Cardinal Spellman’s Dark Legacy

Written by Michelangelo Signorile on . Posted in Miscellaneous, Posts.

Two Sundays
ago the rector at St. Patrick’s Cathedral, Monsignor Eugene Clark, gave
a homily that inspired the kind of PRIEST BLASTS GAYS headlines that New York’s
tabloids thrive on. Standing in for the embattled Cardinal Egan, Clark blamed the sex abuse scandal on gays, railed against homosexuality
as a “disorder” and said it was a”grave mistake” to allow
gays into the priesthood.

It may have
been another trial balloon as the Vatican desperately attempts to change the
subject and scapegoat gays. Or it may simply have been further ineptitude on
increasingly feeble Cardinal Egan’s part, putting the wrong person at the
pulpit while he scampered away to the Bronx amid the crisis. The New York archdiocese
later distanced itself from–though didn’t refute–Clark’s
comments, and a discombobulated Egan offered a bizarre nonresponse when asked
in Rome about homosexuals in the priesthood: “I would just say this. The
most important thing is to clean up the truth. And the truth is I have never
said anything.” (Egan seems just a bit too desperate not to be on the record
saying “anything” about homosexuality, perhaps fearful that his position
might be pointed to, for whatever reason, in the future.)

Clark’s rant was meant to convey, it represents a dangerous path for the
Catholic Church to embark upon, one that will only embolden media-savvy gay
activists–and a press corps much less loyal to the church than in years
past–to begin exposing the many twisted, personal sexual hypocrisies that
envelop the increasingly tainted, lying bishops and cardinals who are running
the church.

deceptions included equating homosexuality with pedophilia, the ugly lie we’ve
been hearing from the Vatican and the American cardinals, both before and during
the sex abuse summit. But 76-year-old Clark also engaged in a larger, less-defined
but more powerful deception. In putting forth the idea that homosexuality is
a “disorder,” and that it is a “grave mistake” to ordain
gay priests, he implied that only the lowly priests–the alleged child abusers
among them–are afflicted with the so-called “disorder.” He wouldn’t,
after all, accuse any bishops or cardinals themselves of having the “disorder,”
nor would he say that it was a “grave mistake” to have ordained them,
would he?

Yet, among
the several skeletons in gay-basher Clark’s closet is that he in fact dutifully
worked as secretary for one of the most notorious, powerful and sexually voracious
homosexuals in the American Catholic Church’s history: the politically
connected Francis Cardinal Spellman, known as “Franny” to assorted
Broadway chorus boys and others, who was New York’s cardinal from 1939
until his death in 1967.

The archconservative
Spellman was the epitome of the self-loathing, closeted, evil queen, working
with his good friend, the closeted gay McCarthy henchman Roy Cohn, to undermine
liberalism in America during the 1950s’ communist and homosexual witch
hunts. The church has squelched Spellman’s not-so-secret gay life quite
successfully, most notably by pressuring The New York Times to don the
drag of the censor back in the 1980s. The Times today may be out front
exposing every little nasty detail in the Catholic Church’s abuse scandal–a
testament to both the more open discussion of such issues today and the church’s
waning power in New York–but not even 20 years ago the Times was
covering up Spellman’s sexual secrets many years after his death, clearly
fearful of the church’s revenge if the paper didn’t fall in line.
(During Spellman’s reign and long afterward, all of New York’s newspapers
in fact cowered before the Catholic Church. On Spellman’s orders New York’s
department stores–owned largely by Catholics–pulled ads from the then-liberal
New York Post in the 1950s after publisher Dorothy Schiff wrote commentary
critical of his right-wing positions; Schiff was forced to back down on her

In the original
bound galleys of former Wall Street Journal reporter John Cooney’s
Spellman biography, The American Pope–published in 1984 by Times
Books, which was then owned by the New York Times Co.–Spellman’s gay
life was recounted in four pages that included interviews with several notable
individuals who knew Spellman as a closeted homosexual. Among Cooney’s
interview subjects was C.A. Tripp, the noted researcher affiliated with Dr.
Alfred C. Kinsey of the Institute for Sex Research, who shared information that
he had on Spellman regarding the prelate’s homosexuality. In a telephone
interview with Tripp last week, he told me that his information came from a
Broadway dancer in the show One Touch of Venus who had a relationship
with Spellman back in the 1940s; the prelate would have his limousine pick up
the dancer several nights a week and bring him back to his place. When the dancer
once asked Spellman how he could get away with this, Tripp says Spellman answered,
“Who would believe that?” The anecdote is also recounted in
John Loughery’s history of gay life in the 20th century, The Other Side
of Silence

