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Unfaithful

As many as half of all priests break their celibacy vows, leading spiritually compromised lives. Inside the "don't ask, don't tell" policy of the Catholic church.

They stood amid the snowcapped peaks of the French Alps last summer and exchanged gold bands, a private ceremony that marked a secret relationship two decades old. Before leaving, they knelt down and prayed that God would bless their relationship and also their chosen careers. He is a Roman Catholic priest, and she is a nun.

"Spiritually, I feel like I'm married," explains Father Michael, in his early 50s, a priest for 27 years and the pastor of a parish in a Midwestern city. "It's too bad I can't pronounce it to the world."

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The pair's hidden life resembles that of a modern professional couple. He has instructed his church staff that he always takes phone calls from her, even if he's in a meeting. They spend their vacations together, traveling recently to Europe with his parents, who don't ask any questions ("They consider her a daughter," he says). On Catholic holy days, she makes the two-hour trip from her religious community to his parish to attend Mass. And, when possible, they enjoy a healthy sex life.

"I wrestle with it," says Father Michael, who wears his gold band every day, though few have ever asked about its significance. "For me it's always been a consistent theme. I'm always on the edge of leaving. I stay for the people."

It may seem like Father Michael has the best of both worlds, but he says he struggles heavily with the hypocrisy of violating a major rule of the priesthood while acting as the spiritual leader to 1,000 parish households. "I really don't deal with the guilt very well," he says. "I feel we are caught, we are handcuffed by the church." Even when he seeks counseling from a fellow priest, it proves problematic: "My confessor is trying to not engage in sex, too. He is trying to cut back on his relationship," he says.

They are not the only ones. Richard Sipe, a retired Johns Hopkins University instructor and noted researcher on Catholic clergy and celibacy, spent 37 years studying the sex lives of the clergy. Based on his research, Sipe estimates that only half of all priests remain celibate. And this struggle -- between normal physical needs and religious devotion -- is the root of the Catholic Church's biggest crisis.

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