Jim Graham’s father was an academic and a sensitive soul who likely would have made an ideal mentor — but because he also happened to be a priest, his son never knew him.

Graham’s story and those of others like him are woven into the fabric of yet another quandary the Church is facing: how to acknowledge and support children when their conception and birth violate the requirement of priestly celibacy.

As the Church confronts the sins of clergy sexual abuse, the stories of these “children of the ordained” are increasingly being told as well, even though many, though not all, involve consensual relationships between adult women and priests.

The Boston Globe detailed several such stories, including Graham’s, in a two-part series in 2017. Graham, who had his father’s body exhumed in 2018 to confirm his paternity through DNA testing, continues to tell his story through social media and interviews. More recently, the Chicago Archdiocese revealed that several priests, including four who remain in ministry, have had children.

Many more stories of children of priests are posted on the website of Coping International, a support group founded and directed by Vincent Doyle, a psychotherapist and son of a priest in Ireland. Doyle has been tireless in pressing the Church for recognition of children of priests and remedies that address their needs and those of their parents. Coping International estimates there are at least 10,000 children of priests and religious in the world today.

 

Shroud of Secrecy

Although not all are linked to the Church’s clergy abuse scandal — Doyle said 95% of the cases he encounters through his work involved consensual relationships — the stories of priests’ children have in common with those of abuse victims the shroud of secrecy that has marked their lives.

Graham, for instance, was told that his father was the man who actually was his stepfather. When, as an adult, he learned of his origins through members of the family in which he was raised, he discovered a web of secrecy had been tightly woven to conceal the truth. As he unraveled the web through persistent and dogged digging, he learned that his parents had been forcibly separated from him and each other with the cooperation of Church authorities.

Doyle, on the other hand, knew his father while growing up, but only as a beloved priest who was his godfather. It wasn’t until years after the priest’s death that he found out his godfather was his biological father.

Growing up in such secrecy can be harmful, Doyle said, because it can lead to emotional neglect and/or abuse and anxiety. The primary damage, he said, occurs when the focus is on what the adults in the situation want — i.e., keeping the identity of the father secret — and not the child’s needs. As secrecy permeates the domestic environment, he said, it can destabilize the child’s emotional well-being through a process Doyle calls “emotional denaturation,” which has lasting psychological and developmental effects.

Doyle said that although he had a good upbringing and never wanted for anything, he would have liked to have been able to call his biological father “father” in the paternal sense.

Asked what would have been the best resolution for his situation, he said, “Probably that the truth was told that the Church and society at large would accept unconditionally a child, regardless of circumstance, a new human being, without falsely baptizing them with adult-centered misgivings.”

However, he recognizes that such openness was not possible at the time.

Graham said he learned from documents in the archives of the Oblates of Mary Immaculate, his father’s religious community, that he had wanted to leave the priesthood, but instead was sent to a rehabilitation camp for priests for 16 years before returning to ministry.

Although Graham separates his situation from the clergy abuse scandal, he said he considers what happened to him to be a form of abuse because of the loss of his relationship with his father. He blames the Church’s lack of transparency, which he said remained years after he sought information about his father.

 

Seeking Transparency

Doyle said he was led to start Coping International because when he found out who his father was, he felt stigmatized by those who thought he should keep quiet about it.

As he has connected with and helped other children of priests through Coping International, he has increasingly made it his mission to fight for greater transparency on this issue and to remind the Church of priests’ responsibilities to the children they father.

In 2014, Doyle was able to meet Pope Francis, introduce himself as “the son of a Catholic priest in Ireland” and give him a copy of a letter he had written to the Irish Episcopal Conference before the bishops issued their “Principles of Responsibility Regarding Priests Who Father Children While in Ministry.”

More recently, Doyle discovered and was able to see the Vatican’s internal guidelines regarding  priests who father children. Although he was pleased to find that the guidelines exist, Doyle said he would like to see them made public. Still, he was surprised to learn in a Feb. 19 meeting in Rome with Msgr. Andrea Ripa, the under secretary, and Father Eamon McLaughlin at the Congregation for Clergy that the guidelines, though private, are used as a template for bishops to view during their ad limina visits so they can create similar documents in their home countries.

Doyle continues to receive indications that Church officials are taking the issue seriously.

In another Feb. 19 meeting in Rome, he said he was told by Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, the president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, that Cardinal Joseph Tobin of Newark, New Jersey, the chairman of the U.S. bishops’ Committee on Clergy, Consecrated Life and Vocations, would be taking up the matter of children of priests. A USCCB spokesman confirmed to the Register that the meeting took place, adding, “Cardinal Tobin has received the request and will be looking at this important issue.” Cardinal Tobin has referred questions about the directive to the USCCB.

Doyle also said Archbishop Charles Scicluna, who, as secretary adjunct of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, has the top role in dealing with the abuse issue, assured him in writing that the phenomenon of priests who father children needs to be acknowledged, that each case should be addressed and handled on its own merits, and that the interest of the child should be foremost.

The guidelines approved by the Irish bishops, prepared after discussions with Doyle, call for giving the needs of the child first consideration. They also specify that a priest who fathers a child should face up to his personal, legal, moral and financial responsibilities, and that his decision to remain in the priesthood or leave should consider the best interests of the child, dialogue with and respect for the child’s mother, and dialogue with Church superiors, taking into account civil and canon law.

Additionally, the guidelines state that neither the mother nor her child should be left isolated or excluded. Doyle said he considers the guidelines to be some of the best devised thus far because they emanate from a commonsense approach to Catholic social justice and Catholic teaching on the family.

 

Leave the Priesthood?

The question of whether a priest who fathers a child should leave the priesthood to support his child remains an open one, given canon law does not contain provisions that specifically deal with such situations.

Father Gerald Murray, a canon lawyer and the pastor of the Church of the Holy Family in New York, said the Church’s response to such cases should be based on seeking what is best for the child and the child’s mother.

Said Father Murray, “This will almost always mean that the priest should seek to be returned to the lay state and take responsibility for raising and supporting his child, either by marrying the child’s mother or by living as a single parent actively involved in raising the child in agreement with the child’s mother.”

In an interview with the Register before his March 13 death, the late Father Robert Kaslyn, an associate professor and former dean of canon law at The Catholic University of America, said that what is essential in such cases is full dialogue with the priest and the woman, identifying what happened and such factors as the length and nature of the relationship.

“Then you have to balance what is best for these two individuals who have given new life,” he said.

For instance, Father Kaslyn said, it might be difficult for a priest to fulfill the obligations of a parent to a new baby and his priesthood as well. Or the woman might not want him involved in her life.

“You need dialogue to find out what’s going on. Maybe he needs a sabbatical or counseling to understand what happened so he’s prepared for the future,” he said. “What are [the woman’s] expectations of him? Often, there is anger at the Church because it seems the Church is supporting him and not fulfilling the obligations to her and the child. Find out what her version is, what is the best scenario for her and the child and how we can bring that about.”

Father Frank Pavone, the national director of Priests for Life, said the priest has an obligation in such cases to respect and protect life and family, but this is based on his humanity, not his ordination.

“A priest is not a priest ‘first.’ He is first a human being, a man, with all the natural rights and obligations that flow from that,” Father Pavone said. “The duty to respect and protect life is not a duty given by a bishop or by any other human being. The priest has that duty already, automatically. That is why, in these circumstances, he has to put first things first, and, with the guidance of those who can help him sort through the many delicate dimensions of a situation like this, he has to make sure that in one way or another those natural obligations toward that child and the rest of the child’s family are being fulfilled.”

Judy Roberts writes from Graytown, Ohio.