says that Martel is a credible storyteller. Alison writes:
A further point on this score. The subject of the book ― the dishonest living of homosexuality which structures clerical life ― is notoriously an area in and around which gossip flourishes. Discussion of this can therefore easily be dismissed as just that: mere gossip. Martel has clearly talked to many, many closeted clergymen, any number of whom have been prepared to dish on the lives of others (and the others, of course, on them). As far as I can see on reading the book, he tends not to attribute homosexuality or its practice to anyone merely on the basis of the bitchy asides typical of the pre-Stonewall clubhouse atmosphere he so accurately describes. Rather he has sought out multiple witnesses, and tried, where possible, to talk to the subjects involved to see what they would divulge. Forget canaries: Wagnerian divas would faint with envy at how long and how loud many of these men sang. Both by talking, and by trying to press their phone numbers upon the journalist’s youthful male translators.
Sometimes I found the presence of insinuations and doubles entendres in the book troubling, maybe because it reminded me too much of my own experience. I remember a piece of South American gossip concerning a purported sexual relationship between myself and another member of the Order with which I was associated that is, as it happens, untrue. It could quickly have been debunked by anybody who had simply asked either of us and observed the evident hilarity with which each would have greeted the suggestion; or indeed, without going so far, by anybody who knew anything about my tastes. However, the purpose of the gossip was at least as much political manoeuvring as sexual insinuation, and those spreading it had no intention of, or interest in, determining whether it was true ― merely, whether it was useful.
In fact, there is no straightforward way an investigative journalist could navigate the clerical structure. In any “total” or oppressive régime, insiders both survive and protest through humour: I’m old enough to remember the (temporary) collapse of Spanish political humour after Franco’s death. Just so, inside the total world that is the clerical closet, it is difficult to know where bitchy survivalist humour and insinuation end and evidence begins. And therefore where a journalist might merely, and unhelpfully, be fanning fire-less smoke, and where he is demonstrating that something is genuinely smouldering just out of sight.
On the other hand, labelling something “mere gossip” can also contribute to cover-up. As long ago as 1987 I knew, as gossip, what turned out to be true about Father Marcial Maciel Degollado. I knew, as gossip, what turned out to be true about Bishop John Nienstadt a decade before it was established by professional investigators at the behest of Minnesota’s legal system. I knew, as gossip, all about the famous McCarrick beach house long before it was confirmed in the wake of subsequent revelations.
Alison is right about all this. And yet, I simply don’t understand why he finds Martel so credible. Had Alison written the same book, I suspect that he would have treated the material with far more seriousness than the flighty Martel. Alison goes on:
The overall picture that emerges from his book is astounding. I am an insider to all that is described; I have been living with the realities of it all my adult life; I have been trying to speak words to it publicly lo these many years. And yet, I had nothing close to an accurate sense of the size and density of the clerical closet and how much it distorts every aspect of the life of the Church. It’s as if I had perceived an atoll at high tide, while Martel has revealed the volcano standing beneath. Stunned may be a much-overused word, but it’s the best one I know to describe my wonderment at the dimensions of what has come into view.
Here’s an interesting point. What Alison read in the book resonated with his personal experience as a gay priest and “insider” — but at the same time, he says he had no idea about the “size and density of the clerical closet.” In other words, Martel tells him something he never knew, because it resonates with things he already knew. What do we make of that? Again, a lot of us already knew the main claims of Martel’s book. True, I’m a theological conservative, and a particular admirer of Benedict XVI (though an ex-Catholic), and I am the last person who needs to be convinced of the existence of a pervasive clerical closet — and that theological conservatives are in it right along with theological liberals. It is not news to me that John Paul II turned a blind eye to a lot of terrible things — worst of all, Marcial Maciel — though Martel gets no closer than anybody else has to explaining why.
