A row over the Vatican's attitude towards gay priests has been stoked further by a claim that clergy with "homosexual tendencies" are sent to a religious retreat to be "cured".
The Holy See was embarrassed by a senior Vatican official's decision to come out as gay at the weekend, just as 270 bishops gathered in Rome to attend a synod on family issues.
As Vatican officials called Krzysztof Charamsa's gesture "very serious and irresponsible", it was claimed yesterday that priests suspected of being gay are often sent to a convent in the northern Italian city of Trento to "reflect".
The convent's role in trying to "cure" priests of homosexuality was revealed by a former priest who was thrown out of the Church three years ago for being gay. Mario Bonfante was forced to leave his parish in Sardinia, even though he had maintained his vow of celibacy.
"It's a place where they help you to rediscover the straight and narrow. They wanted to 'cure' me but I refused to go," he told 'La Repubblica' newspaper.
According to its website, it can offer priests "an open and tranquil environment in which they can confront their problems" with psychiatrists and psychologists on hand.
Father Gianluigi Pasto (71), the head of the convent, said: "Priests come to us for a period of formation and personal reflection. At the moment we have neither gay priests nor paedophile priests here. Certainly our job is to welcome everybody."
The facility dealt with priests suffering from depression, alcoholism and who had "problems connected to sex", he added.
The Vatican declined to confirm or deny whether the convent catered for gay priests.
Pope Francis yesterday urged bishops to put aside personal prejudices and have the courage and humility to be guided by the "surprises" of God.
The Pope told 270 cardinals, bishops and priests that the three-week synod isn't a parliament for negotiations, plea bargains or compromises.
Rather, he said, it's a sacred, protected space where God shows the way for the good of the church.
The bishops are debating how the church can better care for Catholic families at a time when marriage rates are falling, divorce is common and civil unions are on the rise.
The main sticking points include how the church should welcome gay, divorced and civilly remarried Catholics.
Conservatives have been insisting the gathering should reassert church doctrine on homosexuality and the indissolubility of marriage.
Progressives want a more merciful approach to family problems, including whether civilly remarried Catholics can receive the sacraments.
Despite the call for an open debate, Hungarian Cardinal Peter Erdo, a key synod organiser who delivered the introductory remarks, made clear that there is not much to discuss on the divorce issue, since church teaching is clear in forbidding the sacraments for these Catholics.