Growing up in Cork, Ireland, Peter Cullen had his life's work laid out for him. "The greatest expectation for a male was to be a priest," he says. "And I always wanted to be the best."

Cullen achieved his dream. Ordained as a Franciscan in 1958, he came to America a year later and worked for the church, leading weekend retreats in Delaware and visiting parish schools. He recalls those days with fondness. He delighted children with his soccer skills, visited them in their homes and dined with their families. At the end of the evening Father Peter would go home alone to an empty rectory. To fill the silence, he'd flip on the TV. At 11 o'clock, he went to bed.

When he returned to Ireland in 1966 to visit his siblings and their children, he felt a pang of longing. A year later, he made the most difficult decision of his life.

"I left the priesthood because I decided to get married," Cullen says matter-of-factly. "My reason is so simple. Life was too lonely. I dreaded the thought of being an old, lonely priest."

Cullen, who lives in Southwest Portland, is one of as many as 100,000 men worldwide who have left the Roman Catholic priesthood, many of them in order to wed. He and many others find the church's latest sex scandals particularly insulting. Though they neither harmed children nor lied about their sexual choices, some married priests feel the church abandoned them at the same time it shielded sexual predators.

"That's one of the items that guys like me are very resentful about--the way we were treated," Cullen says, his Irish accent thickening in anger. He finds hypocrisy in the fact that priests who longed to start a family were cast out of the cloth, while those who lusted after children were protected. "The pedophiles not only did unnatural things, they committed crimes."

Today there are as many as 20,000 married priests in the United States (conservative estimates put the number lower; there exists no official figure). In Oregon and Southwest Washington, there are almost 100.

Priests often describe the decision to leave the clergy as the most difficult choice they've ever made. One likened the experience--without a trace of irony--to divorce.

Some, like Vince Fitzgerald, fall away from Catholicism once they turn in their collar. Fitzgerald attends First Unitarian Universalist Church in Portland with his wife, Linda.

"I still consider myself culturally Catholic," Fitzgerald says, "but spiritually, I find the Unitarian Universalist values and practices are most comfortable for me."

However, most of the married priests interviewed for this article remain devout Catholics. Some even retain the title of "father." Several petitioned Rome for "laicization," a decree which formally returns priests to the status of lay people, enabling them to marry within the church.

Though ordination into the priesthood is considered irrevocable, priests who marry can't officially represent the Catholic Church. They can no longer say mass, give communion or perform weddings, baptisms or last rites. Yet a few continue to perform some duties, such as officiating at weddings outside the church.

Other married priests take on less controversial roles as lay people. Denis Barrett-Dennehy, a former priest who taught at Jesuit High, is an active member of the St. Francis of Assisi parish in Southeast Portland. Jim Magmer, an 80-year-old married priest from Wilsonville, is a volunteer chaplain at Meridian Park Hospital in Tualatin.

Many are clearly frustrated by the church's insistence on mandatory celibacy for priests, but the overwhelming majority of these men still have hope for the church, even in the wake of devastating scandals that have eroded its moral authority. Such revelations have brought new, intense pressure to bear on an organization long resistant to change.

That resistance may be wavering. Gallup polls show that three in four Catholics in America believe the church has been handling the scandals badly. In June, at a conference in Dallas, the bishops' statements indicated church leaders are more mindful of public opinion than ever before.

Later this week, on July 20, Voice of the Faithful, an influential new lay organization, will hold a conference in Boston in an attempt to promote change, particularly optional celibacy for priests. Many Catholics predict that one day soon, bishops will allow pastors to exchange their vow of celibacy for the vow of matrimony.

"Married priests are a necessity," says the Rev. Robert Palladino, administrative pastor of St. John Church in Welches, who left the priesthood to marry and returned to the pulpit when his wife died. "When 100,000 priests leave, it should send a message to somebody."

The second Vatican Council, convened in 1963, was intended to demystify the Catholic Church, making it more accessible to the people. Vatican II was famous for its decisions to hold masses in English, rather than Latin, and to allow priests to face their congregations during services. Both moves helped to make priests more accessible to parishioners. But throughout this era of reform, one tradition remained firm: Priests must be celibate.

Celibacy is not required for most Christian clergy, including priests in the Eastern Orthodox and Episcopalian churches. Even the Roman Catholic church allowed priests to marry until 1139.

The vow of celibacy has nonetheless become a distinguishing characteristic of the Roman Catholic priesthood. Roman Catholics give various reasons for this. Many are taught that priests are supposed to emulate Christ by remaining single. The Apostle Paul, in his first letter to the Corinthians, wrote that unmarried men and women would be less distracted in their service to God.

Some historians, however, say the practice of mandatory celibacy may have had more to do with a desire by 12th-century church leaders to prevent priests from passing parish wealth on to their heirs. Critics of the vow say money and power continue to be the real obstacles to married clergy. For example, making celibacy optional today could force the church to pay its married priests a family wage and diminish its ability to transfer priests at will.

