The Vatican has acknowledged for the first time the existence of secret guidelines for priests who break their vows of celibacy and father children.
However, it declined to make its advice public, saying it was an internal matter. Alessandro Gisotti, a Vatican spokesman, told the New York Times that the “fundamental principle” of the 2017 document was the “protection of the child”.
The document requests that a cleric who has fathered a child leaves the priesthood to “assume his responsibilities as a parent by devoting himself exclusively to the child”. Gisotti told CBS News that the document was “for internal use … and is not intended for publication”.
Survivors of clerical sexual abuse from around the world are gathering in Rome this week to hold vigils and protests outside an unprecedented summit of senior bishops and other church figures called by Pope Francis.
The number of children born to priests is unknown although one support group, Coping International, has 50,000 users in 175 countries. Some children are the result of consensual relationships, but others are the result of rape or abuse.
According to Vincent Doyle, the son of a priest and the founder of Coping International, the issue of clerical offspring is “the next scandal” to confront the church. “There are kids everywhere,” he told the New York Times.
A commission set up by Francis to tackle clerical sexual abuse was tasked with looking at how the church should respond to the issue of priests’ offspring.
Irish bishops have published their own guidelines, saying that if a priest becomes a father, the “wellbeing of his child should be his first consideration”. The document adds: “A priest, as any new father, should face up to his responsibilities – personal, legal, moral and financial. At a minimum, no priest should walk away from his responsibilities.”
Some people have argued the Roman Catholic church should drop its requirement for priests to take a lifelong vow of celibacy. They say it may be a factor in sexual abuse, and that it deters people from signing up for the priesthood, with many countries now having an acute shortage of priests.
The eastern Catholic churches have a long tradition of married priests, and exceptions to the celibacy rule have been made on a case-by-case basis for former Anglican priests who convert to Catholicism.
But last month, Francis said he was opposed to any general change to the centuries-old tradition. “Personally, I think that celibacy is a gift to the church,” he said. “I would say that I do not agree with allowing optional celibacy, no.”
Exceptions could be considered in “very far places” where there was “a pastoral necessity” owing to a lack of priests, he said.
An Irish-born priest spoke out against celibacy in the priesthood in the final days of his life.
A priest born in County Kerry has used his final words to question the compulsory celibacy undertaken by priests in the Catholic Church. Fr Daniel O’Leary died in England on January 21, 2019, but used his final column with international Catholic weekly The Tablet to voice his dissent to the requirement.
O’Leary, a well-known spiritual writer, was diagnosed with cancer last June, and wrote the piece, which was published posthumously, so as to be “free of fear and bitterness, and full of love and desire, as I step up for the final inspection.”
“I now believe, with all my heart, that compulsory celibacy is a kind of sin, an assault against God’s will and nature,” O’Leary stated.
“I’m just pointing out that one of the fall-outs of mandatory celibate life is the violence it does to a priest’s humanity, and the wounds that it leaves on his ministry.
“Please remember, I’m only recalling the memories, convictions and awakenings that are filling my soul during these ever-so-strange final days and nights,” he added, acknowledging that some within the church would regard his words as traitorous.
Describing clericalism as “a collective malaise,” O’Leary continued to write: “The enemy, we were warned, back in the 1950s, was a failure in prayer; falling in love was the cancer; suppression, sublimation and confession were the cure. Emotion was the threat; detachment was the safeguard; becoming too human was the risk; the subtle carapace of clericalism was the precaution.
“[It] keeps vibrant, abundant life at bay; it quarantines us for life from the personal and communal expression of healing relationships, and the lovely grace of the tenderness which Pope Francis is trying to restore to the hearts of all God’s people.”
Father Daniel O’Leary was born in Rathmore, Co Kerry in 1937. He trained to be a priest in All Hallows College, Dublin, before moving to England.
An award-winning author of 12 books, he was a regular contributor to The Tablet, The Furrow and other publications, and held Masters degrees in theology, spirituality and religious education.
The Catholic church is in meltdown: the appalling story emerged last week of clerical abuse stretching back decades in Pennsylvania, where at least 1,000 children were the victims of 300 priests.
