The Truth about the "Celibate" Priests Who Father Children - and Then Abandon Them
By Hugh Costello
November 3, 2017
At the age of 12, Sarah Thomas found out that the father she had never known was a Roman Catholic priest.
"Iíd been told he was a lecturer, but being quite inquisitive Iíd always suspected there was information I hadnít been given," she says. "My mother had been too fearful to tell me the truth."
Her situation may sound unusual, but there is a global community of people who have been confronted with the fact that their 'missing' fathers were in fact priests who had taken a vow to remain celibate, while secretly fathering children they would never acknowledge. I travelled from Buckingham, where 39-year-old Sarah lives, to Uganda while making my BBC World Service documentary My Father the Priest, trying to understand why these men would break the vows they took - and the devastation their behaviour wrought.
When Sarah's mother found out she was pregnant two years into the relationship, her then-boyfriend "was very upset and broke it off that day. He never spoke to her again on his own. There was always a senior priest who acted as his adviser."
|Sarah didn't find out her father's identity until she was 12 |
Her fatherís superiors decided he should go ahead and be ordained Ė on condition that Sarahís mother agreed to keep his identity a secret. She was given occasional payments, again with the proviso that she remain silent.
In her mid-teens, through an intermediary, Sarah persuaded her father to meet. "It didnít go quite as I imagined," she recalls. ĎI was expecting that we would run towards each other and be friends forever. But he was very aloof and cold."
Sarah, who is married with three children, shows no trace of bitterness. She was so intrigued when she began to realise how many others were in the same situation that she is now researching a doctorate in the global phenomenon of priestsí children. There are, she believes, many more cases than the Catholic Church - whose celibacy rule dates back to the Middle Ages - is willing to admit.
"It was recently suggested to me by a high-up church official that I was the only priest's child he knew about in south-east England," she says. "Through my research I know nearly 100 priests' children personally from various parts of the world, and have good evidence of the existence of hundreds more, but he said they weren't in his jurisdiction so he didn't want to be told about them."
|Pope Francis has reportedly raised the possibility of married men becoming priests CREDIT: FABITIZIANA FABI/AFP/GETTY IMAGES|
This head-in-the-sand approach is familiar to psychotherapist Vincent Doyle. He founded Coping International, an organisation that promotes the wellbeing of the children of priests, and of their parents, around the world.
"First and foremost, these people are victims of clerical abuse," says Vincent, who is himself the son of a priest. "Itís not right for a priest to put his own preference for secrecy ahead of the needs of the child. This can be damaging, create within the child anxiety and feelings of isolation."
When Gloria, 25, who lives in the Philippines, got pregnant, her lover promised to leave the priesthood and face his responsibilities as a father. Instead, his order whisked him abroad to a new posting.
"After he left, it was very hard to communicate," says Gloria. "Something changed, and I realised he would not keep his promise."
Gloria knows that her son, now five years old, will soon be asking questions, and she plans to tell him the truth. Being honest and open, she told me, will be her source of strength.
|Sarah has met more nearly 100 people who have been fathered - and then abandoned - by priests|
More and more cases are emerging. Peter, 64, who I met in Uganda, was conceived when his mother was raped by an American priest Ė the priest was immediately sent back to the US. Raised in an orphanage when his mother was unable to cope, Peter has suffered psychological problems all of his life, a result, he says, of his neglect and abandonment as a child.
There are signs that the Church is taking action. Pope Francis has reportedly raised the possibility of allowing married men to be ordained in remote areas of Brazil where priests are in chronically short supply. And he recently handed responsibility for the issue of priests' children to a high-powered Vatican commission. One if its members, Bill Kilgallon, explains: "Very often the rights of the child have been ignored, but we have a unique opportunity to try and influence and change the Church for the better."
Itís unlikely that the celibacy rule will be reversed for all priests. But Sarah believes there is a compromise to be had.
"Maybe celibacy should be optional," she says. "That would help future priestsí children to have much happier relationships with their fathers, and the fathers to have less guilt and shame about having relationships with their own children."