THOUSANDS of Catholic priests are in illicit relationships with both men and women in contravention of the Vatican's teachings on celibacy and homosexuality, a new book by an investigative journalist has claimed.
Carmelo Abbate spent months under cover documenting a "hidden world" in which heterosexual priests have children with women who can never be their wives, and gay priests of many different nationalities visit nightclubs in Rome and pay for sex with escorts.
His book, "Sex and the Vatican: a secret journey in the reign of the chaste", was published in Italian yesterday.
Two British publishers are interested in buying the rights.
"The purpose of the book is not to shame Catholic clergy, it is to expose the hypocrisy and double standards of the church," Mr Abbate, an award-winning investigative reporter, said last night.
"There are priests with children but the kids cannot talk to their fathers in public for fear of their situation being discovered.
"There is a culture of 'omerta' (silence) in which the church pretends not to know about any of this. If the authorities do find out, they just cover it up so as to avoid any scandal."
The book developed from an investigation conducted by Mr Abbate last year in which he used hidden cameras to film three priests attending gay nightspots in Rome and having casual sex, before donning their cassocks the next day and holding church services.
"At the time the church said that these were just isolated incidents. I wanted to explore whether that was true and what I found was that the phenomenon is much, much wider," he said.
He cited research which suggests that as many as a third of Catholic priests in the United States are gay and a quarter are in heterosexual relationships with women. Similar statistics have been reported in Germany and Austria.
Women made pregnant by priests told him of being forced to have abortions, or having to put their children up for adoption in a desperate attempt to keep their relationships secret.
Some priests pay ex-lovers hush money so as not to be found out while others covertly support their illegitimate children through school, the book claims.
"For a lot of priests, the church's teachings on sexual relations are a prison," said Mr Abbate.
The Vatican declined to make any comment on the book, while a spokesman for the Italian Bishops' Conference said: "We can't react to all books that speak badly of the church."
Earlier this year the Vatican went on the record to say that it was troubled by the sex allegations made against Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi, who has been immersed in a burgeoning sex scandal.
Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone said those in authority should show a more "robust morality".
"The church urges and invites everyone, especially those who hold a position of public responsibility . . . to commit themselves to a more robust morality, a sense of justice and legality," Cardinal Bertone said, in a rare public and openly critical comment by the Holy See on the matter.
So far there has been no Vatican reaction to the revelations contained in Mr Abbate's book. (© Daily Telegraph, London)