Letter From Priests' Lovers Reignites Celibacy Debate

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File photo: Pope Benedict XVI tours at the Cathedral of Turin on May 2, 2010 in Turin, Italy. A group of Italian women who say that they had relationships with priests wrote the Pope, criticizing the Catholic church's policy on celibacy.

Growing scandals in the Roman Catholic Church are prompting a renewed debate on clerical celibacy. For the first time, a group of Italian women who have had relationships with priests wrote an open letter to Pope Benedict XVI, saying that priests need to love and be loved.

The church scandals spreading across the Catholic world are prompting a renewed debate on clerical celibacy.

In an unprecedented move, a group of Italian women who have had relationships with priests wrote an open letter to Pope Benedict XVI, saying that priests need to love and be loved.

In Italy, it's common to hear churchgoers say they have known priests with mistresses -- women who passed as housekeepers or cousins.

Fiorella di Meglio, 50, knew one in her small town a two-hour drive north of Rome.

"Years ago, we had a priest here, Don Giorgio, he was a schoolteacher. The kids liked him and so did their mothers," di Meglio says.

"When it came out he was having an affair with a woman, all the mothers rallied around him saying he was a good man. But all the people who didn't know him were scandalized, and of course he was sent away," she says.

The Voice That Can No Longer Be Ignored

In most cases, the priests' companions continue to live in the shadows -- until now. In March, some Italian women came out into the open after Benedict spoke of what he called "the sacred value of celibacy."

"And so we decided to tell people this is not a value, and this is not a sacred value, because sacred is the right of people to get married," says Stefania Salomone, an office manager in Rome.

Salomone started an Italian website for women in relationships with priests. Little by little, 40 women contacted her; yet only two others joined her in signing the letter.

"Italian women don't want to disclose the stories because when the priest knows that the woman has talked to somebody, has disclosed the story to somebody, sometimes, very often he leaves the woman. That's why it has been so difficult for us to take this decision," says Salomone, who is in her early 40s.

In their open letter, the women say "ours is a voice that can no longer continue to be ignored," and they denounce what they call "the tattered shroud of mandatory celibacy."

They say a priest "needs to live with his fellow human beings, experience feelings, love and be loved."

Salomone's relationship lasted five years, but she says her priest companion was unable to treat her as an equal.

"I think I represented a stain on his church dress," Salomone says. "He wanted to see me, but after seeing me he was not happy with his decision. He always tried to find a way to go away. I wasn't seen as a woman, I was seen as a danger, as a sin."

And sin is the judgment the Catholic Church assigns to nearly everything to do with sex outside marriage.

Like An Alcoholic 'Practicing Sobriety'

But it's an open secret that priestly celibacy is often violated.

Richard Sipe is a mental health counselor for priests and a former Benedictine monk. He says the way celibacy is taught today is not in tune with contemporary reality. While studying in the monastic environment of the seminary, Sipe says, a priest can remain celibate for two to three years. But what happens when he goes out into the world?

"He does not know the psychological dynamics, the social dynamics of sex and what it means to be celibate," says Sipe. "If a man is going to be celibate, it's like a man who is an alcoholic and practicing sobriety. Every day he says, 'I'm going to be celibate today,' but that is not the way celibacy is constructed or taught."

Salomone is particularly angered by what she sees as the hypocrisy and secrecy imposed on priests by the Catholic Church.

"There is a lot of suffering around the world due to this rule," she says. "Bishops know that priests are not celibate, but they don't care about this. They say, please do what you want but do it anonymously, nobody has to know, otherwise scandals arise and we cannot afford this, so please do what you want but don't let the world know about this, and [most] of all don't make it children."

Salomone and the other authors of the letter say mandatory celibacy clashes with the reality of priests' lives, and they ask the pope, "all this destruction in the name of what love?"

Copyright 2010 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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