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Last Updated: Thursday, 17 May 2007, 10:54 GMT 11:54 UK
French villagers back priest with partner
A Catholic priest in south-west France has been forced out of the clergy after admitting to the Church authorities that he was having a sexual relationship with one of his parishioners. The BBC's Emma Jane Kirby says this has set off a fresh debate about celibacy in the Church.

Catholic church in Asson
Protest banners outside Asson's 13th Century church
There is a wonderful sense of stillness in the mountains overlooking the little village of Asson - a few swallows surf gently on the upwind currents and a shepherd sits quietly watching his flock of fat, thickly pelted sheep graze on the velvet grass.

It is a bit like one of those bucolic woodcut scenes you find in ancient bibles. But, in this religious landscape, those who break the rules are quickly cast asunder.

To a passer by, Fr Leon and his partner Marga probably look like any other middle-aged couple taking an evening stroll together.

He is twinkly eyed and looks a little like Dustin Hoffman. She seems warm and open and is still a very attractive woman. But in the eyes of the Roman Catholic Church, Leon and Marga are sinners.

'Closer to God'

For the past 22 years, the couple have been in a sexual relationship, which is forbidden to a Catholic priest who has vowed to remain celibate. Fr Leon admits he has broken his promise but claims that being in love has brought him closer to God and his congregation.

Fr Leon and his partner Marga
Fr Leon and Marga have had a relationship for the past 22 years
"I haven't been strictly faithful to all my vows," he says.

"And I worried that by breaking some of those vows I had hurt Our Lord. But I think God can see that my relationship with Marga has brought real fruits to the Church - far from being a handicap to my mission as a priest, she's been a great support. I just wish the Church could see that."

There is no doubt that Fr Leon has been an excellent parish priest.

It is difficult to keep him focused on the interview I am trying to conduct with him because every five minutes a parishioner appears at the presbytery door with a hamper of food, a good luck card or a small child for him to bless or kiss goodbye.

Everyone is in tears, particularly when they hug Marga, who is herself overcome with emotion and sobbing.

Far from being seen as the wicked temptress, or the wanton Eve who lured a pure man of the cloth into tasting the forbidden fruit, Marga is seen among the villagers as a great friend. A devout Catholic herself, she is hurt by the Church's attitude to the man she loves.

'On strike'

"They have just thrown him away like a dirty thing," she tells me, her bottom lip trembling.

"When the Church told him they were sanctioning him and that he would no longer be able to say Mass, he was broken. The Church doesn't see that it's hurting so many people forcing him to leave his parish.

The countryside in Asson
Many of the parishioners have refused to go to Mass
"I work with a lot of elderly folk who say their only comfort is knowing that Fr Leon will be with them when they die. Now they don't have anyone they trust to hold their hands at the end."

The parishioners have spent three weeks "on strike" - boycotting Mass and refusing to go to Church with the new priest.

I watched them make huge protest banners from bedsheets and hang them from the belfry and roof, turning Asson's 13th Century place of worship into a giant billboard.

For some it was the beginnings of a revolution, a backlash against hierarchical traditions they feel have long been outdated. For others, peeping timidly over their garden gates at the church walls, the banners were a step too far - a defacement (albeit a temporary one) of God's sacred house.

Praying at home

The parishioners are being torn between their love for Fr Leon and their sense of duty to God and slowly, they have begun returning to Mass.

Fr Benat Segur, from a neighbouring parish, told me he hopes things will quieten down now.

While he was a friend of Father Leon's, a vow is a vow and you can no longer call yourself a Catholic priest if you take a girlfriend, he said. You have to become a Protestant.

Fr Leon and Marga do not go to Mass anymore.

Instead, they pray at home, reciting the Lord's Prayer together in a corner of their living room before a wooden statue of the Pyrenean saint St Jacques.

"St Jacques made a long pilgrimage across the mountains," Fr Leon reminds Marga, gently stroking away her tears.

"And if there are stones in our path, we'll be able to step over them together, won't we?"

When I had said goodbye, I went back up into the mountains, sat among the sheep and felt the stillness of the evening. Far away in the valley below, I could just pick out the banners on the church roof, silently flapping their protest to the heavens on high.

VIDEO AND AUDIO NEWS
Villagers protest in support of Father Leon Laclau



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