Making Noise about the Default Silence That Greets a Priest's Son

Irish Examiner
January 18, 2021

Vincent Doyle discovered, as an adult, that his father was the man he had known to be his godfather, and a different type of father at that: the Rev. John J Doyle, a Catholic priest.

In the words and world of Vincent Doyle, everything turns on one sentence, posited early in his new book. "When I found out who I was," he writes, "like Truman, I wanted out."

Yet while Truman Burbank, "star" of the 1998 movie The Truman Show, lived in an entirely fake world, Vincent's was hyper-real, maybe a little surreal.

He had discovered, as an adult, that his father was the man he had known to be his godfather, and a different type of father at that: the Rev. John J Doyle, a Catholic priest.

As he writes in his book, entitled Our Fathers - A Phenomenon of Children of Catholic Priests and Religious and the first of its kind, the penny dropping made perfect sense once he considered the depth of the bond they had shared.

"Why did this priest mean so much to me, and why did I mean so much to him? Nobody else seemed to matter that much to him, and he was different with me than he was with others? We had our private communication.

"We customarily put our thumb up toward one another, indicating being best buds. He smiled so lovingly at me, and we spoke daily. Whilst I willingly accepted this happiness, it similarly made no sense? It became increasingly difficult when he died, as the grief customarily associated with a boy who is not a son did not match that which I felt internally."

So when Vincent said he "wanted out", it wasn't an escape from a terrible secret, or from the fact that his father had been a priest - it was from the silence that accompanies it.

Vincent has told this story before. In a revealing piece with the Boston Globe back in 2017, he outlined in some detail the circumstances of the big reveal, and how it altered his life.

So anyone expecting his book - long in gestation - to be a straight-up autobiography is looking in the wrong place.

"I never saw the point of an autobiography," he says, having revealed that he's watching his sausages brown in a nifty device he bought in Lidl.

When someone asked him a while back was he going to be telling his life story in stereo his response was "oh God, that is so trashy".

So instead, it is the story of how the revelation at the centre of his life sparked him into action, namely founding Coping International, which seeks to help the children born of religious around the world, and a journey that has taken him from the Longford of his youth and his current surrounds in Co Roscommon to the Vatican.

As he puts it in the book: "The 'Iím the only one mentality', referring to children who believe they are the only priestís child in the world is so strong, it convinces people almost beyond belief, that they are the only one. Nothing could be further from the truth."

His death in 1995 hit me hard, for it was the grief of a child for his father.

The story of how he came to discover the true identity of his father does bear retelling.

"I first found out about my own paternity in 2011, on the evening of what would have been my fatherís 72nd birthday, it was a Thursday," he writes.

"I knew him only as JJ, he was my godfather, and I loved him with a love only a son could have, for his father. Whilst I went along with the godfather role as a child openly, I internally suspected there was more to our closeness than met the eye.

"His death in 1995 hit me hard, for it was the grief of a child for his father."

That day he found himself leafing through a 40-year-old folder of poems, including ĎAer Lingus Jet, Saint Bridgití which fell on the floor, "a poem written by the priest whose memory sat nestled in the back of my mind".

"Reading the poem slowly, I felt something internally crack, a recognition, an awareness, and I knew ... he was my father, wasnít he?Ē

He recalls how "a tear escaped my motherís eye, and the sense of relief that overcame me was like a prisonerís first breath of fresh, free air".

I have never been silenced by anyone wearing a collar," he says. Instead, the negative response was from "people I knew - it surprised me.

He almost cheerfully admits that when he made his own discovery, he was "naive" about its impact on others. He was happy to tell people about it, but some weren't receptive to hearing it.

"I have never been silenced by anyone wearing a collar," he says. Instead, the negative response was from "people I knew - it surprised me."

Vincent Doyle.

"We live in an Irish society that allegedly expounds human rights and that has never been truer than in the last couple of years in Ireland, yet why is it that people like me are expected to 'behave ourselves'? I didn't realise there was any stigma until it was put to me.

"I was speaking to a woman about this yesterday - when you find out you are the child of a priest you immediately appreciate there is a default silence around your existence. A systemic, institutional silence around your existence."

This is what Vincent has been striving to change - and in a way that some people might find surprising.

He speaks of an "innate" interest in the Church from a young age, something he "couldn't put his finger on". He switched from studying languages at Dublin City University to Theology at Maynooth University - the same college where his father had studied.

In the book he says his father had guided him on this path and says "Maynooth was never about attaining a piece of paper for me. Maynooth was and remains to be, a reconnection with some interior part of me, a role I could not fathom."