Even assuming that everything Martel reports is the gospel truth, I ended the book in the same place I began — even on the question of the last two popes. I believe that JP2 was willfully blind to the sexual corruption around him, for three reasons: first, because Polish communists used accusations of homosexuality to try to discredit priests; second, if a priest was anti-communist, JP2 could not see beyond that; and third, because he could not bear to face that kind of corruption within the Church. That does not render JP2 blameless, but it does explain why a man of his sanctity could fail so miserably to deal with the evil right in front of his eyes.
On the question of Benedict, who did see more clearly — Martel credits Ratzinger for moving aggressively against Maciel — I believe that he was and is such an intellectual that he did not grasp the seriousness of the situation until he started getting post-Boston information from US dioceses when he was head of the CDF. A Vatican source of mine back then told me that the fax machine at the CDF was “like an open sewer” dumping information from American dioceses into the office every day. My source told me that it’s easy for Americans to think that the Vatican knows everything, but they would be shocked to discover how antiquated and compartmentalized the Curia is. Running the CDF from Boston until his election as pope three years later radicalized Benedict.
But it didn’t radicalize him enough, it seems. Or, to see it more charitably (and I have been told this by a clerical source who knows Ratzinger), Benedict himself did not understand how sexually corrupt the senior leadership of the Church was until near the end of his papacy. On Martel’s telling, Ratzinger decided to resign after his trip to Cuba, and hearing firsthand how gay and active the Cuban clergy are. It was so shocking to him that the pope wept, says Martel. Like everything Martel reports, it’s impossible to know how truthful that anecdote is, but the Cuba part of the book, like the Lopez Trujillo section, is one of the more solidly reported.
The source of mine who knows BXVI told me — this was years ago — that one day he realized that his enemies had him surrounded, and he had no power left with which to fight them. Recall that the traditionalist Catholic press has reported that the bishop who heads the Society of St. Pius X once personally challenged BXVI to use his authority as Pope to end the various crises in the Catholic Church. BXVI reportedly pointed to the entrance of his office and said: “My authority ends at that door.”
Did that really happen? I don’t know. But if it did, then that remark of Benedict’s was an astute, if deeply depressing, observation about how power actually works in the Catholic Church. Or, if one were to be less charitable, it was a papal surrender. I remember hearing that and thinking, “But why can’t the Pope just go out and make a big speech, and tell the world what he’s doing and why he’s doing it?”
Well, if Martel’s book is in any way reliable — I know that’s a big “if” — the answer is that most of the men the pope would have depended on to execute his orders were so personally compromised that they would not have been able to without destroying themselves. Hence Benedict’s resignation. My source — and for transparency’s sake, I’m telling you that this is only one source — said that BXVI hoped that whoever the cardinals elected to follow him would have the stamina and support to clean out the Augean stables.
Back to James Alison’s review essay — which I genuinely encourage you to read. This part jumped out at me. It’s from a section in which Alison tries to “gaysplain” (his word) why straight people are wrong to call for a system in which gay priests live by the same pledge of celibacy as straight priests. He writes (emphases below are mine):
This is where my “gaysplaining” is often difficult for straight people to understand. By comparison with the issue of first-person truthfulness concerning being gay, the issue of continence is, for most clerical gay men, nugatory. In the first place, despite the endless moralistic hullabaloo which surrounds them, sexual acts between consenting adult members of the same sex are about as inconsequential as any human activity can be. They harm no one, and produce neither babies nor any noticeable physiological or intellectual alteration in those participating. There is no noticeable difference between a monsignor who has a “friend with benefits” and a monsignor whose friend comes “without benefits.” Furthermore, if Father X goes on holiday each year with his friend Brian, can anyone say whether they have sex or not? More to the point: who on earth could care! The matter has no discernible consequence.
This is not the same with straight people, where sexual acts can have notable consequences, and where the relationship between a man and a woman very quickly raises questions of justice, given that the woman will likely be the more economically vulnerable partner, and her childbearing years have an “end by” date. So Father Y going on holiday each year with his friend Sylvia, unless she is known as the sort of woman who loves the company of gay men, will raise eyebrows. Straight clerical incontinence is consequential in matters of justice and of reproductive possibilities in a way that gay clerical incontinence just isn’t. This is not to make a claim about any of this being good or bad; it is merely to point out, in purely functional terms, that whether a gay clergymen is “practising” or not may be a matter of spiritual importance to him personally, but as regards the working of the clerical system, it is both invisible and irrelevant.
