ROME, Italy — They are used to secrecy, to hiding their feelings, to waiting in the shadows for their men. But now a group of women who have had intimate relationships with Catholic priests has decided to speak up against celibacy.

As sex abuse scandals once again rock the Catholic Church, the 39 Italian women who are, or have been, in longtime sentimental and sexual relationships with Catholic priests have penned an open letter to Pope Benedict XVI, denouncing compulsory celibacy as a “torn up shroud.” In the letter, the women describe the closeted lives they lead as companions to priests and ask the pope to consider that, perhaps, their men can only fulfill their priestly duties with their lives fulfilled by marriage.

“In order to become effective witnesses to the need for love, they need to embody it and experience it fully, in the way their nature demands it,” the letter said. “Is it a sick nature? A transgressing one?”

A Vatican spokesperson, as is usual in these cases, declined to comment on the letter or on the women's stories. But several women who signed and supported the letter agreed to speak with GlobalPost about their relationships with priests.

Antonella Carisio, 41, had always been engaged in parish life, so she didn’t think there was anything wrong with spending a lot of time with Edecir Calegari, the Brazilian priest with whom she ran the parish youth center. Then one evening in June 2006, when she was driving him back to the parish house, she says Calegari kissed her.

“I wrote him a letter that night, telling him I was sure it had been a mistake, that we should forget about it,” said Carisio. When they met again the next night, to “clarify” things, he kissed her again, “and that’s how our relationship started.”

It lasted for two and a half years. Calegari often slept at Carisio’s house. She says he even insisted on being introduced to Carisio’s son as his mother’s partner, not just as the local priest. “Everyone in my family knew, even my grandmother. They were all very nice to him,” she said.

Eventually, the couple was discovered: A fellow priest found one of Carisio’s letters in the parish house and reported Calegari to their superiors. He was moved to Rome and the two vowed to stay together: “When he left, he even gave me an engagement ring.”

But close to the Vatican and under constant scrutiny from superiors, Calegari quickly recovered confidence in his priestly identity, and agreed to do something he had promised Carisio he would never do: go back to Brazil as a missionary.

Calegari now says that he regrets “deeply” what happened, “also because I hurt her. It was a mistake.” He said he is happy in Brazil and thinks that putting an end to the relationship was the right choice: “I never thought of leaving the priesthood. Antonella and I were very close, she was a friend and a confidant, but I was never in love with her.”

“This is something that happens quite often,” said Stefania Salomone, a 42-year-old office manager from Rome. “Most of them are not ready to give up their life as priests for a woman. They want to have it both ways.”

Some of the relationships are not even sexual ones. Salomone's priest never went beyond hugging her, she said, and when he finally admitted that there was something “real” between the two of them, he said it was over.

After this and another similar experience, she started a website for women who are in relationships with priests and is now in contact with about 50 other women. “There is never a happy ending,” she said. Priests cannot stand to give up being “sacred ministers,” “God's intermediaries,” for the sake of the daily routine of married life.

Celibacy is compulsory for Catholic priests in the Western church, but its critics always point out that this rule is not spelled out by Jesus in the Gospel. Most of the Apostles, Salomone pointed out, were married, and so were the presbyteroi, the elders who exercised priestly authority in the first Christian communities, as described in the Act of the Apostles and St. Paul’s letters.

Though it was a common rule in the first centuries of the Christian era, celibacy in the Catholic Church started to be more strongly enforced only in the 11th century, and then after the Council of Trent, in the aftermath of the Reformation. Priests continued to have clandestine relationships, of course, but it was not until the Second Vatican Council in 1962 that many of them came into the open and left their offices. According to the semi-official Vatican magazine La Civilta Cattolica, nearly 60,000 priests left the church to get married after the Second Vatican Council.

However many men still feel both callings — to the priesthood and to marriage — and struggle with the rules. “One of the most recurring statements of priests to their 'companions,'” wrote the women in their open letter, “sums it up in a few words: 'I need you in order to be who I am,' that is, a priest.”

The church’s reassignment of Calegari represents a typical response, according to the letter, which says that the church often rewards priests who give up their relationships with a promotion.

B., a 40-year-old lawyer from Tuscany who asked not to be named, said the priest she was involved with “was also critical of the church's backwardness and of compulsory celibacy.” But this changed after the first months, when a new bishop gave the priest new career opportunities, which he quickly seized. That didn't push him to end his relationship with B.: “I was closing his gaps, filling up his emotional holes,” she said. “He never had real doubts, no interior drama. Once he was sure that I was there for him, he was OK.”

Carisio said that like B. she never asked Calegari to renounce his vocation. He had entered seminary when he was just 12 and, she said, “he couldn’t deal with the idea of leaving the priesthood.” This would have meant giving up his whole life: “He couldn't forsake the status and the privilege of being a priest, he couldn't admit to being just a man.”

Leaving the priesthood would have meant “dealing with real life” for the first time, coping with issues such as finding a job or paying rent.

But it was not just practical concerns. Carisio said Calegari received idolizing letters from friends back home and was admired by his family. “He had always been told that he was dedicating his life to something superior, that trumps everything else.” Abandoning celibacy would have meant “stepping down from the pedestal he had been set upon.”

Along with Calegari's “egoism and cowardice,” Carisio also blames his superiors for their “hypocrisy.” Their only concern was to protect him from her: “We should take them as models of love and brotherhood, but they do the contrary. They were shocked that a priest could fall in love, and then betrayed him.”

Calegari disagreed, saying his dedication to celibacy is strong. “Changing the church's rule wouldn't be a solution,” he added. “I studied in Rome with priests from Eastern Catholic Churches, who are allowed to marry, and they have worse problems. I made a mistake and it just happened, but I didn't have strong feelings.”

Compulsory celibacy, write the women in their letter, is a “human law” that contrasts sharply with the everyday experience of priests' lives, even though the church presents it as “God's will.” The result is that most relationships eventually end in shame. “Why,” they ask the Pope, “all this destruction in the name of love?”

Related Stories