What it also gave him was a firm theological grounding, which - alongside his subsequent qualification as a psychotherapist - has set him up perfectly for his role in Coping International.

Theology is the lingua franca he shares with the Church. He grounds his arguments in the language of canon law. It means he is working with the Church and the hierarchy in Rome and elsewhere, to address the issues felt by the "children of the ordained" (the term he prefers to "children of priests").

"It is the appeal to reason in theology that is penetrating this," he says, although he adds: "I am not very big on diplomacy, the politics of the church - I have zero time for this."

But as a religious person, someone steeped in faith, he does have time for the Church, and it seems it has time for him.

The book highlights the support Coping International has received from the Irish Bishops, and in particular, Archbishop Diarmuid Martin.

If priests fathered only one in every 10 who have logged onto the site, this equates to more than 15,000 children of priests seeking help, information, and affirmation globally, and rising.

In a complete reversal of the old ways of omerta, Vincent seems to have been pushing an open door with the Catholic hierarchy in this country, the papal nuncio, and increasingly with those in Rome.

In June 2014, by arrangement, he had a few minutes with Pope Francis, telling him "Soy el hijo de un sacerdote IrlandesĒ - ďI'm the son of an Irish priest.Ē

By the following December was launched and since then more than 150,000 unique visitors have logged on.

According to Vincent, "if priests fathered only one in every 10 who have logged onto the site, this equates to more than 15,000 children of priests seeking help, information, and affirmation globally, and rising.

"Even if only 0.5% of the unique visitors to Coping are the child of a priest, as it stands, thatís over 7,500 children of priests, many of whom believe, 'Iím the only one.'"

He says the building of that relationship of trust, then the backing of Irish bishops "really moved things on", although he has some strong words regarding what he sees as the complete lack of support from the government, including successive Ministers in different portfolios.

He argues that this enables any continuing stigma and is also at odds with the United Nations' recognition of the need to address the issue.

Yet despite the huge leaps forward, the Church also has work to do, and Vincent comes up with some practical solutions, rooted in theology.

It means addressing 'Silentium', the process of silencing the child of an ordained person or religious, and "The Moral Argument", described as "the unceasing and unyielding claim that a priest or religious must leave priesthood, ministry, in every case, if he becomes a parent", something Vincent believes is a form of coercive control.

Other Latin terms, Viri Probati and Parens, can, he says, "heal this wound for children moving forward", while he adds: "The Catholic Church needs married priests, not only because there is a shortage of priests, but because there is a shortage of good priests who are good fathers. Thus, the Catholic Church must enable, not disable, these priests and religious, assisting them in becoming good and responsible parents."

As he writes in the book: "Being connected to children of priests globally, the fact that married priests and unmarried priests do the same work, as has been confirmed by the Catholic Church."

It led him towards "a twofold solution": "Firstly, to allow men to remain in ministry - if they are parents - in certain circumstances, as opposed to fostering unemployment. Secondly, looking into the long-term, married clergy, Viri Probati..."

Of course, his own hugely positive relationship in life with the man he later discovered was his father is not a universal experience.

He writes of "the stories of rape" elsewhere in the world and refers to a set of twins fathered by a priest banished to South Africa and now living in a wendy house; of children of priests enduring a "sense of distractedness" in their lives which hampers them going forward.

"The child of the priest grows suspicious over time since no secret is absolute," he writes.

"I have seen this process occur time and time again, with people that have presented to Coping. The motherís fear of the paternity being discovered promotes anxiety within her.

"Anxiety and fear encourage distractedness, absent-mindedness, or preoccupation on behalf of the mother. It is the disharmony that surrounds the mother where suspicion grows on behalf of the child. This encourages the child to seek out the root of this prolonged disharmony. For him, it's about transparency, accountability, and practical solutions to improve the lives of those affected, including through therapy and counselling."

He says he was lucky in that his was a positive experience. There's a pause. "Saying that I still lament the fact that I wasn't able to call him my father and that does hurt me. I think there is something very wrong with the faith if it disallows the children to look at their fathers with admiration."

It all begs the question: what would his father have thought of the path he has taken with all this? Not just uncovering the story, but embracing it to the extent that he is now working with others all around the world?

"My dad was a chilled-out kind of a guy," he says. "I don't think he would have done what I have done, I was quite forceful."

It is all still a work in progress. He thinks again and says: "What my dad would say is the ends and the means must be in tandem."








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