So, the presence of homosexuality in the clergy is not itself the problem, since homosexuality in itself is no more an indicator of paedophilia than heterosexuality. The question of whether or not any particular gay priest is “practising” has zero impact on the continued functioning of the system of mendacity. No, the really hard nut to crack, the one facing up to which is now ineluctable thanks, among other factors, to Martel’s book, is the issue of honesty: truthfulness of life lived by sufficient numbers that blackmailability by the omertà of badly-lived homosexuality is no longer a real threat.
I want to be careful here, because I don’t want to attribute things to Alison that he does not believe. I am not sure whether or not James Alison believes gay sex among Catholic priests is good or bad. But the Catholic Church has a clear teaching on that matter. If gay priests do not want to live by that, and reserve to themselves the right to do what they want to do, because “the matter has no discernible consequence” — well, they’re wrong. This does have discernible consequences. And it has eternal spiritual consequences, unless the Catholic Church has been wrong about homosexuality for 2,000 years.
Ask yourself: if the Roman Catholic Church were to become in effect the Episcopal Church on matters of homosexuality, would Father Dinh’s meth pipe and sex toys and rectory massages no longer exist? Would the Father Dinhs of the church no longer ask, “Woody, Woody, what’s your fantasy?” because he would have found a nice partner and settled down to rectory life?
The argument that Martel and those like him make is that the closet drives gay men to behave like this. Think about it, though: homosexuality has ceased to be a stigma in much of the secular Western world. Is it the case that the normalization of homosexuality, including gay marriage, has made gay men in general more likely to adopt monogamous commitments? Do we have reason to believe that the end of the closet in our culture — which I believe is a good thing overall — means that gay men who enter the priesthood are going to be committed both to celibacy in their personal lives and upholding the Church’s teaching in their pastoral work?
It’s obvious that what Martel wants is for gay men in the priesthood to be free to live whatever kind of sexual life they want to live, and to do it openly, with the blessing of the Church. But that’s Martel, an atheist. Is that the bottom line here for liberal Catholics, though? What kind of priesthood do they envision if they had their way? What kind of Church? I simply don’t believe that liberal Catholic reformers will be satisfied until all consenting sexual activity is blessed by the Church.
If that were ever to come about, the Church would cease to be meaningfully Christian. It would be apostate. This is something that is happening all over the world today. If the Catholic Church and all Christian churches are going to uphold standards based in truth, sexual and otherwise, then they must prepare to endure a certain amount of hypocrisy in their ranks. Men, even men of the church, are not angels, and the church always and everywhere needs reform. But to throw the standards out because so many within the Church, including churchmen, find them hard to live by can never be acceptable.
I’ll say this, with the gay atheist Martel and the gay liberal Catholic Alison: it is time for honesty, for a true reckoning. Every conservative Catholic I know believes this too. They are sick and tired of the self-serving lies from the cardinals, the bishops, and the priests.
UPDATE: An interesting exchange between Matt in VA and JonF. Keep in mind that Matt is gay and civilly married to another man:
February 28, 2019 at 7:58 pm
Re: . HIV/AIDS still kills people today; it’s still a leading cause of death for young black men in the U.S.
Matt, this argument does not hold much water. HIV is an accident of (natural) history. In another timeline it might never have evolved. Moreover everything we do comes with its own danger. When I got home today from work I hopped on the bike and rode down to Barnes & Noble on the Harbor. I could have been struck by a car or run afoul of some gun-toting mugger– even though I am exceedingly careful and always keep an eye out ahead of me. Such a disaster would not have been a comment on the moral nature of biking.