In the UK, a report on the behaviour of the monks at two leading Catholic schools was released recently. That report, from the independent inquiry into child sexual abuse, details (and believe me, the details are horrendous) abuse over 40 years, affecting perhaps hundreds of children – the true extent of the crimes will probably never be known. As in Pennsylvania, the church authorities tried to cover it up: so in both places, these are double crimes committed by ordained men. First, they abused the most vulnerable young people in their care; and then other ordained men – usually more senior figures – allowed the abuse to continue by seeking to protect, not the children they were responsible for, but themselves and their precious reputations.
And now, after an embarrassing interlude, Pope Francis has spoken out. He has issued a letter – an “unprecedented letter”, we are told. He acknowledges the church’s crimes, he promises zero tolerance (about time) and then he invites “the entire holy faithful people of God to a penitential exercise of prayer and fasting, following the Lord’s command”.
Now, I like Pope Francis. He is charismatic and warm, and seems genuine in his care for the causes a Christian leader should care about. But here, pontiff, I see cardinal red. Because how dare you ask ordinary Catholics like me to atone for the sins of these heinous clerics? How dare you call on us to repent for their sins?
The truth about the Catholic church is that it is not fit for purpose, and it has not been fit for purpose for many years. There was a brief attempt, in the 1960s during the second Vatican council, at reevaluation – and then slam! The door was closed. It’s been run by a self-serving group of misogynistic men for far too long, and now we know they have a shocking number of paedophiles in their ranks. Radical new thinking is called for: those priests in Rome need to look up to the heavens and take in a very big swathe of blue sky.
The biggest horror about asking “the people of God” to repent is this: the church has failed, and failed, and failed again to ask “the people of God” to help it run the institution. It has been all too ready and willing to issue orders to the rest of us – and the miracle is that there are still some Catholic lay people who actually continue to keep some of those orders. Many priests by contrast, as we now know, not only flout the rules but flout them in the worst way possible, by ruining the lives of the most precious people in their midst.
The Catholic church has failed, horribly, to include the very people who could have helped it be a better organisation: its “faithful”. Democracy is dismissed, frowned on, ignored: 50 years ago this year we had a document called Humanae Vitae, that forbade the use of contraception. When the vast majority of western Catholics, in a display of practical democracy, decided to ignore it (the moral position, in mine and many others’ view) it simply buried its head in the sand and said we were wrong. When people like me campaigned and argued for women to be admitted to the priesthood (I am talking about 30 years ago – there are no women who would want to join their ranks now) they told us to be quiet; indeed, debate on the subject was totally shut down by Pope John Paul II. Priests were told not to engage with us on it: I tried it out on a number of occasions, but conversations were brought to an abrupt end.
So it is rich indeed that the pope’s answer to the current troubles is to ask the people to atone for them. He needs to think hard and come up with something very different from all this talk, and indeed from all these meetings with the victims of abuse (we will see that happening again this coming weekend, when he visits Ireland).
Of course it’s good to say sorry: but he’s said sorry repeatedly. Now he needs to do something. The only good news is the miracle that there are still some lay people left in the Catholic church (for some reason all the institution seems to worry about is the lack of priests, when the lack of congregations is a far more critical issue). The proper response to the continuing avalanche of reports on the extent of the abuse is to reduce the power of the clergy – and to call in those who just might be able to give it some help to get back on the rails. In other words: the people of God. Try it, Francis.
Recent news stories about financial settlements with adults who had sexual encounters with a bishop show that the issue of sex abuse in the Catholic Church is not limited to the abuse of minors. When Cardinal Theodore McCarrick was suspended from the priesthood after being credibly accused of abusing an altar boy, it was also revealed that financial settlements for his actions had been made earlier with two adults.
The church has adopted a zero tolerance for the sexual abuse of minors, but how should it deal with other sexual activity by priests?
The requirement of celibacy for priests in the Catholic Church is a topic of debate in the church today. Many, myself included, think that priestly celibacy should be optional, as it is in other Christian churches. Pope Francis has signaled that he is open to considering the ordination of married men but wants the request to come from national bishops’ conferences.
But Francis is also very strong is stating that in the meantime, celibacy must be observed. He would not throw out every priest who violated celibacy; individual lapses can be forgiven. But a priest who is incapable of observing celibacy should return to the lay state, Francis wrote before he became pope, especially if there is a child who has a right to a father.
Not everyone agrees with Francis. Some are less forgiving and would expel from the priesthood anyone who even once violates his promise of celibacy. Others argue that celibacy has never been universally observed and bad laws should not be enforced. In some cultures, bishops know that many of their priests do not observe celibacy and simply ignore it as long as it does not become public or as long as the parishioners don’t complain.
