BRUSSELS — Voices are rising in Belgium for the Catholic Church to reconsider its stringent priest celibacy rules as senior clergymen broach the taboo topic in the wake of a paedophilia scandal.
The Vatican has steadfastly defended its age-old tradition at every turn, rejecting any link between celibacy and the wave of child sex abuse accusations that have engulfed churches in the United States and Europe.
But the idea of allowing priests to marry has crept into the discourse in Belgium after a Church-sponsored panel on paedophilia issued a startling report this month revealing hundreds of abuse cases taking place over decades.
The bishop of Bruges -- whose predecessor stepped down in April after admitting to sexually abusing his nephew, sparking a crisis in the Belgian Catholic Church -- waded into the debate at the weekend.
"I think the Church must ask itself the question of whether it is appropriate to keep the mandatory character of celibacy," said bishop Jozef de Kesel.
"We could say that there are celibate priests, but that people for whom celibacy is humanly impossible should also have the chance of becoming priests," he told VRT radio.
The bishop of Hasselt, Patrick Hoogmartens, also strayed from the official line, declaring in remarks reported by Het Belang Van Limburg, a Flemish newspaper, that requiring celibacy was "useless."
"I don't think it would be stupid for married men to also become priests," he said, citing the positive role played by deacons, assistants during mass who can marry.
Public opinion in the Catholic country leans heavily in favour of doing away with celibacy. A January poll showed that 69 percent of Belgian back marriage for priests -- a figure that even rises to 73 percent among Catholics.
The Belgian Catholic Church, which last week vowed to listen to victims of abuse by setting up a "reconciliation and healing" centre, "took note" of Kesel's comments but said celibacy was not a priority.
"First we must answer the question of what we need to do for the victims of sexual abuse within the Church," said Juergen Mettepenningen, spokesman for the Belgian Episcopal Conference.
The conservative head of the Belgian church, Andre-Joseph Leonard, has brushed off any suggestions of ending celibacy in the priesthood, noting that paedophilia was a crime committed by married men too.
"If you were to reason that way, you could conclude that marriage should be banned because the majority of (abuse) cases occur within family settings," he said earlier this month.
But Gabriel Ringlet, a priest and progressive voice in the church, said the solitary life of a priest which can begin at a young age can lead to sexual "immaturity" among clergymen.
"We must debate the way of life of clergy, its recruitment, its isolation from the rest of the world," Ringlet said in an interview.
Louis-Leon Christians, a canon law professor at Catholic University of Louvain, noted that Belgians can have their debate but ultimately only the Vatican has the power to end celibacy.
"Even if we talk about it in Belgium, it is in the hands of the pope," Christians told AFP.
The Vatican has kept a hard stance.
Pope Benedict XVI, who admitted during a trip to Britain this week that the Church had dropped its guard and failed to deal fast enough with paedophilia, insisted in June that celibacy was the "best antidote" against sin.
The Vatican's secretary of state, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, caused an uproar during a visit to Chile in April when he argued that there was no tie between celibacy and child sex abuse, but there was "a link between homosexuality and paedophilia."Copyright © 2010 AFP. All rights reserved.