The significant argument is not the physical danger of sex, but the spiritual consequences of the act…
JonF, I agree with you on the spiritual nature being more important, ultimately, than the physical nature, but both are directly related to each other, and anyway, this isn’t true. The reality of anal sex is INCREDIBLY dangerous. It is not much like riding a bike in a city, even in Baltimore (that’s where you live, right?). It is not comparable to actions that straight people generally take, unless they are IV drug users.
Anal sex involves doing something to your body that the human body was never meant to experience. We certainly weren’t evolved/naturally selected for it. The anus is fragile and delicate (think hemorrhoids) and also highly absorptive (you absorb most of the water you drink significantly lower down in your body’s digestive tract than you may think). Also, gay sex is often rushed, done under the influence of drugs and alcohol, etc. Because of these facts, anal sex is not at all the equivalent of vaginal sex — it carries a much higher risk that you are effectively depositing something directly into someone’s bloodstream. And there are way, way too many men whose very *identity* is that they don’t use condoms!
You *also* have to consider the massive AMOUNT of gay sex some gay men have. An act that is only a little bit risky, even only a very little bit risky, cannot be considered in isolation or by itself if you engage in that act a hundred times a year, every year from the age of 21 to the age of 50. Suddenly that very little bit of riskiness isn’t so little anymore! I feel that well-meaning homophilic straight people just do not, probably *cannot* understand how much sex, and with how many partners, some gay men have. They hear the numbers and just close their ears and assume the person sharing with that highly unpleasant statistic is an evil Moral Majority type making it up. If you live in a big city, it is not difficult to have sex twice a week with two different guys, every week – that’s 100 sex partners in one year. This can become a lifestyle that the person engages in for his entire adult life. And think about how many partners many of those 100 guys themselves each have. And there are lots of gay men who look forward to traveling a good amount because they’ve already banged basically everybody they have any interest in where they live…
Understanding all this, it quickly becomes apparent that HIV was not just an “accident of history.” Gay sex has always and orobably will always, unavoidably, be dangerous and serve as a vector for disease. It is inherent in the nature of the sex act itself and in the nature of male sexuality and male sexual appetites. When you factor in the incubation rate for HIV, you see that AIDS emerged DIRECTLY from gay liberation — it followed on its heels so closely that claiming it was just an “accident” that could easily have never happened strains credibility in the extreme. Gay male sexual liberation in the context of big modern cities ushered in a wave of suffering and death almost *immediately* when you factor in the time HIV takes to turn into full-blown AIDS.
Indeed, I firmly believe that gay male liberation accompanied by a total relaxation of the taboos on anal sex only became possible, even *thinkable*, in the modern way that we have it today once modern medicine (antibiotics) had appeared and was widely available. Because liberated gay male sexuality is just, *at the root*, too dangerous otherwise. Previous cultures that had male homosexuality as a prominent or at least tolerated feature did not have it in the way we have it now; they had additional taboos governing it, specifically governing anal sex, that we don’t really have today. Because it is just so dangerous.
I probably sound like one of those evangelical Christian/Protestant conservatives from 15 years ago who would hold up the pieces of pipe from Home Depot or the “male” electrical connector and the “female” electrical connector, and in an engineer’s borderline-autistic monotone explain why gay sex should not be approved or celebrated and gay marriage should not be legalized. Those people were rather foolish, but they were foolish because they had no understanding whatsoever of what motivates people in this life, how politics and political power works, what makes people do things with their bodies, what motivates 95%+ of humanity when it comes to sexuality and sexual choices. They were rather obviously doomed in their political goals. But they were not WRONG about the fundamental issue. Homosexuality *is* rather obviously “fundamentally disordered”; our bodies are rather obviously meant for heterosexual sex and not homosexual sex. It’s just that it’s fairly crazy to expect most gay people to do anything other than try to make the best of their situation/nevertheless follow their own hearts.
But yes, anal sex is fundamentally inherently dangerous, comparable to IV drug use (that is why the two groups, gay men and IV drug users, look so similar in the epidemiology statistics and public health records).