A group of 26 Italian women who claim to be having affairs with Roman Catholic priests have written a joint letter to the Pope begging him to end the Catholic Church's ban on priests having sex and getting married.
The women, who met through a Facebook campaign, wrote to Pope Francis requesting a meeting to put forward their case, claiming they were just "a small sample" of the many partners of priests "living in silence".
The unnamed women wrote: "We love these men, they love us, and in most cases, despite all efforts to renounce it, one cannot manage to give up such a solid and beautiful bond.
"We humbly place our suffering at your feet in the hope that something may change, not just for us, but for the good of the entire Church."
Debate is growing on the merits of ordering priests to abstain from sex and marriage, which is designed to allow nothing to interfere with their close relationship with God. About 6,000 Italian men have left the priesthood to marry, compared with a total of 33,000 parish priests now in service.
The Pope has previously supported the tradition of celibacy, but has suggested his position might waiver.
"For now, I am in favour of maintaining celibacy, with all the pros and cons that come with it, because in 10 centuries there have been more positive experiences than errors," he was quoted saying in 2010, before he became Pope, in the book, On Heaven and Earth.
The Pontiff has disclosed he had a girlfriend in Argentina as a young man before choosing to become a priest.
He has argued that celibacy is more Church tradition than hard and fast doctrine, pointing out that, up until the year 1100, some priests choose it while others did not.
He suggested exceptions might be made, writing: "If, for the sake of argument, western Catholicism reviewed the celibacy question, I think it would do so for cultural reasons (as in the East), not so much as a universal option. It is a question of discipline, not faith. It can be changed." But he added: "Personally I never considered marrying."
Prelates attend a Mass where Pope Francis ordained 13 new priests in St. Peter's Basilica at the Vatican. Photo / AP
In their letter, first reported by the website Vatican Insider, the women said they wished to come out in the open and support their partners "in their calling, which is strengthened by the vital force of love they discovered with us".
Turning to their own plight, the women wrote that "very little is known about the devastating suffering of a woman who is deeply in love with a priest".
The options faced by priests in love were ending the relationship, often leaving both partners "scarred for life", leaving the Church, or carrying on in secret, the women wrote.
That, they said, "involves living one's life in a constant state of hiding, frustrated by an incomplete love, with no hope of childbearing; a love that cannot see the light of day".
In one example supporting the anti-celibacy campaigners, a prior has told how he was advised by his fellow monks to keep an affair he was having secret when he revealed he was in love with a woman.
"Do what you want, but keep it hidden," Father Alberto Stucchi said he was advised, according to the Italian newspaper La Stampa. Fr Stucchi decided to leave the order, before his new-found partner died of bone cancer.