August 30, 2006

Desperate Catholics find “rent-a-priests” online

By Holly McKenna

ALBANY, New York (Reuters) - Some are Catholics who see
their church as stuck in the past. Others are believers who
happen to be divorced, pregnant before marriage or gay. A few
just can't find a priest when they need one.

Roman Catholics shunned by the official church are
"renting" married priests in times of crisis and celebration.

They turn to, a Web site with
2,500 Catholic priests in a national database known as "God's
Yellow Pages."

Virtually all the priests in the database have left their
official clerical ministries due to the Roman Catholic Church's
mandatory celibacy rule, but they continue to conduct weddings,
usually for a fee, while performing baptisms, last rites and
funerals for free, in keeping with the practice of officially
recognized priests.

"We are doing Jesus' work and apparently the church isn't,"
said Louise Haggett, director of Celibacy Is The Issue (CITI)
ministries, which runs the site and helped arrange 3,000
weddings last year.

The group also is working to change the Catholic church's
ban on married priests.

Haggett said the Internet is a popular source for
rent-a-priests because there is a shortage. Twenty-seven
percent of U.S. parishes lack a resident priest, according to a
U.S. Conference of Bishops study.

Priests are aging, churches are closing and fewer priests
are being ordained. The church knows there are fewer priests
than decades ago but there are plenty to meet the spiritual
needs of the faithful, said Ron Menty of the Roman Catholic
Diocese of Albany.

"Sometimes the reason why people go to this source concerns
the rules, regulations and expectations of the church," Menty
said. "Sometimes a priest outside the community feels freer in
providing services."

The going rate for a wedding in New York is about $500,
cheaper in other states.


Haggett founded the site in 1992 when her mother was in a
nursing home and unable to find a parish priest.

CITI locates, recruits, certifies and promotes married or
gay Roman Catholic priests. Haggett said 21 canons in church
law validate married priests.

But the church does not recognize these priests because
they violated their vows, said Ken Goldfarb, spokesman for the
Roman Catholic Diocese of Albany.

The church does recognize some married Protestants who
became priests later in life.

"These rent-a-priests have already taken their vows, then
married. That's the distinction," Goldfarb said.

Richard Hasselbach, who married after he was a priest for
13 years, defends the organization because many people are
turned off by what he calls the inflexibility and rigidity of
"the corporate Catholic Church."

He routinely marries people who are divorced, pregnant or
gay and counsels people who were sexually abused by Roman
Catholic priests. He celebrates Mass in his home and performs
marriages outside of church buildings. The Roman Catholic
Church does not allow wedding ceremonies to be held outside.

Jim and Mary Ann Graves of Batavia, Illinois, were married
in their backyard by Bob Scanlan, whom they found on the Web
site. Both were raised Catholic, married for the first time in
the church, and then divorced. Together they have eight

"We never considered an annulment because it's a real
hassle," Mary Ann Graves said. "We were looking for something
different than the first time, but we wanted a religious and
spiritual ceremony."

Faith is a relationship with Christ and not about rules and
dogma, Hasselbach said. "Once you're a priest, you're always a
priest," he said. "If I fail to respond to the call to
minister, I do at my own peril."