- The cathartic memoirs of a Catholic writer whose
life was blighted by an amoral 'Iago' at the heart of the Holy See...
- Stepping from the plane at Heathrow, everything was right.
Robert B. Kaiser gleamed with success. A young American with perfect teeth
and reason to smile. A limousine waiting to take him to a suite at the
Hilton. Television and radio stations clamouring for interviews. Newspapers
heaping praise. Fame and fortune dangled and it seemed just a matter of
- It was June 1963 and Kaiser was a new species of celebrity.
He had no Hollywood blockbuster to promote. No single in the charts to
challenge the Beatles. He had a book. About the Vatican. Not a kiss and
tell - a serious book, because he was the Vatican correspondent for Time
- The limousine crawled through London traffic slow enough
for Kaiser to spot a poster at a news stand. In big black letters: 'The
move to thwart Pope John.' In slightly smaller letters: 'Exclusive to The
Observer - by Robert Blair Kaiser.'
- The posters were all over London, in the Underground,
at bus stops, billboards.
- The Observer had snapped up his book's serialisation
rights, for Kaiser had the scoop of a battle between conservatives and
progressives raging inside the Roman Catholic church at a turning point
in its history.
- Barely in his thirties and a latecomer to journalism,
Kaiser's contacts were unsurpassed. He had interviewed Pope John XXIII,
hosted cardinals and bishops at his apartment in Rome, become a confidant
of key officials. For those seeking the inside story, Kaiser was aptly
named. He was king of the Vatican.
- 'I should have grabbed one of those Observer posters
but I didn't do it. I was young and thought that sort of success happened
all the time. I've been waiting for it since,' he said last week, now aged
71. 'The pride before the fall.'
- What happened after he returned to Rome is an extraordinary
story kept secret until now. One of Kaiser's best informants, an Irish
priest, had seduced his wife. His adoring, Catholic, pregnant wife.
- Or had he? Kaiser, tormented, was sent to a psychiatric
hospital and treated for paranoia. Except he wasn't paranoid. The priest
was having an affair - and had manipulated senior clerics into dispatching
Kaiser to the hospital so he could move into the journalist's apartment
and marital bed, sleep in his red nightshirt and commit adultery with his
- For decades rumours have breezed through the Vatican's
marbled corridors and now at last the truth is about to explode, just as
the Catholic church in the US is reeling from sex scandals and, in the
case of the Boston archdiocese, challenging the rule on priestly celibacy.
- Kaiser, now the Vatican correspondent for Newsweek, has
revealed everything in a cathartic memoir, Clerical Error: A True Story,
to be published next month in the US. It reads like a Shakespearean saga
of innocence, ambition, betrayal, farce and tragedy, all are played out
amid the convulsions of a church breaking with the past.
- Witnesses have confirmed the story. 'Having known most
of the dramatis personae, I read this true story with undivided interest
and compassion,' the renowned theologian Hans Kung says.
- It starts just after the Second World War when the teenage
Kaiser left Arizona for a sun-soaked California seminary for Jesuits. Resentful
at his parents' divorce, he idolised the Jesuits, the shock troops of the
Catholic church, an order famed for their learning, courage and discipline.
- He left in 1958, three years shy of his ordination, aged
27 and a virgin, to become a cub reporter on the Arizona Republic. He met
a green-eyed brunette with an Irish face dancing barefoot at a party, Mary
McArdle. She was a graduate from a Catholic college and wanted marriage
and lots of children. A bishop wedded them in Milwaukee.
- Kaiser picked up work with Time and in March 1962 he
was sent to Rome to cover the second Vatican council. Pope John XXIII had
summoned thousands of bishops and prelates to discuss revolutionary changes
which would make the church more open and closer to the people.
- Kaiser, Mary and their first child moved into a huge
apartment on Via Quirico Filopanti, south of St Peter's. With a huge expense
account and a staff of 12, the workaholic reporter was soon filing cover
stories and scoops about how the Curia, the Vatican bureaucracy, was trying
to block the reforming agenda.
- The book that The Observer serialised, Inside the Council,
became a number one bestseller. Everything seemed right.
- One of his sources, Malachy Martin, was particularly
helpful. 'He could make people laugh in seven languages,' Kaiser says.
Martin was a 47-year-old Jesuit with a fine tenor voice, tailored suits,
charm and connections to the Pope. His stories of intrigue were gold-dust.
- When Pope John fell terminally ill, Kaiser's adrenaline
pumped harder than ever as he analysed the succession of Pope Paul VI and
moved into a priest college to concentrate on the book. He admits neglecting
Mary, who was pregnant with their second child. 'I was very intense, very
- He didn't object when she moved for the summer to a beach
house near a Jesuit community. On he worked and abandoned her to promote
his book in London and New York.
- He worried when he could not reach her by phone. Engaged,
no answer, no connection. Something was not right when he flew back to
Rome and Mary was waiting at the airport with Martin. She was distant,
agitated. Kaiser noticed the priest's possessions at the flat. He had moved
- A temporary stay between trips, Malachy explained, but
Kaiser's suspicion took hold. After the birth of his secondchild, Mary
became colder. She parroted the Jesuit's denunciation of Irish bishops,
copied some of his verbal tics and read feminist tracts attacking husbands.
- Neither wanted more children immediately and contraception
was against Catholic teaching, so they stopped having sex. Kaiser had a
new scoop - the council was considering dropping the ban on contraception.
In the end it didn't, but before then he found in Mary's belongings some
contraceptive pills, marked Searle 5mg.
- Bewildered, crushed, he told some priest friends of his
suspicions. Impossible, they said, and persuaded him to check into a psychiatric
hospital in Hartford, Connecticut. 'The doctors thought I was paranoid,'
Kaiser says. 'Kennedy had just been assassinated, it was winter, it was
- He returned to Rome to make a new start, banish the suspicions,
but his wife's absences were a pattern. Two private detectives he hired
followed her to rendezvous with Martin at the Forum and in various hotels.
He bugged the phone and recorded her conversations with Martin.
- 'I lost 20lb the week I found out for sure. I was drinking
a lot,' he says. One night he clasped his hands around Mary's neck. He
didn't squeeze but she called the police. 'Martin was like Iago, he was
amoral, diabolical. Later a psychiatrist would call him a sociopath.'
- Kaiser followed his wife back to the US, hoping for a
reconciliation, but love letters from Martin followed: 'I can summon up
the memory of your glistening limbs on that first eve, your raven locks
shining in the moonlight, your moist, half-open eyes, your moist, half-open
lips, my love, my dove, my panting doe...'
- It was after this that the Catholic hierarchy finally
believed the story and Martin was kicked out of the church. He dumped Mary,
renounced his progressive views and wrote critiques on the Vatican, replete
with lurid tales of black masses in St Peter's, and became a darling of
America's hard Catholic right. He seduced and lived with a rich Manhattan
divorcee for 30 years and died of a stroke in 1999.
- Kaiser, still a practising Catholic, pauses when asked
if he could forgive: 'No, I'll never forgive Martin. He wrote about demonic
possession and I think he had an inside track. Mary, yes. She was young,
naive and a victim.' After their marriage was annulled she married a lawyer
and moved to New York.
- Friends say Kaiser will be forever scarred by the experience.
He picked up his career but was never the same. The memoir was cathartic
and he does not enjoy discussing it. He has a new girlfriend and is researching
what will probably be his last book, about the next Pope.
- · Clerical Error: A True Story, will be published
in the US on 8 April by Continuum International. It can be purchased at