Discussions surrounding sexual abuse and immorality in the Church should also address the challenges and injustices facing children of priests and religious, said the founder of a support website for such children.
Psychotherapist Vincent Doyle founded Coping International in 2014, after two years of research, as a way to offer resources and support for children of celibate priests and religious. In the Latin Catholic Church, priests are generally required to remain celibate, that is, unmarried, with limited exceptions made for faith leaders who have converted from some other Christian traditions.
“I wanted to have a Church-supported ministry on a global level for children of priests and religious, male and female,” he told CNA. “I wanted to work with the Church as opposed to working against the Church…to try to get the solution to come from the inside out.”
Doyle said that when he raises the issue, he is met with “a lot of automatic default responses.” People are often dismissive, assuming that children of priests and religious are rare or nonexistent.
“I wanted to have some qualitative and quantitative data so I could actually speak,” he said.
Doyle launched the website Children of Priests International — copinginternational.com — in December 2014. But he didn’t tell anyone about it. He wanted to see how many people were searching for it.
Two and a half years later — with no marketing, media attention, or international advertising — he said the site had received more than 400,000 hits.
As of today, he said the website has received nearly 1 million visits from around the world — more than 175 countries — but every month since the website was launched, Ireland, England, and the United States have been among the top countries driving traffic to the site.
Doyle said this suggests that children of priests and religious are far more numerous than many people realize.
But in many ways, the Church is failing to address — or even acknowledge — the unique challenges faced by these children, who often live in secrecy and shame, he said.
Doyle said he has seen the greatest success in Ireland, where the national bishops’ conference last year outlined “Principles of responsibility regarding priests who father children while in ministry.”
The document stated that while individual situations will vary, “the needs of the child should be given first consideration.” The father should recognize his responsibilities, it said, and the mother should be fully involved in decision making.
In 2015, the executive secretary of the Irish Bishops’ Conference stated in a letter that confidentiality agreements involving priests fathering children are unjust if they compromise the consent of parties involved, or if they “hinder the basic goods of mother and child.”
Doyle said the Irish bishops’ guidance is a model for other countries. Now, he would like to see greater acknowledgement for the children of priests on a global scale, and said he has reached out numerous times to the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors.
In October 2017, Bill Kilgallon, then a member of the commission, responded to correspondence from Doyle. Kilgannon clarified that the commission does not deal with individual complaints, nor does it have the authority to give directions at any level of the Church. Rather, the commission is an advisory body that offers counsel to Pope Francis and the bishops’ conferences and religious superiors of the Church.
Kilgallon said that at the commission’s most recent meeting, it was decided that the Guidelines Working Group, which he chaired at the time, should consider developing guidelines on how the Church could address the children of priests. He told Doyle that his working group would be examining existing guidelines — such as those issued by the Irish bishops — and working with curial offices in Rome as it moved forward.
However, Kilgallon’s term on the commission concluded in 2017, and he was not reassigned. Doyle said it is unclear whether the working group’s discussion on the matter is still slated to continue, although he said he has written to Cardinal Sean O’Malley, president of the commission, about the matter.
He said the recently released Pennsylvania grand jury report confirms his speculation that there is an overlap between sexual assault of minors and children of priests.
The report, which documents more than 1,000 abuse allegations from the last 70 years, included accusations involving teenage girls who said they had become pregnant as the result of rape by a priest. Children conceived in sexual assault are also victims of abuse, Doyle stressed, and failing to recognize this is compartmentalizing abuse.
Doyle hopes the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors will recognize a connection between priests fathering children and the sexual assault of minors, and examine the questions, “How many children have resulted as a consequence of that abuse?” and “What are the traumas inherited by these children?”
In this way, he said, the Church can take a first step toward ministering to these children, and offering them the material and psychological assistance they may need, with a focus on ensuring that the natural rights and pragmatic needs of the child are not sacrificed in an attempt to keep the matter silent.
He hopes that Pope Francis will address the issue, and that every bishops’ conference will create a response, possibly using the Irish guidelines as a model.
In cases when assault and abuse are not part of the picture, but when there is a consensual relationship between a priest and an adult woman, the Church’s response should not focus on scandal, which stigmatizes the priest, but on the wellbeing of the child, he said.
“The presence of a child compounds what is already a very difficult situation,” Doyle said. “It’s about pastoral care. It’s about psychological assistance. That’s, for me, what should be the starting point — to minister to these people.”