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My father, my lover: Priests struggle with celibacy

Women who have had relationships with priests pen open letter to Pope Benedict XVI.

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?”