New York’s clerical circles, Spellman’s sex life was a source of profound
embarrassment and shame to many priests,” Cooney had written in the original
manuscript of his book. When Mitchell Levitas, who was then the editor of The
New York Times Book Review
, received the manuscript for review, he realized
it was a book that would make big news; he sent the book over to Arthur Gelb,
who was then the managing editor of The New York Times. Gelb assigned
reporter Ed McDowell to the story. McDowell interviewed Cooney, and went about
interviewing others who were relevant to the story, including church officials.

The archdiocese,
however, went ballistic when presented with the information, and became determined
to keep it from being published. Chief among those orchestrating the cleansing
of Spellman’s past sex life was none other than the current gay-basher
Monsignor Clark, who, in an interview with the Times, called the assertions
“preposterous,” commenting that “if you had any idea of [Spellman's]
New England background” you’d realize these were “foolish”
charges. (I guess there are no homosexuals north of Connecticut, right?) The
church sent John Moore, the retired U.S. ambassador to Ireland and a close friend
and confidant of several church officials, to appeal to Sidney Gruson, then
vice chairman of the New York Times Co. “The Times was going to
report that Cardinal Spellman was a homosexual,” Moore later told journalist
Eric Nadler, who wrote a piece for Forum about the ugly little coverup,
“and I was determined to stop it.” Moore told Nadler that this was
the “third or fourth” time he had appealed to the Times regarding
a sensitive church matter. “They’ve always done the right thing,”
he said.

As Cooney
describes it, he was soon told by his editors at Times Books that his sourcing
wasn’t good enough, and that the four pages would have to be cut. He could
keep a paragraph that alluded to the “rumors,” but he would have to
state that the rumors had been strongly contested by many people–even though,
in his research, that had not truly been the case. The discussion of Spellman’s
homosexuality in the book was reduced to mere speculation, which was branded
as irrelevant:

For years
rumors abounded about Cardinal Spellman being a homosexual. As a result, many
felt–and continue to feel–that Spellman the public moralist may well
have been a contradiction of the man of the flesh. Others within the Church
and outside have steadfastly dismissed such claims. Finally, to make an absolute
statement about Spellman’s sexual activities is to invite an irresolvable
debate and to deflect attention from his words and deeds.

The dutiful
Times then had another former U.S. ambassador to Ireland and friend of
the Church, William V. Shannon, review The American Pope for the Book
. Shannon’s review was scathing, attacking Cooney for even bringing
the subject up at all: “Prurient interest in the sex lives of public figures
serves no useful purpose.”

A Jesuit
priest wrote a letter to the Book Review, published a few weeks later:
“Cardinal Spellman’s sex life does not matter, but [his] homosexuality
does… It matters to thousands of people whose jobs, relationships and whose
very lives are threatened because of their sexuality, all the while being forced
to view and eat the hypocrisy of their church. And it enrages people that church
men and women can retain their jobs, hiding behind their clerical and religious
statutes while their own people suffer persecution, disease and discrimination.”

Sadly, the
Jesuit’s words still ring true today, almost 20 years later. While Spellman
has been long dead, his legacy of hypocrisy lives on: there are closeted homosexuals–often
condemning “sexual immorality” publicly while having gay sex privately–throughout
the uppermost echelons of the church today. The gay movement in the past 15
years has taken on the Hollywood closet and the Washington political closet,
both with dramatic success–and both those institutions have p.r. operations
far more sophisticated than the Vatican’s antiquated machine, which can’t
even seem to get the aging cardinals to attend a press conference. The media
these days also has a much greater appetite for exposing sexual hypocrisy, and
is no longer cowed by the Catholic Church. Going down this treacherous road
of increased gay-bashing and scapegoating, the Vatican perhaps doesn’t
realize what it may be unleashing upon itself. If I were a closeted bishop or
cardinal in America, I would be very afraid.

Signorile can be reached at