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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Unholy Love: Irish Mull End to Priestly Celibacy

DUBLIN -- To the world, the late Michael Cleary was an ebullient priest with bushy hair and a graying beard, a firm supporter of the church's teachings on birth control, divorce, abortion and priestly celibacy.

To Phyllis Hamilton, Cleary was a lover, a husband, and the father of her two sons.

And to the people of Ireland -- a devoutly Roman Catholic nation -- Cleary is just one more in a growing number of fallible priests.

Here people are increasingly questioning the church's enforcement of an 850-year-old rule barring the clergy from marrying.

"It is not humanly possible to remain celibate -- even animals don't do it,'' said Rosemary Scott, 50, who met the popular, chain-smoking cleric at a retreat 15 years ago. "The church must move with the times.''

Many agree. In a poll published in The Irish Times on Tuesday, three-quarters of the respondents said priests should be allowed to marry. Nearly 90 percent wanted a national synod to debate the issue.

Even before the Sunday World published Hamilton's claims about Cleary in June, the Bishop of Ferns, Brendan Comiskey, was urging the Irish church to discuss openly priestly celibacy. Two other bishops supported him.

Comiskey's attitude sparked anger from Cardinal Cahal Daly, the traditionalist leader of Ireland's Catholics, who publicly rebuked him. And the Vatican has summoned him this month to explain himself.

But Comiskey is unrepentant. "What are we do to, stay silent as another scandal breaks almost every Sunday?'' he asked.

The Irish church is not free to change the rules on its own, but a synod would add to pressure by churches in Austria, Switzerland, Belgium, the Netherlands and the United States.

Cleary's family vehemently denies Hamilton's story, but her psychiatrist -- with her permission -- has said Cleary admitted it all to him.

Hamilton was a 17-year-old trainee nurse when she met Cleary at a concert in Dublin just before Christmas 1967. He was 37, working with young pregnant women and making his name as a singer and entertainer. Within months, he "suggested that we make marriage vows with each other,'' saying that "in the time before Jesus ... this was all that was required for a man and woman to become husband and wife,'' the Sunday World quoted her as saying.

She said Cleary arranged for the adoption of their first son, born in 1970. On Nov. 3, 1976, she had a second son, Ross, and the three set up house. The Catholic Press Office has confirmed that church authorities had heard rumors about Cleary, but didn't want to confront him while he was gravely ill with throat cancer. He died Dec. 31, 1993, at age 60.

In 1985 Hamilton also had a daughter, but not by Cleary. She says the father was a trainee priest who knew about her relationship with Cleary, and blackmailed her for sex.

Critics of the celibacy rule argue that it drives some priests from the ministry, and discourages young people from seeking ordination. And some claims would appear to be backed up by the statistics: The number of new parish priests in Ireland has dropped from 90 in 1980 to 62 last year.