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Bishop to priest: Admit paternity

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PARIS, France (Reuters) -- A French bishop has ordered a priest to admit to fathering three children after his affair became public, but allowed the 80-year-old to remain a cleric, sparking debate on celibacy in largely Roman Catholic France.

The priest, a member of the Sees diocese in Normandy in northern France, fathered a boy, Olivier, and two girls during a long-running affair with a woman named only as Francoise.

"We found out after Olivier sent an e-mail to the bishop," Father Jacques Roger, a spokesman for the diocese, said on Tuesday after the story became national news.

In his letter, Olivier, at 33 the oldest of the three, complained of growing up without a father and suffering from not being recognized by the priest as his son.

"The bishop asked the priest to assume responsibility to ease the suffering of the children," said Roger, adding the priest had been paying child support for his offspring.

News of the priest's affair with a woman met with sympathetic comments in French media more used to reporting on clerical misdeeds with underage boys. About 30 cases of priests abusing children have been uncovered in France in recent years.

The story first emerged last month when Francoise spoke out on television about having children fathered by priests.

Realising the cleric was his father, Olivier wrote to the bishop to ask for help.

"There are many priests who don't live according to the laws of chastity and celibacy," said Elisabeth Szen of Plein Jour (Daylight), a group for women who are involved with members of the clergy and campaign to shake off their clandestine status.

"The Catholic Church does not act quickly, and it is hard to say when the celibacy rule will finally be abolished, but we think one day it will happen."

However, others were less sure of change.

"The church does not work through listening to pressure groups or to the media," said Roger. Pope John Paul II has defended celibacy as a vital part of Catholic tradition.

The man, semi-retired before the affair became public, was asked not to perform any more public duties but was allowed to remain a priest and was not excluded from the church.

"We would like him to meet (his children)," Roger said.

Copyright 2003 Reuters. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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