It is unknown how widespread are violations of celibacy. There are lots of anecdotes, but little data. I personally believe that most priests, especially in the United States, observe celibacy. But how are we to think about those who do not?
There is universal agreement that those who have sex with minors should be prosecuted as criminals and expelled from the priesthood. But what about violations with adults? Are there other sexual violations that should be treated by the church with zero tolerance?
Rape or other criminal violations should, of course, receive zero tolerance. These violations should be reported to the police and prosecuted under the law. There is no place in the priesthood for such criminals.
But what about other cases of sex with adults? Many Americans don’t think sex between consenting adults is an issue. But they and the church need to learn from feminists and the #MeToo movement. They have taught us about the danger of sex between adults who are not in positions of equal power.
For the church, this would clearly be the case of a bishop or priest having sex with a seminarian or a bishop having sex with a priest. The relationship here is even greater than that between an employer and employee. A bishop is supposed to be a father to his priests and seminarians. The church needs a zero-tolerance policy toward such abuse. Any bishop having sex with a seminarian or priest should lose his office, as should any priest having sex with a seminarian.
There also are many lay people employed by the church. Surely, the church should follow the highest standards in protecting lay employees from sexual harassment from their supervisors, whether priests or lay. Here the church should adopt best practices developed in the secular world.
There are also pastoral relationships that need to be examined since often the people a priest deals with are very vulnerable.
For centuries, the church has recognized this problem with regard to confessors and penitents. As a result, priests are excommunicated if they absolve their sexual partners.
Secular professionals, such as psychologists, recognize these dangers as well. Clients can be very vulnerable and dependent on their therapist. The feelings and emotions that come up in counseling can be exploited. The church can learn from other professions about best practices.
And what about sex with an ordinary parishioner?
The church needs a frank discussion of these issues with input from the laity. Sex between a priest and adult can be more than simply a violation of celibacy. It can also be a violation of professional ethics. With the advice of laity with expertise in these areas, the church needs to adopt best practices and hold itself to the highest standards. The church needs the help of laity not only in developing standards but also in enforcing them. No profession, including the clergy, is good at policing itself.
For 25 years, Jim Graham has tried to prove he is the son of a deceased Catholic priest who grew up in Lowell and graduated from Boston College.
He pulled old adoption records that mention his “alleged father.” He leaned on leaked documents from a friendly priest and petitioned Catholic leaders all the way to Rome, to no avail.
The quest continued Monday afternoon in a Catholic cemetery in Tewksbury, as a backhoe turned up earth on the Rev. Thomas Sullivan’s grave and promised to provide answers once and for all.
“We missed a lot, the two of us,” Graham said, fighting back tears after the exhumation. “Didn’t have much opportunity for father and son.”
Graham, his wife, and forensic pathologist Anna Marie Mires came to this cemetery on the grounds of an infirmary run by the Oblates of Mary Immaculate to take a DNA sample from Sullivan’s body. The sample will be compared with a sample provided by Graham and should offer a morbid capstone of Graham’s long search for the truth.
Children of Catholic priests live with secrets and sorrow: Jim Graham
“I never wanted it to come to this,” he said days earlier.
Graham, 72, had longed for some kind of confirmation from the Oblates, a 202-year-old Catholic religious order. He sought some acknowledgment that they knew and had tried to save face all these years.
“But they wouldn’t do that so I was left with no choice,” Graham said.
Although his quest appears to be unique, Graham is one of thousands of people around the world with credible claims that they were fathered by Catholic priests, often with no confirmation or financial support from the church. Frequently compelled to lead lives of silence and sorrow, they are the unfortunate victims of a religion that has, for nearly 900 years, forbidden priests to marry or have sex but has never set rules for what priests or bishops must do when a clergyman fathers a child.
Earlier this year, Graham received permission to conduct the exhumation from the Washington, D.C., office of the Oblates and had to overcome a variety of obstacles before the digging could begin.
He acquired a permit from the town of Tewksbury. Later, he went shopping for a drill bit that would be used to bore into Sullivan’s femur, an optimum location for retrieving DNA from a body that may have decomposed.
“So, there I was at Lowe’s buying some of the tools that the forensic anthropologist would use on my father,” said Graham, who was featured in a 2017 Globe Spotlight investigation into the children of Catholic priests. “I’m learning about all these procedures in ways I never thought I would.”
