At least 500 women in Ireland are conducting clandestine affairs with Roman Catholic priests
, according to the leader of a support group set up to look after those in forbidden relationships.
An indication of the extent of illicit sexual relationships within the church was given after it was disclosed that Fr Maurice "Mossy" Dillane, 73, had fathered a child with his 31-year-old girlfriend.
Bishop Pat Buckley said an extremely conservative estimate was that one in 10
of the 5,000 Catholic priests in Ireland enjoyed regular sex with women
and some even referred to their clerical collar as the "bird catcher".
Studies had shown that 80 per cent of priests had broken their vows of celibacy on at least one occasion
, he said.
Bishop Buckley runs the Bethany organisation in Larne, Co Antrim, which he set up to provide support to those in love affairs with the clergy.
Described as Ireland's rebel bishop, Bishop Buckley was sidelined by the Catholic church in the mid-1980s when he pursued his own ministry for those who felt alienated by the traditional church.
When the statistics were widened to take in practising homosexuals, Bishop Buckley said up to 40 per cent of the Catholic clergy in Ireland
were sexually active.
Counselling sessions organised by Bethany have disclosed that several women were unwittingly having sex with the same priest.
He claimed the church's hierarchy was prepared to turn a blind eye to sexual indiscretion because it was so widespread
. "Bishops are caught between Rome and the priests and, of course, some of the bishops are in the same position (i.e. having relationships),
" he said.
"From the top down it is hypocritical. We are preaching compulsory celibacy, but very few are living it."
He said he had met 147 women who had joined Bethany in order to share their stories of adultery and priestly promiscuity.
Romances between an understanding man of God and an unloved wife were commonplace, as were priests and their housekeepers secretly living together as man and wife while relationships between priests and nuns were unofficially known as the "third way" by the church.
Bishop Buckley said Fr Dillane and the mother of his child had nothing to be ashamed of and urged them to come out of the safe houses where they have been hiding since news of their relationship swept through Ireland.
The case of Fr Dillane, a sociable and charismatic priest from Co Galway, has been greeted with a tolerance that was absent 14-years ago when Bishop Eamon Casey, the Bishop of Galway, was disclosed as the father of a teenage son by an American divorcee, Annie Murphy. He was forced to apologise when it emerged that he had siphoned £70,000 from the diocese for their upkeep.
Bishop Buckley has been a long-standing campaigner against compulsory celibacy and points to a recent Irish survey suggesting that 90 per cent of the population thought clergy should be allowed to marry. He also believes that enforced celibacy is an unnatural state that could be to blame for the sexual deviancy that led to the child abuse scandal that erupted in Ireland last year.
"Some priests are in the Jack the lad mould and have several relationships in various parishes. I have heard priests refer to their clerical collar as the bird catcher,"
Bishop Buckley said.
The Roman Catholic Church in Ireland declined to comment
on Bishop Buckley's claims.