MADRID, Spain -- The priest in a tiny farming village near the Portuguese border surfed the Web and found love in South America. Now his flock is passing around the collection plate so he can bring the woman to Spain.
Revelations of the Rev. Alfonso Vegas Ramajo's yearlong Internet love affair come during a troubling time for the Roman Catholic church in deeply religious Spain.
Earlier this month, a priest was jailed for alleged involvement in an Internet child pornography ring while another was suspended after revealing in a front-page magazine interview that he'd been leading a gay life for decades.
In December, Vegas, the priest of Ituero de Azaba -- population 280, flew to Peru to meet the woman, identified by a local newspaper as Luz Aurora Otoya Arellano, 36.
Last week, the 40-year-old Vegas called from Peru to say he'd found the love of his life and he needed help raising $1,300 to pay for her ticket to Spain, said Deli Simon, owner of the El Almendro bar and leader of an impromptu fund-raising campaign.
"He used to come here to talk about his problems," Simon said as dishes clanked in the background.
"He may be a priest, but first and foremost he's a human being, and a very good one at that," she added. "Anyway, I think priests should be married like us. Then they would understand our problems better."
Local newspaper El Adelanto de Salamanca reported Friday that the couple married in a Jan. 12 civil ceremony and plans to fly back next week.
End to confessions
The Spanish bishops conference said Friday that Vegas would be suspended from hearing confessions, Spanish radio reported.
That was the same penalty given the Rev. Jose Mantero Garcia, the gay priest from the southern town of Valverde del Camino who said earlier this month he would fight to make the church abandon its "caveman mentality" condemning homosexuality.
The day before that, a 29-year-old clergyman in Casares de Hurdes, another village near Portugal, was arrested for being involved in an electronic forum for pedophiles to exchange experiences.
Adding to the church's woes, Spaniards were outraged this week when several clerics in Basque cities allowed sympathizers of the separatist group ETA, which has killed hundreds of people, to stage protests in their churches.
Cardinal Antonio Maria Rouco, head of the Spanish bishops' conference, said anti-clerical attitudes in Spain have become so harsh "it recalls the martyrology of the first Christian centuries."
Although many elderly villagers in Ituero de Azaba were infuriated by their priest's love affair, barkeeper Simon said dozens of people already have chipped in nearly the entire $1,300.
"This is a very small village so people found out quickly and many wanted to help," she said.