I: 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.
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.
STEFANIA SALOMONE: 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.
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: Salomone's relationship lasted five years, but she says her priest companion was unable to treat her as an equal.
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: 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?
RICHARD SIPE: 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.
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: Sylvia Poggioli, NPR News, Rome.
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