Byline: By JILLY BEATTIE
ONE in 10 priests in Ireland is having a secret affair with a woman - frequently the housekeeper.
Some have been revealed as having multiple partners in relationships they keep hidden from their parishioners.
And experts estimate almost 500 women across the country are involved in sexual common-law partnerships.
Now 147 of them have joined Bethany, a group set up to help them cope with problems arising from the forbidden unions.
Members take part in one-to-one counselling meetings and conference phone calls across Ireland to help them deal with issues such as guilt, secrecy, commitment and childcare.
As a result seven of them have discovered their priest lover being unfaithful to them with at least one other woman.
Now Madonna Byrnes, 32, who two months ago had a baby with 73-year-old priest Mossie Dillane, has been urged to contact the group.
Rebel Bishop Pat Buckley set up Bethany 15 years ago because so many women contacted him desperate for advice.
And now the numbers are growing, a sign he said must not be ignored by the Catholic Church.
He said: "The majority of priests break their vow of celibacy and many, many of them fall in love and have long, fulfilling relationships with women.
"I personally know 12 priests, living both north and south of the border, who are living with their housekeepers as husband and wife.
"It's the easiest way to cover up the relationship but it's not ideal, especially when there's a child involved.
"I see nothing wrong with these relationships except the couple feel they have to keep the truth of their relationship secret.
"Bethany has been a great source of comfort to so many women who're wracked with guilt. They learn over time that they're doing nothing wrong by falling in love.
"They also begin to understand that the guilt lies with the Church and the rules made by men who care nothing about human nature and the need for love and companionship."
Fr Buckley revealed that he has counselled scores of women who have fallen in love with their priests and entered into secret relationships with them.
He added: "The women who use the facilities at Bethany know that they're safe from prying eyes and misplaced judgment.
"They have made a choice to live a difficult life because of the secrecy still involved in these sorts of relationships.
"On a few occasions, a few of the women have called another woman to discuss their situation, only to find they are having a relationship with the same priest.
"That's caused a lot more upset but the problem is that everyone needs the love of another human being and sometimes priests are so starved of affection, that they'll accept it when it's offered in case it's never offered again.
"That's wrong too, but the situation wouldn't arise if they were allowed to forge normal relationships.
"The Church must have the will to do the right thing and learn by its mistakes.
"The leaders of the Catholic Church know that the vow of celibacy is not adhered in most cases and they simply encourage them to keep them quiet. …