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Married priests? Ireland's clergy crisis sparks calls for radical reform

LONDON -- A Roman Catholic Church with women cardinals? And priests who are not celibate?

That is the controversial hope of a group of priests who claim to represent the majority of Irish Catholics.

More than 1,000 lay church-goers and priests attended a meeting in Dublin this week to discuss these ideas and others they believe are essential to the survival of the Catholic Church in Ireland.

'A mere trickle'
Their over-riding concern is, given the average age of priests in Ireland is 64, that in just 20 years there will not be enough priests to serve the country's congregations.

"The flood of men that used to come forward for the vocation of priesthood is today a mere trickle," Father Brendan Hoban of the Association of Catholic Priests, told NBC News. "If there are no priests, there will be no Eucharist, no Mass. We want to know what is Plan B."

The facts demonstrate that Hoban's concern is justified: 20 years ago there were 10 seminaries in Ireland training priests. Today there is only one, with about 65 residential students.

The group's bleak prediction is that, without reform, the Irish Catholic Church will virtually disappear within the next two decades. The organization currently has more than 850 members, representing about one-third of all active priests in Ireland.

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The association is convinced the requirement for celibacy is to blame and says it needs to be dropped.

According to a survey commissioned by the group, 90 percent of Irish Catholics support the introduction of married priests.

And they just have to look across the Irish Sea to Britain for evidence of how this might work. There a number of married Anglican priests who disagreed with the ordination of women who now serve as Catholic priests -- with their wives beside them.

In Ireland, the Association of Catholic Priests is calling for the church to welcome back those who gave up the priesthood in order to get married. Similarly mature, married men, drawn to priesthood later in life, should be accepted, it says.

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The survey also revealed support for the ordination of women runs at 77 percent in Ireland. The association believes this is currently an unattainable goal but instead members say they want to seek ways for women to have a greater voice in the Church. They even go so far as to demand for the appointment of female cardinals, believing that women should be involved in decisions at every level of the church's activities.

"If women had been involved in decision-making, the Church would not have had such a mish-mash in its response to child sex-abuse cases," Hoban added. "If parents and women had been involved it is extremely unlikely a (pedophile) priest would have been moved on to other parishes."

The calls for change come as the current Cardinal of Ireland, Sean Brady, faces down accusations that he failed to pass on information to police about child abuse when he was a young priest. Some have demanded his resignation, which he has rejected.

The issue of child sex abuse and the Vatican's handling of pedophile priests has damaged the Church greatly in Ireland.

The Association of Catholic Priests believes to move on -- to survive -- the Church needs to modernize and the Vatican needs to listen.

However, several priests have been disciplined by the Vatican for expressing their views: Father Tony Flannery has been ordered to stop writing a monthly column for a Catholic magazine, something he had been doing for 14 years.

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