As It Happens

'A long time coming': Priest's daughter welcomes Vatican disclosure of clergy who have children

As Catholic leaders convene in Rome for an unprecedented conference on sexual abuse within the clergy, revelations of a secretive Vatican document are shedding light on another rarely-discussed controversy.

Sarah Thomas has interviewed people all over the world whose fathers are Catholic clergy

Sarah Thomas, herself the daughter of an ordained Catholic priest, has been studying the issue of children born to priests and nuns in the Catholic church. (Submitted by Sarah Thomas)


As Catholic leaders convene in Rome for an unprecedented conference on sexual abuse within the clergy, revelations of a secretive Vatican document are shedding light on another rarely-discussed controversy.

Earlier this week, the Vatican confirmed the existence of a document that outlines how to deal with Catholic clergy who break their vow of celibacy and father children, the New York Times reports.

Sarah Thomas, the daughter of a Catholic priest, called it a groundbreaking admission. She is a PhD at Open University in the U.K., where she researches the issue of priests with children.

Here is part of her conversation with As it Happens host Carol Off.

What does it mean for you that the Vatican has acknowledged that it does have a document that deals with clergy who have children?

I think it's a long time coming. And I think it's not a surprise that they do have a secret way of dealing with clergy who have children.

A Vatican summit press conference was held on Monday on the topic of preventing clergy sex abuse. (Gregorio Borgia/Associated Press)

Have you actually seen the document?

I haven't seen it, but my good friend, Vincent Doyle, who runs Coping International [a support group for the children of priests] has seen it.

When did you find out that you were a daughter of a priest?

I'd always been told that my father was a lecturer in a London university, which he is. But when I was 12, I found out that he was also a Catholic priest.

My mother and father met when she was doing a theology degree, and he was a seminarian training to be a priest. And he'd implied that he'd like to leave the priesthood, like lots of his friends had done, and [marry] my mother.

But when he found out that she was expecting me, he wasn't happy at all. And a senior priest suggested strongly that he hurry through ordination and become a priest.

Have you ever met your father?

I met him the first time when I was 14.

I've since been given letters that show that there was a pre-decided thing that he would never have a father-daughter relationship with me — whereas I was getting into the meeting hoping that we could have a relationship.

So the meeting was quite cold. And then he said he couldn't see me again until I was 18, because my mother had said, as I was doing exams at the time, she didn't want me to be sort of disturbed by more meetings.

And then I met him a handful of times, but I haven't seen him since 2004.

Financially, did he support her at all?

He he did send bits of money, but they were always accompanied by letters I've still got that said if she or I ever identified him or speak about his identity, then the money would stop.

Pope Francis arrives to lead the weekly general audience at Paul VI hall at the Vatican on Feb. 13. (Alessandro Bianchi/Reuters)

Have you met a lot of other children of priests, and [do you] know their stories?

I've interviewed many priest children from around the globe — and some of their mothers, and some former priests who've also fathered children.

One thing that's common across any country in any culture with children of priests is the secrecy.

And over 70 per cent of the participants I've interviewed say they feel shame and stigma.

The document apparently says that protection of the child is paramount, and that that's the fundamental principle. And that the guidelines request — not demand, but request — that the father, the priest, leaves the priesthood to assume the responsibilities of helping [to] raise the child. So ... does that fit with any experience that you've had, or others have had?

The child's welfare is not put first at all, and neither is the mother's.

Also, by suggesting — as it does in the document — that the priest leaves the priesthood, it's actually helping to further the secrecy that surrounds this, because priests who know this are not going to be open to their bishop about the fact that they fathered a child, because they don't want to leave.

A lot of the kids of priests around the world are in countries where the priest still has a great deal of authority and say over their spiritual lives. ... So how difficult do you think it is in other places, other parts of the world, for people to come forward?

In Colombia, I was speaking to the mother of a priest child, and she's scared. I mean, lots of mothers are fearful — and lots of bad decisions are based on that fear.

If the community knows, she's scared that that child is going to be taken away from her and that she'll be ostracized. And that's actually very common in many places.

Irish psychotherapist Vincent Doyle kisses Pope Francis' hand at St. Peter's Square in 2014. (Associated Press)

There's a Vatican conference starting tomorrow, that deals with sexual abuse within the church — a quite controversial one, as I'm sure you know. ... Do you know if there is going to be any discussion about the issue of all the children of priests that the Vatican actually acknowledges?

Vincent Doyle is going to be taking part, and hopefully his voice — and therefore through him the voices of many children around the world who are fathered by priests — are going to be heard and have a place in that conference.

Produced by Richard Raycraft. Q&A edited for length and clarity.