Some priests question celibacy rule

Paris, France - Leon Laclau shared his life, and often his bed, with Marga over 20 years — all while serving as a Catholic priest in a town in the French Pyrenees.

His clerical leadership eventually expelled him, prompting protests from his flock and inspiring other priests and their partners around France to speak out about long-hidden love lives, and to press the church to abandon its insistence on celibacy.

They say the chastity rule has fed the persistent, profound decline in the numbers of European and American priests. More influential voices are joining them as scandals involving sexual abuse and pedophilia spread across parishes around Europe.

The Vatican rejects any link between celibacy and sex abuse and shows no sign it intends to loosen its rules. Instead, church leaders are likely to continue a don't ask-don't tell policy of ignoring priestly relationships, as long as they cause no harm.

"Love, my love for Marga, never held me back from having faith. On the contrary, it encouraged me," Laclau told The Associated Press by telephone from his home in Asson, in the mountains near the pilgrimage site at Lourdes. "I lived my love life with Marga, and I kept my passion for the church."

The two met when Laclau led the funeral service for Marga's first husband in 1985. When their relationship blossomed, he said, "at first, we tried to hide it."

Slowly their friends learned, and Laclau's church colleagues, who met them "with a silence, not of disapproval, but of non-interference," he said.

The church's quiet tolerance melted when Marga came to live with Laclau in 2001. Laclau's superior, the Rev. Benat Oyhenart, asked him to "purify the relationship" — in essence to choose between his vocation and his love.

Laclau chose Marga. In 2007, he was forced out of the priesthood.

Oyhenart sent a statement to the congregation explaining what he had done. "What about the young groom who says, 'How can I commit to the sacrament of marriage, for the rest of my life, before a priest who himself does not respect the commitment he made for the rest of his life?' "

Oyhenart received angry, fearful letters from churchgoers. One he cited read: "If you replace him, I will keep my children at home, out of fear that his replacement is a pedophile."

Such fears have mounted as revelations about sexual abuse of children have convulsed Catholic leadership from the United States to Ireland to Australia and in recent weeks, Germany, the Netherlands, Austria and Switzerland.

Now, one of the pope's closest advisers, Austrian Cardinal Christophy Schoenborn, has called for an honest examination of issues like celibacy and education for priests to root out the origins of sex abuse.

His office quickly stressed that Schoenborn wasn't calling celibacy into question, just as Pope Benedict XVI was reaffirming its importance as an "expression of the gift of oneself to God and others."

Theologians and psychologists warn against equating celibacy with pedophilia, at least directly.

But Schoenborn and others have been receptive to arguments that a celibate priesthood is increasingly problematic for the church, primarily because it limits potential candidates for ordination.

Another problem: People who are pedophiles to begin with are drawn to the church because it is an easy way to find victims and be in a position of authority where few question their actions, priest and family counselor Stephane Joulain noted in an essay in Sunday's Le Monde. He also said priests who have never had sexual experiences are often drawn to adolescents because their own sexual growth halted at adolescence.

Laclau, after his experience, says that "an end to celibacy is not the only answer" to the church's woes. He blames "young, reactionary priests … who show a growing traditionalism" for alienating ordinary believers who might otherwise have been drawn to the priesthood.

For Laclau, the solution is more sexual honesty among the clergy.

"I thought I was one of the very few (priests) to have a love life. I slowly discovered how numerous we are," he said.