Only two weeks after Pope Francis publicly acknowledged the sexual abuse of nuns at the hands of priests and bishops, the Vatican has confirmed it has a set of internal guidelines for Catholic priests who father children. But despite the fact that the church is aware that some of its priests are having children, its leaders have been slow to acknowledge this problem publicly.
Sarah Thomas, who is a child of a priest, says the church told her mother to keep what had happened a secret. When Thomas met her father at age 14, she says that,
“It soon became apparent that he couldn’t or wouldn’t or wasn’t allowed to be any sort of father to me in any meaningful sense.” She says, “I literally thought I was the only priest child in the world,” and she felt incredibly “isolated.”
However, Thomas is far from alone as the website, Coping International, demonstrates. The site provides resources and support for the children of priests and was created by Vincent Doyle. Doyle founded the website after his godfather, an Irish priest, passed away and Doyle discovered that the priest had actually been his biological father.
Doyle says that “the first problem with children of priests is they’re not recognized. When you’re hidden…you are characterized by secrecy.” This secrecy breeds shame and “eats away at their sense of worth.” In addition to providing support, Doyle wants to gather information demonstrating that the children of priests exist and work with the church to bring greater resolution to the situation.
While some assume there are not that many children born to Catholic priests, Doyle’s website indicates the opposite. He started the site in December of 2014 without telling anyone about it so that he could see if the people he intended to reach existed. Within two and a half years, without any publicity or marketing, the site achieved over 400,000 hits, and it currently has 50,000 users.
The Vatican’s confirmation of its internal document is not the first time the church has acknowledged that there are priests who are fathering children. In 2017, the Irish Catholic Church published a document with guidelines for what priests should do in such a scenario. According to CBS News, these guidelines represent the first time the church has ever recognized this problem.
The document begins, “Upon ordination, priests promise to live a life of celibacy in their dedication to Christ and to pastoral ministry in the Church. However if, contrary to this obligation, a priest fathers a child, the wellbeing of his child should be his first consideration.”
The guidelines stress the importance of the needs of the child, the mother being involved in the decision-making, and the priest owning his fatherly responsibilities. It is significant, however, that the document presents guidelines, not stipulations.
Now that the Vatican has confirmed that it has its own set of internal guidelines for priests who are fathers, Doyle says he wants the Vatican to publicly release these guidelines. He also wants Pope Francis to acknowledge that the children of priests do exist. Doyle told CBS that all he is looking for is “two words, three words, four words, that these children are recognized; ‘we acknowledge your pain, we condemn this pain, and we want to fix this pain.'”