DEBORAH AMOS, host:

The sex scandals affecting the Catholic Church have prompted a renewed debate on the requirement that clerics remain celibate. In an unprecedented move, some Italian women who say they have had relations with priests have written an open letter to Pope Benedict. Their message: A priest needs to love and be loved. NPR's Sylvia Poggioli reports from Rome.

SYLVIA POGGIOLI: It's common in Italy to hear churchgoers say they've known priests with mistresses - women who passed as housekeepers or cousins. Fiorella di Meglio knew one in her small town, a two-hours' drive north of Rome.

Ms. FIORELLA DI MEGLIO: (Through translator) Years ago, we had a priest here, Don Giorgio, a schoolteacher. The kids liked him and so did their mothers. When it came out that 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.

POGGIOLI: In all such cases, it's the priests' companions who continue to live in the shadows - until now. Last March, some Italian women came out into the open after Pope Benedict spoke of what he called the sacred value of celibacy.

Ms. STEFANIA SALOMONE (Office Manager): And so we decided to tell people that this is not value and this is not a sacred value, because sacred is the right of people to get married.

POGGIOLI: Stefania Salomone, an office manager in Rome, started a website for women in relationships with priests. Little by little, 40 women contacted her, yet only two others joined her in signing the letter.

Ms. SALOMONE: Italian women don't want to disclose the stories because when the priest knows that women have 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.

POGGIOLI: In their open letter, the women say: Ours is a voice that can no longer continue to be ignored. And they denounce what they called 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.

Ms. SALOMONE: I think I represented a stain on his church dress. He wanted to see me, but after seeing me he was not happy with this decision. I mean, 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.

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

Dr. RICHARD SIPE (Clinical Mental Health Counselor): He does not know the psychological dynamics, the social dynamics of sex and what that means to be celibate. 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's not the way celibacy is constructed or taught.

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

Ms. SALOMONE: And you know that 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 first of all, don't make children.

POGGIOLI: 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?

Sylvia Poggioli, NPR News, Rome.

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