Others contend celibacy serves to protect the church's authority by maintaining an exclusive, obedient group of leaders while mystifying outsiders. "It's a cult," says Jeff Lidell, a former priest who now works as a mental-health counselor. "I don't mean in the Reverend Moon sense, but even in Vatican II documents, they call it the 'cult of the priesthood' because they consider it limited-access."

Despite varied views on celibacy, priests who leave the clergy take to heart canonical law: Once a priest, always a priest.

"My experience with priests who marry is a desire for honesty," says Richard Sipe, a former priest and author of Sex, Priests and Power. "They can't or won't lead a double life. They sacrifice the security of the priesthood, their employment, their livelihood, status--all of that."

Their sacrifices can be significant. Like many priests who left the priesthood, Cullen was at a loss when he walked away from his vocation in 1967. "In those days, if you left, you had no resources," he says. "I didn't have a clue as to what I was going to do. The day I left, I didn't even know where I was going to stay."

At first he worked with a government-sponsored program called Community Action, which was part of Lyndon Johnson's war on poverty. He networked with other priests in similar situations, founding a support group that exists to this day. "The biggest job was trying to convert my priest work into a résumé."

When a fellow married priest told him about his job at Merrill Lynch, Cullen teased him about taking up such a seemingly unpriestly profession. However, with a new wife and plans for a family, Cullen changed his mind and enrolled in Merrill Lynch's training program. "I was lucky to find a place that would train me," he says. "I'm forever grateful to Merrill Lynch. They gave me a whole career."

His ease with people made him a skillful manager. "My focus as a manager was to help people grow, and that's what a priest does." Cullen's job took him around the country and finally to Portland, where he retired as a senior vice president of First Interstate Bank.

Cullen's return to secular life shocked his family back in Ireland, particularly a brother who had also joined the priesthood. "They wondered whether the devil had gotten me. I arrived at the airport in a business suit. They were so stunned to see that I was the old Peter they always loved and knew."

While Cullen didn't trumpet his priesthood at work, he didn't hide it, either. Others are less candid. For example, one former priest who operates a suburban bar asked that WW not name him, as few of his patrons know of his past occupation. Another also requested anonymity to keep his previous vocation private, as he'd done throughout his legal career. He thought his priesthood was a secret, but one day, while he was living in Hawaii, there was a rare earthquake. "It was fairly severe," he chuckles, "and people were starting to line up outside my office and wanted absolution!"

Magmer was also apprehensive about revealing his past. "Initially I didn't identify myself as a former priest, or a married priest, unless I had to," he says.

After his ordination, he taught at various Catholic schools, including a stint teaching journalism at the University of Detroit. When he left the priesthood to get married in 1966, he moved to San Jose, Calif., where he'd been promised a reporting post. After the job fell through when a Catholic senior editor disapproved of hiring a married priest, he headed north to Portland. "I wanted to get as far away from where I was known as possible," Magmer says.

He got a job at The Oregonian and, later, a teaching post at Portland Community College. While a freelance writer for the Portland-based Catholic Sentinel, Magmer kept running into other married priests. He began collecting names, eventually compiling an extensive mailing list, known as "the Umbrella Group" to its more than 100 recipients, and sending out a monthly newsletter, with items of interest and job leads.

"I was lucky in that I had journalism training, which helped me get a job," he says. "A lot of other men really struggle."

Some never fully make the transition. "There's guys who left the priesthood, felt guilty, and went back," says Cullen. Unable to assimilate into society, yet alienated from the church, a few were devastated by their decision, he says. "They're pitiful, sad people."

For others, the anguish is compounded when the marriages for which they've sacrificed so much ultimately fail. When George Hardin left the Jesuit priesthood in Chicago to marry a nun from a neighboring parish, he was alienated to the point of leaving the state. "No church would have us," he says.

Today, at 74, he wheezes and strains to talk, the effect of Parkinson's disease. But Hardin insists on continuing, struggling for breath as he recounts when his first wife divorced him. "I don't believe in divorce," he says bitterly. He remarried 10 years ago, and both he and his wife attend a Portland-area discussion group for Catholics and occasionally socialize with other married priests. A retired high-school teacher, Hardin says he would've liked to have stayed in the priesthood: "I had a good job. Rome is pretty entrenched. I think it would be better if they made celibacy something you choose."

In a way, a few priests have been able to choose. Scores of married Anglican priests and Protestant clergy have been allowed to convert to Roman Catholicism even though they were already married.

"It's crazy," says Barrett-Dennehy. "It doesn't make any sense."

At St. Agatha Church in Southeast Portland, for example, Father Slider Steuernol was an ordained Presbyterian minister, with a wife and children, when he converted to Catholicism in 1994. He entered the priesthood in 1996 and remains married. While he's not celibate himself, Steuernol says, "I stand in awe of my fellow priests who make that commitment." At the same time, he notes that the Orthodox church has made celibacy voluntary for its priests. "I think both could work together," he says.

The church's reluctance to consider making celibacy voluntary is a sore point for some married priests, particularly given the nationwide shortage of priests.

In 1975, the United States had 60,000 Catholic priests; by 2001 there were just over 45,000. Their numbers continue to decline at a rate of about 12 percent a year.

