Pope Francis appears to be leaning towards giving Catholic bishops around the globe the power to decide whether to end celibacy for priests in their jurisdiction, a priest turned academic says.
It followed the Pope being quoted in Italian paper La Repubblica as saying celibacy was instituted "900 years after Our Lord's death" and that some Eastern churches under Vatican tutelage already allowed clerics to marry.
He was also quoted as saying he has been told there is reliable data suggesting the level of paedophilia among clerics is about 2 per cent.
"That 2 per cent includes priests and even bishops and cardinals," he was quoted as saying.
The Vatican issued a statement saying that not all the phrases could be attributed "with certainty" to the Pope, and suggested the paper had tried to "manipulate naive readers".
The CEO of the Truth Justice and Healing Council, Francis Sullivan, said on his organisation's early figures, the number of paedophiles in the Catholic Church was nearly double the 2 per cent suggested by the Pope.
The Australian Catholic Bishops Conference and Catholic Religious Australia established the council as a representative for the Catholic Church in the royal commission into child sex abuse.
Mr Sullivan also said that while some might interpret the Pope's comments about allowing the clergy to marry as a solution to the problem of abuse, such an argument was misguided.
"If anyone thinks the solution to child sex abuse is allowing clergy to marry they are missing the point," he said. "[Child sex abuse] needs to be dealt with head on."
However, more generally, he said it was time to have the conversation about allowing priests to marry so that they might relate better to Australian culture.
RMIT professor of intercultural studies Des Cahill said that while key elements of the story were denied, Pope Francis did appear to be contemplating the celibacy of priests, though he was unlikely to favour marriage for bishops.
Professor Cahill said that while there had been some increase in the numbers of men studying at seminaries in the past two decades, there were not enough to replace the number of retiring and dying priests at the ends of their careers.
''I think the pressure is building up that a change may be now on the way, perhaps during this pontificate or perhaps the next one,'' he said.
He said that given past comments, Pope Francis may be leaning towards allowing each nation to make its own celibacy decision which, in Australia, would lead to the decision being made by the national bishops' conference.
''I think there is a small minority of Catholics that would be in favour of marriage for the clergy and a majority of the clergy themselves would be in favour,'' he said.
He said there was also a sense that priests needed to reflect society with some married, some with families and others single.
The La Repubblica interview was conducted by the newspaper's founder, 90-year-old Eugenio Scalfari, one of Italy's best-known journalists, who is known for not making record of quotes during interviews, instead relying on memory.
The Vatican issued a statement noting Mr Scalfari's tradition of having long conversations with public figures without taking notes or taping them, and then reconstructing them from memory.
While acknowledging that the conversation had taken place, Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi said not all the phrases could be attributed "with certainty" to the Pope.
with Alexandra Back, Reuters