Counselling women in love with Catholic priests

There is no rule in the bible forbidding Catholic priests from having a family Keystone

Thirteen years ago a dozen Swiss women decided to set up a self-help group for women involved in relationships with Catholic priests.

This content was published on November 13, 2000 - 15:41

They founded "Zöfra", which aims to support women in Switzerland who are affected by the Church's celibacy rule.

Elizabeth Wunderli, the vice president of Zöfra, is well aware of how difficult life can be for women who become involved in relationships with Catholic priests.

She lives near Zurich with her grown-up son and her partner, Ciril Berther, who less than two years ago gave up the priesthood.

"I worked in a big parish in Zurich," she explained. "Ciril was the parish priest and I was the pastoral assistant. We both loved our work, and after a few years we began a hidden relationship. But I couldn't sustain it for long, I couldn't lie, I couldn't live with such a secret."

For five years they kept their relationship secret, only telling close friends, and the two adult children Elisabeth had had with her late husband. None had a problem with the illicit relationship.

Then, in 1998, they decided to come out with the truth, and tell the people they worked with at the parish in Höngg, near Zurich.

"The moment I told them, my life became a living hell," Elisabeth said. "I was the seducer, of course! The priest belongs to everyone, especially the women, and I had taken him away from them. I suffered very much, and there was no solidarity between women.

"Finally, I just felt I didn't need such suffering in my life, and I left."

Elisabeth said the parish would have been happy if she had just resigned quietly, and left Ciril to carry on with his work. But he was adamant that if she went, so would he.

Several months later he had abandoned the priesthood entirely.

"For him it was not such a big decision," Elisabeth said. "For 35 years he had been a priest, and worked very hard, and now he's happy to live with the dog and cats and have his own work. He didn't suffer at all."

Two years on, neither Elisabeth nor Ciril feel they have any reason to feel guilty. "Why should I?" says Ciril. "I think it is of greater concern when people with serious problems are not tended to, people with financial concerns, or ones who are suicidal."

Understandably, the Catholic Church doesn't want anything to do with Zöfra. Elisabeth says it knows about the group, but denies that a problem exists.

Nevertheless, the Church has allowed Zöfra to link its Internet website to the Swiss Catholic Church's site. Elizabeth says it was grudgingly allowed, as a sign of tolerance.

A psychologist who has studied theology extensively, Elisabeth has not left the Church officially, but does not attend Mass and is in no way involved in parish life.

For her, working for Zöfra is as important as working for the Church. She says it's important for her to help women who face a similar predicament.

Zöfra is in touch with over 220 women in Switzerland who are emotionally involved with priests. But Elizabeth believes the number of unacknowledged relationships is far higher.

She also estimates that almost half of priests involved in affairs are homosexual. She says that, irrespective of the sexual orientation of the priests' partners, these illicit affairs wreak havoc on the psyche and health of those involved.

"Depression is very common - as is cancer. Women typically develop breast and uterine cancer, while men are known to suffer from prostate or testicular cancer."

Elisabeth is hoping that her work with Zöfra will eventually prompt the Catholic Church to make the vows of celibacy optional, not compulsory.

She says the rule that priests cannot raise a family has no historical backing: "There is nothing in the bible calling for celibacy. Jesus never said it. It only came about some 400 years ago, because the Church decided it didn't want to spend money supporting a wife and children as well."

Ciril says he didn't give much thought to the idea of pledging eternal celibacy when he joined the priesthood at the age of 26. He also didn't give too much thought to the other priests that he knew were having affairs.

He says it took him quite long to realise how important Elisabeth was to him, and how much their relationship meant to him. Now he says he's perfectly happy with life outside the priesthood, and has set up an organisation dealing with development issues.

Ciril says there are several reasons why priests who fall in love do not leave the Church: "On the one hand, there are the financial constraints; if they leave the priesthood, there's little they can do to support themselves.

"On the other hand," he adds. "It's prestigious to be a priest, to have 'power' in a sense, and to be part of a hierarchy. There is a certain collusion that keeps the institutions going."

by Juliet Linley

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