Celibacy in the Catholic Church, say a group of women in relationships with priests, is destroying lives and relationships. They've asked Pope Francis to reconsider the rule and broken their silence at the same time.
A group of women who say they are the secret lovers of priests have written a letter to Pope Francis urging him to ease the Catholic Church's rule requiring priests to be celibate. The group also requested a private audience with the pope to share their experiences of being in relationships with priests.
"Dear Pope Francis," the letter began, "We are a group of women from Italy and beyond who is writing to you to break the wall of silence and indifference we have been facing every day."
It went on to say that group represents just a fraction of the number of women romantically involved, or who would like to be involved, with priests.
"As we all do know, love is just a powerful and invigorating experience, which changes you inside, makes you grow with your partner, until you come to the realization and find yourself wishing the dream of spending your life together. This is impossible for a priest under the current laws of the Roman Catholic Church.#b
We love these men, and they love us back. Most of the times it is impossible to sever the bond of beautiful loving affinity even if we try, such cases unfortunately also impose upon us all the pain of a 'not fully lived' relationship, with a continuous swing from better to worse, that afflicts the soul," the letter said.
For the second time, the women write to the pope
The group first met about six years ago, when they connected on the internet and then in person to lend support to each other. Currently, about 50 other women participate in the online group, sharing their experiences and advice as they deal with their secret affairs with priests.
Twenty-six members of the group sent an open letter to Pope Francis asking him to consider easing the celibacy requirement of the Catholic Church that's been in place since the 12th century, initiated in part to help keep property within the church.
In the letter, the women also wrote that little is known about "the devastating suffering undergone by women who fall in love with a priest and develop a relationship based on strong mutual affection and attraction." The group wrote a similar letter to Pope Benedict five years ago, but didn't get a reply.
Pope Francis has said in the past that he is in favor of maintaining celibacy, but has acknowledged it is not doctrine, but a church tradition that can be changed.
'If he held me, he would feel ashamed'
Stefania Salamone, a 46-year-old business consultant in Rome, is the founder of the support group for Italian women. Once Catholic herself, Salamone says she met her priest through the church choir. She says for a period of five years, they became emotionally involved, seeing each other almost daily, though never becoming sexually intimate.
"If he [held] me, he would feel ashamed, so [he] would chose not to see me for one or two months for that moment," said Salamone.
When the priest suddenly decided to cut off contact after admitting his sexual attraction to her, Salamone says her critical view of the hierarchical structure of the Catholic Church, including a celibate priesthood, intensified.
She says after hearing the stories of other women who have had affairs with priests, she realized the church has long tolerated priests, just as long as the women they're involved with don't make trouble.
"The conditions are you have to be silent, no scandals. [You mustn't] tell anyone, [you] can't give birth to [a] child," she said. "Sometimes bishops or [their] superiors [are] not so worried about the relationship, but that others will come to know about it. They might say, 'If this relationship [be]comes public, I will be forced to do something.'"
That "something" she says is the same way the church covered up sexual abuse of minors - by moving a priest to another city or country.
'You are not expecting to be used by a priest'
Maria Grazia Filippucci, an Italian biologist now in her 60s, is another group member. Filippucci knew her priest-lover since childhood, before he joined the priesthood. Despite repeated promises to stay with her, he one day suddenly disappeared from her life, leaving her devastated.
"You are not expecting to be used by a priest, you think he's honest because he's a priest, but in my case, because he was a friend, so you are not expecting someone to use you," said Filippucci.
She says the support group of priests lovers helped her get over her anger at her priest -anger she now says she feels towards a church she says robbed her former lover of being a full human being.
"Speaking with the other woman I realized he is inside a trap, [he has no] chance to be himself, they took from [him the] possibility [of thinking] autonomously and of feeling, so for this I feel sorry, pity."
While the women in the group are asking the pope to listen to the negative effects of the celibacy requirement, Salamone says celibacy is just one expression of ways in which the Catholic Church exerts its power.
"Celibacy is a [small] part of [the] problem, a consequence of the power system created by the Catholic Church. If you force a person not to utilize or [not to] get in touch with his inner sexual part, you have such power [over] his life that you cannot imagine. Or maybe they [do] imagine."
It's a power system that this first support group for lovers of priests is slowly trying to challenge, say members, by addressing what they call the damaging and long out-dated constraints the Catholic Church places over the private lives of priests and those who love them.