February 8, MADRID, Spain (AP) - The first priest in Spanish history to openly acknowledge living an active homosexual life vowed Friday to fight to make the Roman Catholic Church abandon its ``caveman mentality'' and accept gays and lesbians in the pews and on the pulpit.

But the Rev. Jose Mantero first had to defend himself against what he described as a smear campaign by prelates and conservative opinion makers since his confession scandalized the church and catapulted him to stardom in Spain.

``Being gay not only is not a sin, it's a gift from God. It's a gift from God equal to being heterosexual,'' the priest from the small southern town of Valverde del Camino told a packed news conference at a Madrid hotel.

``If he created you gay, he wants you to be gay. At no point does he want you to regret being so.''

Mantero, 39, revealed his homosexuality in an interview last week with the gay magazine Zero, saying he realized he was gay when he was 12.

The admission triggered a debate on television talk shows, in cafes and in the living rooms of a nation once known as ``the sword of Rome'' for its fervent support of Roman Catholicism.

This week, the Bishop of Huelva, Monsignor Ignacio Noguer Carmona, prohibited Mantero from hearing confession.

Other clerics called him ``sick'' and ``abnormal'' while an editorialist for the conservative ABC newspaper accused him of desiring publicity, calling him a ``fairground freak.''

Even his Web site was plastered with links to pornographic sites, a fact reported by the newspaper without mentioning the possibility of sabotage. The paper also claimed to have details of the priest's participation in gay bashes and Internet chat sites.

Mantero rejected the allegations as ``radical fallacy ... which shows what's behind this.''

``I have no interest in fame,'' he told the news conference.

Nevertheless, the cleric's revelation has ignited a national debate on homosexuality and the requirement of celibacy for priests.

A television talk show devoted Friday night's edition to the issue, taking calls from women who had relationships with priests and gave birth to children as a result.

Homosexuality - severely repressed during the 1939-75 dictatorship of Gen. Francisco Franco - has only been accepted in mainstream Spanish society in recent years, after a senior army officer, several politicians and entertainment figures came out of the closet.

A number of regional governments have recognized conjugal rights for homosexuals, and the northern province of Navarra now allows gay adoptions.

Mantero said the church's response to his admissions reflects ``a caveman mentality that has inflicted so much suffering and oppression on gays and lesbians not only throughout history but also in our own days.''

However, he said he didn't expect the church to change overnight and accept openly gay priests in to its ranks.

``The church moves not by years, but by millennia,'' he said. ``The change will happen. When? I don't know, but this will help bring it about.''

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