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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.

Without exception, the women are devout in their faith and met the priests they are in love with when the priests were acting in their pastoral roles.

Many of the women have written anonymous letters to the pope explaining their special circumstances and asking forgiveness.

Maria, is in her 50s and has a 24-year-old daughter, and she says she fell in love with a priest when she sought out spiritual healing after her husband died several years ago.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".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.I have heard priests refer to their clerical collar as the bird catcher," Bishop Buckley said.

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