ROME For years, perhaps even centuries, it has been an open secret in Rome: Some prelates in the Vatican hierarchy are gay.
The whispers were amplified this week when Pope Francis himself, in a private audience, appears to have acknowledged what he called a "gay lobby" operating inside the Vatican, vying for power and influence.
The remarks which the Vatican spokesman did not deny and the participants at the private audience confirmed appeared to be part of an effort by the pope to take on the entrenched interests in the Vatican that many believe were a factor in why the previous pope, Benedict XVI, resigned unexpectedly.
The comments appear to underscore numerous reports in the prelude to the election of the pope, that corruption, blackmail and violation of one of the highest codes of Catholic conduct were part of the intrigue that scandalized the Vatican in recent years.
Francis, who portrays himself as a simple pope of the people, has made it clear that one of his highest priorities is to put the Vatican's house in order. He has appointed a group of eight cardinals to advise him on how to overhaul the Vatican, and the head of the Vatican Bank has recently given a series of interviews to journalists an openness unheard of under his predecessors.
"It's pretty incredible that the pope said these things," said Sandro Magister, a Vatican expert at the Italian weekly L'Espresso. "I don't think there's any doubt on the foundation of the phrases attributed to him. Otherwise they would have denied it."
The pope made the remarks at the Vatican on June 6, while speaking to a meeting of the Latin American and Caribbean Confederation of Religious, the regional organization for priests and nuns of religious orders.
"In the Curia, there are also holy people, really, there are holy people. But there also is a stream of corruption, there is that as well, it is true," he said in Spanish, according to a loose summary of the meeting posted on a Chilean website, Reflection and Liberation, and later translated into English by the blog Rorate Caeli.
"The 'gay lobby' is mentioned, and it is true, it is there. We need to see what we can do," Francis continued, in the document.
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 a marked shift from past months, in which the Vatican vehemently called such reports "unverified, unverifiable or completely false."
Also Tuesday, the Latin American group, known by its Spanish acronym CLAR, confirmed the remarks and issued an apology, saying it was distressed that its summary had been published.
Long the subject of speculation in Vatican circles, the term "gay lobby" had emerged most recently in juicy, unsourced reports in the Italian daily La Repubblica and a news weekly, Panorama, before the March conclave in which Francis, the former Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Buenos Aires, Argentina, was elected.
Before his retirement Feb. 28, the reports said, Benedict had been worn down by corruption scandals including what they said was a network of gay priests inside the Vatican who used blackmail to gain influence and trade in state secrets.
A secret dossier compiled by three cardinals whom Benedict had asked to investigate a leaks scandal at the Vatican last year had revealed the network, which also included lay people who were aware of gay clerics inside the Vatican and who were in a position to blackmail them, the reports said.
Veteran watchers of the Roman Curia were unfazed by Francis' remarks. One Vatican official, speaking on the traditional condition of 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," the official said. "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 Foundation for Religious Studies in Bologna, Italy, 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 so-called Vatileaks 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 retire.
Writing in La Repubblica on Tuesday, Vatican expert Paolo Rodari said that Francis had also mentioned the gay lobby in a meeting last month with bishops from Sicily.
In the summary of Francis' remarks to the Latin American religious, the pope said he was moving ahead with improving Vatican governance, including with the 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, CLAR added that it had not made a recording of Francis' remarks but that those present, a half-dozen men and women, had written 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.