That drill bit came into play Monday. Mires, the forensic anthropologist, said the metal casket was raised from the grave. A nameplate identified the remains as the Rev. Thomas Sullivan, ensuring her that she had found the right body.
Mires said the remains were so well-preserved that she could recognize Sullivan from the photos she had seen. She took a sample from Sullivan’s femur, and three additional samples from other parts of his body, which was standard procedure for her. “From a DNA perspective, I was very happy about that,” Mires said.
The accelerated DNA testing will be done in Virginia, by Bode Cellmark Forensics, and Graham expects to receive test results in about a month. He said the total cost of the exhumation, the forensic anthropologist, a funeral director, and testing will exceed $10,000.
Coping International, a group that provides counseling and other support for priests’ children, has followed Graham’s case.
“I’m happy for Jim and I hope he finally finds closure,” said Vincent Doyle, the son of an Irish priest and the group’s founder. “But this was really a last resort and I can’t help but wonder, after 70 years, was there not a simpler solution?”
The Oblates say there was not. “Nobody is denying Jim’s idea that Father Tom Sullivan was his father,” said the Rev. Thomas G. Coughlin, the assistant to the order’s United States provincial. “We’ve been attempting to put his mind at ease. We just don’t have the information he wishes we would give him.”
Graham remains skeptical of that explanation, and for good reason. For a quarter century, at times working with the help of a detective agency, he has collected documents showing that Sullivan was almost certainly his father. The documents include more than 30 pages of records from a New York City adoption agency, which his mother used for day-care services after she left her husband, the man who raised Graham, in Buffalo, N.Y.
Those records refer to Jim as an “o.w. child,” or a child born out of wedlock, and mention a sympathetic “alleged father” living nearby.
Other records — church documents given to Jim by a friendly priest, and a transcript of his mother’s divorce proceedings — strongly suggest Sullivan deserted the Oblates and moved to New York City at about the same time as Jim’s mother.
The church records show that Sullivan was transferred from a church in Buffalo to the Oblate College in Newburgh, N.Y., about a 90-minute drive from Manhattan, “to protect him and save him” from “a serious occasion.” They also show that Sullivan left the college a month later, without leaving a forwarding address, saying he would never return.
If Graham’s mother and the Rev. Sullivan were attempting to start a new life as lovers and his parents, their plans were abruptly dashed when private detectives raided their New York City apartment. This, according to Graham, gave his stepfather the evidence he used to divorce his mother and retain custody of him and two girls that Graham now believes are his half-sisters.
After the raid, Sullivan rejoined the Oblates and spent the next 16 years doing penance — translating religious texts and performing menial tasks — at a shrine the Oblates maintained in upstate New York, according to church records reviewed by The Boston Globe. When the Oblates deemed him rehabilitated, he fulfilled assignments in far-flung regions of the country and eventually returned to Tewksbury, where in 1993 he died of melanoma in the infirmary overlooking the cemetery where he was buried.
Troubled by questions about why the man who raised him treated him so coldly, Graham carefully assembled the documents and interviewed clergy members, including a nun who knew the priest well. He petitioned Oblate leaders in Rome, asking that they formally acknowledge Sullivan was his father, but to no avail.
Then, last year, when Graham was prominently featured in the Spotlight investigation, he was contacted by a clergy abuse survivor from the Boston area who has been a vociferous advocate for other survivors.
Olan Horne, who was molested by the late Rev. Joseph Birmingham, offered to broker a meeting with Boston Cardinal Sean O’Malley, the leader of a commission established by Pope Francis to study the issue of priests who sexually abuse children and young people. It was Horne’s hope, and Graham’s, that O’Malley would use his influence to push the Oblates to be more responsive.
O’Malley met with Horne in late December, Graham said, although Graham was not permitted to be there. As a result, Graham received a call from the Rev. Louis Studer, the head of the Oblates in the United States, though Studer offered little in the way of help.
“We’ve told him our records contain no reference to any offspring by Father Tom Sullivan,” said Coughlin, Studer’s assistant. “We have records but they don’t contain the information he’d like us to find there.”
But Graham persisted, until the Oblates agreed to allow him to exhume the Rev. Sullivan’s remains, leading him to pursue his quest to the end of the line – the small cemetery here on the grounds of the Oblate infirmary. “I’m pretty persistent,” Graham said. “I wasn’t going to go away.”