In some parts of the country, the priest shortage is severe. Church officials in Oregon say the state is less strapped for clergy, though parishes in Roseburg and Reedsport have had to be combined. In Portland, one church, St. Francis in Southeast Portland, is without a parish priest, even as its parishioners include priests who left the clergy to marry.

The shortage could grow. Thousands of priests, including some in Portland, have come out of retirement to take over parishes, while enrollment in seminaries continues to decline. There were around 47,000 seminarians in 1965; in 1997 there were only 5,000 (according to figures cited by Chester Gillis in Roman Catholicism in America). Meanwhile, the ranks of Catholics in the United States are growing, swelling with an influx of Catholic immigrants from Latin America.

"The priesthood is going downhill fairly fast," says Dean Hoge, a former priest and sociologist at the Catholic University of America. "The crisis over sexual misconduct only makes things a little worse."

Hoge helped conduct a 1987 study that polled Catholic undergraduate students at Catholic schools around the country. "We concluded that you would have a fourfold increase in seminarians if you had optional celibacy," he says. "It's the biggest deterrent."

Not everyone agrees with this analysis, or even with the numbers. "I'm not denying it's a serious problem," says Mary Gautier, a senior research associate at Georgetown University's Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate. "I just don't think there's a crisis."

The sex scandal is crisis enough. Many innocent priests were stigmatized. Jeff Lidell remembers being taunted about pedophilia in the 1980s as he walked down the street in clerical clothing. "It was so disheartening," says the former priest, who is now married and lives in North Portland. "Even to date, my brothers have teased me. And I can't blame them," he says. "If I was on the other side, I'd feel the same."

The scandal also presents a platform for those who wish to question the vow of celibacy. On July 20, many of these reformists will be heard. Voice of the Faithful will gather such Catholics from across the nation in Boston's Hynes Convention Center in an attempt to move the church closer to the more open vision of Vatican II, as a church of the people.

Voice of the Faithful's primary goal is to push for the laity's inclusion in church governance. The laity's role is crucial: It's the central axis connecting a host of controversial issues for Catholic America--birth control, the ordination of women and optional celibacy for priests.

"The space holds 5,000, and we are expecting to fill it," says Mike Emerton, a VOTF spokesperson.

If the church is forced to listen to the laity, optional celibacy for Catholic priests, which massive numbers of Catholics have supported in numerous polls and surveys, is likely to be at the top of the agenda.

Portland priests and lay people await the outcome with interest, if not impatience. "The church is known to just kind of sit on it and pray about it," says Lidell. "I think we need to seize the moment."

A Sanctuary for Pedophiles?

Most advocates for reform within the Catholic Church view the current sex scandal as an opportunity to push for changes, including permission for priests to marry. A few former priests, however, find a direct link between forced celibacy and mounting allegations that priests abused young men.

Former priest Denis Barrett-Dennehy, a counselor who has a master's degree in psychology, says some men experience what is known as "arrested sexual development." Their emotional and sexual maturity stagnates in pre-pubescence.

For such men, Barrett-Dennehy says, the priesthood can be a dangerous sanctuary. "The atmosphere of enforced celibacy becomes a refuge for young men who have arrested sexuality," says Barrett-Dennehy. "They're unconsciously drawn to the priesthood because normal outlets for sexuality are forbidden in seminary."

As these men grow older, their sexual urges build, and they're attracted not to adults, but to young men--their peer group at the time their own sexuality stopped developing. "Being around all these pre-pubescent males becomes too much for them," he says.

Jim Magmer, a married priest living in Wilsonville, also agrees that the issues of celibacy and pedophilia are inextricable. "As long as you have mandatory celibacy, you're going to have problems," he says. "The church will continue to try and hide these men and cover up what they did because it makes so much of celibacy."--John Schrag

Michelle Chihara, a senior writer at

, an online magazine of the Independent Media Institute, contributed to this article. Her own piece and similar stories about married priests published this week by various weekly newspapers across the nation can be viewed at .

For more information about Voice of the Faithful's national convention in Boston this week, see .

The Boston Globe

has published several articles about celibacy and the priesthood as part of its ongoing coverage of the Catholic Church sex scandal. They can be found by typing "celibacy" into the search function at the bottom of the home page of the paper's website: .

A priest and a rabbi were having lunch.

Priest: "So, have you ever cheated and tried eating pork?"

Rabbi: "Yes, once or twice I have cheated. Have you ever cheated on your vow of celibacy?"

Priest: "Yes, once or twice."

Rabbi: "It sure beats pork, doesn't it?"

Catholic reformers joke that at Vatican III the Pope will show up with his wife; at Vatican IV she'll show up with her husband.

Celibacy Is the Issue, "an international married Roman Catholic priest faith community,"

sponsors a website, , with loads of information about the history of mandatory celibacy, the national priest shortage and other related issues.

"A celibate priesthood has never actually worked. Celibacy belongs to a radical ethic of monastic life that is lived in an alternative community. The numbers of people ready and able to make a commitment to this way of life are not and never have been sufficient for those needed for the parish priesthood. Hence, constant abuses."--

Theology professor Rosemary Radford Ruether, writing in the June 7, 2002, issue of

National Catholic Reporter