A new documentary to be broadcast on HBO on June 28 raises provocative questions about the role of clerical celibacy in the Catholic sexual abuse crisis. It is drawing fire from outraged Catholic bishops who say the film uses a "stacked-deck approach" to "assault" the church's sexual ethos.

In an interview from his home in England, the filmmaker, Antony Thomas,said his interest in celibacy was spurred by a desire to go beyond the dailymedia coverage of the church's abuse scandal.

"Like a lot of people, I was seeing the reports of priest abuse," hesaid. "But no one was asking the `why' questions. It seemed to me there wasa connection between celibacy and the reports we were seeing, and yet no onewas asking `Why celibacy?' `Why practice it?' `Who benefits from it?"'

The film, "Celibacy," opens with a comparative look at the practiceoutside the Roman Catholic Church. Interviews with Hindu priests, laymen andBuddhists who slough off worldly desires show how the renunciation of sexualactivity is a potent force in many religious traditions.

However, the film's narrator says, abstinence is not specificallymandated for the holy men and women of these traditions.

"No other religious denomination imposes these demands on itspriesthood. And today, the Catholic Church is in crisis," the film intones.

Citing the number of priests and nuns who have left their vocationssince the 1960s and the "apparent epidemic of child abuse by the clergy" asevidence of that crisis, the film turns to psychiatrists and sexualtherapists for an explanation of its roots.

"The drive or the propensity to reproduce is the most powerfulbiological process that ever existed on this planet. Sexuality, the sexdrive, actually has more representations in the brain than even consumptionof food," says Michael Persinger, a professor of psychology at Canada'sLaurentian University, in the film.

Why, then, would the Catholic Church mandate a policy that denied thisdrive?

Although the film presents several young Christian men and women readyto give their lives over to God for profoundly spiritual reasons, sexualabstinence as a Church-wide policy was primarily "a powerful tool incontrolling armies of priests and nuns," the film says.

In an interview, Thomas said he thinks celibacy is the most "beautifulthing. But it's either a gift or a rule. It simply can't be both."

When imposed as a rule, the film argues, the practice can destroy lives-- and it lines up various victims. They include a woman who had twochildren by a parish priest who later left her and the children; a man whowas sexually abused by a priest for several years; a pedophile former priestwho had himself surgically castrated because he feared he could not controlhis urges; and a number of men and women who were mistreated in an Irishhome for children run by Catholic priests and nuns.

The church's refusal to bend in the face of accusations such as thesedemonstrates a historic stubbornness, the film argues.

The film suggests that "sex is the contemporary Catholic Church'sGalileo." And that "it is now going through a dramatic period when theunderstanding of how things function collides with Catholic orthodoxy."

A review by the bishops' Office of Film and Broadcasting say the filmfails "to take seriously that following the example of the celibate Christis a motive for priestly celibacy. Primacy is always given to motives otherthan spiritual."

Moreover, the film's arguments are "full of unsubstantiated, anecdotalassertions ... presented in a largely imbalanced way, with fact deferring tomere opinion in many cases," wrote staff critic David DiCerto.

Among the details that the film fails to notice, the bishops' reviewsays, are the "wealth of vocations to the priesthood and religious lifeoutside Western Europe and North America, and the secular polls whichdemonstrate that most priests are happy with their lives."

According to the bishops' review, the biggest error in the film is thatit reduces "man to a ball of biological urges." And it neglects the words ofPope Paul VI, who said that "Man, created in God's image and likeness, isnot just flesh and blood, the sexual instinct is not all that he has; manalso has, and pre-eminently, understanding, choice, freedom."'