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For years, perhaps even centuries, it has been an open secret in Rome: Some prelates in the Vatican hierarchy are, in fact, gay. But the whispers were amplified this week when Pope Francis himself, in a private audience, appeared to have acknowledged what he called a “gay lobby” operating inside the Vatican, vying for power and influence.

Speaking to a meeting of the Latin American and Caribbean Confederation of Religious Men and Women on June 6, Francis discussed a dossier he had received from his predecessor, Benedict XVI. “The ‘gay lobby’ is mentioned, and it is true, it is there. … We need to see what we can do,” Francis said in Spanish, according to a loose summary of the meeting posted on a Chilean Web site, Reflection and Liberation, and later translated into English by the blog Rorate Caeli.

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. Late Tuesday, the Latin American group, the regional organization for priests and nuns of religious orders, known by its Spanish acronym, CLAR, confirmed the remarks and issued an apology, saying it was distressed that its summary had been published on the site.

The “gay lobby” has long been the subject of speculation in Vatican circles, and references to it emrged most recently in juicy, unsourced reports in the Italian daily La Repubblica and a newsweekly, Panorama, ahead of the March conclave in which Francis, the former Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Buenos Aires, was elected.

The reports said that before his sudden retirement on Feb. 28, Benedict XVI had been worn down by corruption scandals — including what the reports described as a network of gay priests inside the Vatican who used blackmail to gain influence and trade in state secrets.

The reports said that a secret dossier compiled by three cardinals Benedict asked to investigate a leaks scandal at the Vatican last year had revealed the network, which also included lay people who were aware of homosexual clerics inside the Vatican and who were in a position to blackmail them.

At the time, the Vatican Secretariat of State called the reports “unverified, unverifiable or completely false.”

The New York Times, "Pope Is Quoted Referring to a Vatican ‘Gay Lobby’"