Pope Benedict XVI, struggling to repair the damage wrought by a wave of paedophile scandals, now faces a fresh challenge, from women loved - and often abandoned - by Catholic priests.

About a dozen women have written an open letter to the Pope challenging the Church's 900-year-old 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.

Pointing to the Church's earlier history, she added: "People forget that there were 39 married popes."