Pope Benedict XVI, still struggling to repair the damage wrought by a wave of pedophile scandals, now faces a fresh challenge, from women loved -- and often abandoned -- by Catholic priests, AFP reported Wednesday.
About a dozen women have written an open letter to the pope challenging the Church's position that priestly celibacy is a sacred commitment.
"As far as I'm concerned, celibacy is completely useless," said one of the signatories, Stefania Salomone, 42, who had a five-year relationship with a priest.
"It was introduced for financial reasons," she argued, alluding to the fact that clergy without family were less expensive to house.
Pointing to the Church's earlier history, she added: "People forget that there were 39 married popes."
The letter was partly a reaction to recent comments by the pope upholding the nearly 900-year-old requirement of celibacy for priests, calling it "the sign of full devotion" and of an "entire commitment to the Lord."
Salomone said: "We told ourselves it was time to react."
Written in March, the letter was initially kept confidential, but late last month it was leaked to news website GlobalPost, and the women decided to tell their stories.
"Only three women agreed to sign the letter by name, because of the fear that if a woman goes public with her story, her companion priest would break up with her," Salomone said.
As a result, the women who decided to go public were speaking about past relationships, she said.
Luisa, 38, said she had a relationship -- and a child -- with a priest who is now 35. They met six years ago when he was the priest in a nearby parish.
"He came to live with me," Luisa said. "He told his family that he was living in his parish, and his parish that he was living with his family."
The people in Luisa's village looked the other way, she said, adding that the couple considered joining the Anglican Communion, which allows its priests to marry, so that they could come out of the closet.
But in the end the priest decided to leave Luisa, even before the birth of the child, now aged 20 months. "It was very hard. His family sent him to an exorcist and accused me of being a witch.
"As for the bishop, he told me to have my child adopted," she said.
Her son is now 20 months old. His purported father saw him for only 10 minutes when he was just two months old. "And that was all," Luisa said, adding that he had refused to acknowledge his paternity.
She said she was disgusted with the attitude of the Catholic Church and decided to have her son baptized in the Anglican Communion.
Salomone's experience was no less painful.
"It started as a trusting relationship, a relationship typical of those that develop between a priest and those involved in parish activities," she said.
The priest "was unable to accept his feelings. He was very disturbed and didn't know how to react."
Salomone added: "I felt bad because he was ashamed of his feelings. For him, I became a burden, like one person too many. In the end he managed to deny his feelings and soon told me he didn't want to see me anymore."
Salomone has no patience for the Church's doctrinal arguments for celibacy.
"There is no reason in the world to justify anyone forbidding another person a fundamental right," she said.
Even some members of the Catholic hierarchy appear to agree.
At a conference in Austria last month, Bishop Alois Schwarz of the Carinthia diocese urged new discussion of the issue of celibacy and the ordination of married men.
His comments echoed similar views expressed by his colleague, the bishop of Eisenstadt, Paul Iby.
And in March, Vienna Archbishop Christoph Schoenborn even said the Church should take a fresh look at celibacy when considering the possible causes behind the sex abuse scandal.