By ANGELA CHARLTON and VICTOR L. SIMPSON
PARIS — 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 Leon in 2001. Laclau's superior, Father 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.
While the worldwide number of priests is slowly rising to 408,000 — with major growth in Africa and Asia — the number in Europe is continuing to decline, according to Vatican statistics.
The decline is particularly jarring in the United States, where they have dropped from 58,909 in 1975 to 40,666 in 2009, according to the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate, Georgetown University.
France is down to about 24,000 priests nationwide from 42,000 in 1975, and numbers of churchgoers have plummeted. A study by Lyon's auxiliary bishop found that more than half of the 161 priests who left their jobs between 1996 and 2005 did so to join romantic unions with women or other men, according to Catholic newspaper La Croix.
"The church is losing a lot of ground, it's turning in on itself," Laclau said. Ending celibacy, while not the only solution, could help make the church "more humane," he said.
Two days after leaving the church, he received a letter from a former parishioner describing being sexually abused as a child by another priest, a kind of cry for help.
"It repulsed me. It stains religious life, this kind of perversion," he said.
Evidence over the past decade has shown church leadership has covered up, ignored or simply underestimated the problem of pedophilia.
Before becoming pope, then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger told Catholic News Service in December 2002, that "less than 1 percent of priests are guilty of acts of this type." The most extensive study of the abuse crisis in the American church, commissioned by the U.S. bishops in 2004, found that about 4 percent of all American clerics who served during the time studied were accused of abuse.
The percentage in society at large is unknown because studies are inconclusive.
The report stressed that neither celibacy nor homosexuality causes abuse, but argued that an understanding of the problem of clerical sex abuse isn't possible without reference to both, since the vast majority of U.S. abuse cases were of a homosexual nature.
In Italy, papal biographer Marco Politi, in his book "La Confessione" — "The Confession" — presents the testimony of a priest struggling to balance his homosexuality with his commitment to a church that considers homosexual acts a sin.
The priest, who is never identified, discloses that a network of homosexual priests is active in the Italian church. It is described as an informal "self-help group" that lives in the "catacombs" of the church — the underground.
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.
Groups around Europe have sprung up to bring together people like him, from the Belgium-based Married Priests association to a group called Plein Jour, or Light of Day, which includes some 150 Frenchwomen who live with priests.
Many have borne the priests' children. Many maintain a low public profile, but seek solace in sharing their stories with other women who have lived the same "suffering, silence, sacrifice," said the group's director, Dominique Venturini.
Venturini, now 85, spent 45 years romantically and sexually involved with a priest based in Provence. "Only when he retired could he come and live with me. But unfortunately, by then, it was too late to have children, a dream I always had."
She speaks bluntly against celibacy. "When you bury human nature, it figures out how to express itself in another, perverted way."
Under church law, the pope can change the celibacy requirement by fiat, although some in the church have suggested that various reforms be discussed in a wider forum such as a new Vatican council.
However, the Rev. Thomas Reese, an American expert on the Vatican, said he doubts there would be a majority vote at such a forum to lift celibacy. "In addition, too many dioceses in the southern hemisphere have resolved the issue by simply ignoring ongoing relationships between priests and women," in said in an email exchange with The Associated Press.
The Catholic church's Eastern rite, which follows Orthodox Christian traditions but is loyal to the pope, allows married priests in contrast to the Roman church.
The Rev. Igor Yatsiv, spokesman for Ukraine's Greek Catholic church, said he knew of no cases of clergy sex abuse.
"I am not sure that's just because of no mandatory celibacy here. I'm married myself and have three children, but I don't think it's this that keeps me from sin. I just don't know another way" of living, he said.
Leon and Marga Laclau, after he left the church and after more than 20 years together, finally married. He continues to attend Mass, "not regularly, but I go. It is always a joy to participate."
"I still have faith," he says. "But you must maintain it. It's a bit like love."
Simpson reported from Rome. Associated Press writer Fanny Dassie in Paris contributed to this report.