PARIS (Reuters) - Three Roman Catholic bishops in Belgium, reacting to damaging sexual abuse scandals in their ranks, have taken the rare step of urging their Church to consider easing its ban on married men in the priesthood.
The three are all from Flanders, the Dutch-speaking region shocked by the resignation of a prominent local bishop who had sexually abused his nephew. About 85 percent of cases in a recent report on abuse in the Church were also from Flanders.
Mandatory celibacy is frequently criticised by Church reformers, but Pope Benedict is firmly opposed to changing the rule which dates back to the 12th century.
The head of the Belgian Church, Archbishop Andre-Joseph Leonard of Brussels, has put out the message that the priority for the embattled Belgian Church is to help its victims.
"First things first," his spokesman Jurgen Mettepenningen told Reuters on Wednesday. "The priority is to do what we can for the victims of sexual abuse."
If mandatory celibacy is to be debated, it should be done on a worldwide level and not only in Belgium, he added.
Calls for easing the celibacy rule have grown in Belgium since former Bruges Bishop Roger Vangheluwe quit last April after admitting to abusing his nephew for years.
A damning report on 475 abuse cases in recent decades, including 13 where the victims committed suicide, increased pressure this month on the Church to protect children and discipline clerics who committed or condoned sexual abuse.
Bishop Jozef de Kesel, who replaced Vangheluwe in Bruges, defended priestly celibacy at the weekend but added: "Persons who find celibacy impossible should also have the opportunity to become priests."
Patrick Hoogmartens, bishop of Hasselt, and Antwerp Bishop Johan Bonny seconded him on Monday. The chairman of the Interdiocesan Pastoral Council, a group of lay people working in the Church, added its voice to the chorus on Wednesday.
"The time is now really ripe, certainly in Western Europe, for priests to be able to choose a celibate life or not," its chairman Josian Caproens said in a statement.
While the public debate on the abuse scandal links it to celibacy, the Church does not agree. "Mandatory celibacy and sexual abuse are two separate things," Mettepenningen said.
Catholicism sees celibacy as a gift allowing a man to devote himself fully to the Church. Other Christian churches allow married clergy, although married Orthodox cannot become bishops.
Jan de Velder, an editor of the Catholic weekly Tertio in the Flemish city Antwerp, said the abuse scandals had shaken the Dutch-speaking region -- where Vangheluwe was widely known -- much more than French-speaking Wallonia.
"In this climate, the three bishops found the courage to speak out," he said, stressing some bishops had suggested in the past that the Church might consider changing mandatory celibacy.
Some bishops in German-speaking countries openly questioned the mandatory celibacy rule earlier this year as cases of sexual abuse were revealed in a series starting in Ireland and spilling over to Germany, Austria, the Netherlands and Belgium.
Amid calls for reform, Vienna Cardinal Christoph Schoenborn, a confidant of Pope Benedict, said the Church had to ask itself some tough questions about the reasons for sexual abuse of children and "that includes the issue of celibacy."
He later clarified he was not challenging celibacy itself.
There are some married men in the Catholic clergy, either in Middle Eastern churches linked to the Vatican or among converted priests, mostly Anglicans and Lutherans. The numbers could rise if disaffected Anglicans take up a recent papal offer to join.
But their status is an exception and their numbers are very small among over 400,000 priests worldwide.
Editing by Ralph Boulton