On a winter afternoon in 2016, Michelle Raftis’s long search brought her to the steps of St. Michael’s Cathedral, the seat of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Toronto. She was nervous, and had carefully prepared what she would say to Cardinal Tom Collins.
She was done with secrets and lies.
Raftis is the daughter of a Catholic priest, a truth the 55-year-old had to hide most of her life. She wanted to know why the church she was raised in allowed a priest to abandon his child.
“I wanted a written apology from the church,” Raftis says.
In Canada and around the world, children of priests have emerged from the shadows to press the Vatican — and their local dioceses — to recognize they exist.
The Vatican appears to have no data on the number of clergy who break their vows of celibacy and father children. But with more than 400,000 Roman Catholic priests ministering to 1.1 billion Catholics, offspring are likely to be found across the globe, says Bill Kilgallon, who recently finished a three-year term as a leading member of Pope Francis’s Commission for the Protection of Minors.
In Canada alone, about 20 sons and daughters of priests have personally contacted Coping International, a recently formed online support group out of Ireland that is pushing the Roman Catholic Church and its priests to acknowledge parental responsibilities.
The Star spoke to four of these now adult children, and to a Quebec woman who sued a diocese over the priest who fathered her son.
The children all struggled with the guilt of a suffocating secret, the financial and emotional strains of being forsaken by their biological father, and the silence of priests focused on avoiding scandal.
The truth was further buried by mothers who didn’t tell their dioceses that a priest had fathered their child. During the 1960s and ’70s when these children were born, such an admission would have deeply shamed the women.
Raftis learned at 13 that her biological father was Rev. Charles Van Item, a family friend who died in 2015. Her mother warned her to never tell anyone.
“When he was alive, I didn’t want to embarrass him, which is funny to say because he walked away from his (parental) duties,” says Raftis, a Catholic grade school teacher who lives in Barrie, north of Toronto. “I didn’t want to embarrass my mother, either.”
Raftis bottled it up, and while still in her teens developed “a major ulcer.” Later, she would struggle with her mental health.
She confided in her future husband when they were dating, and he was supportive. But her attempt to tell her father-in-law reinforced the indictment she long expected from God-fearing society.
“What would you call the child of a priest?” she tentatively asked him. “The devil’s child,” he replied.
“That clamped me up, big time,” Raftis says.
On the March day Raftis walked into Collins’s basilica office for that scheduled meeting in 2016, the cardinal greeted her and her husband Ed warmly. They sat in high-backed chairs, a round coffee table separating Raftis and her husband from the cardinal and another priest.
She asked for written acknowledgement that Van Item was her father and an apology from the church for what she considers a breach of trust. Collins didn’t dispute Van Item’s paternity but declined her requests. He offered instead to pay for counselling.
In an interview, Collins said he first became aware of Raftis’s case when Coping International contacted him in August 2015, almost four months after Van Item died. He adds it’s the only case of a priest fathering a child he’s come across during 21 years as a bishop.
If a similar case comes up on his watch, Collins says his message to the priest would be unequivocal: “I would tell him: ‘leave the priesthood and become responsible for your child.’
“When you are the co-creator of another human person, who is a child of God, you have very strong and weighty responsibilities,” he adds.
Collins insists that the actions of priests like Van Item shouldn’t raise doubts about the vow of celibacy. “It says nothing about celibacy, any more than adultery says anything about marriage. What it says in both cases is about the frailty of the human person, and their need to repent and do what is right.”
He sees celibacy as a tradition that dates back to Jesus and St. Paul, one that “ennobles” those who commit to it. “Our sacred commitments, whatever they may be, make us more profoundly what God wants us to be, and they focus life in a glorious way,” he adds.
Catholic priests could happily marry until the 12th century, when ecumenical meetings known as the Lateran councils banned them from doing so. According to the Vatican’s secretary of state, Archbishop Pietro Parolin, the ban wasn’t strictly enforced until the Council of Trent in the 16th century.
Eastern rites within the Roman Catholic Church, such as the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, allow married men to become priests. And married Anglican priests who convert and become Roman Catholic priests can remain married. But celibacy remains a mandatory vow for seminarians entering the Roman Catholic priesthood, and a topic of heated debate as the number of priests declines worldwide.
Pope Francis’s predecessor, the now retired Benedict XVI, called celibacy for priests “a sign of full devotion” to the Lord and repeatedly insisted it was here to stay. Francis has been less categorical. He has raised the possibility of ordaining married men as priests. And before becoming pope, he described celibacy as a matter of tradition, rather than dogma. “It can change,” he added.
In the meantime, the Vatican has failed to recognize the children of priests, despite striking modern examples.
In 2012, Los Angeles Bishop Gabino Zavala resigned after acknowledging he was the father of two teenage children. In 2006, a Vatican investigation revealed that Mexican priest Marcial Maciel Degollado, founder of the Legionaires of Christ order, had fathered several children with two women and sexually abused seminarians. In 2001, the National Catholic Reporter published the contents of several reports by women’s religious orders, describing the sexual abuse of nuns by priests in some two dozen countries.
Pressure is mounting for the church to hold such priests accountable as parents.
In France, Anne-Marie Mariani founded in 2012 an organization called the Children of Silence, which supports the sons and daughter of priests. Her parents fell in love in Algeria in the 1950s, when her father was a priest and her mother a nun. She’s written three letters to Pope Francis calling on him to ease the emotional burden of children like her with a gesture of recognition.
“Children of priests are everywhere on Earth and there’s not one word for them from the Vatican,” says Mariani, 67, by phone from Paris. “We’re a reality that isn’t talked about. What are they afraid of?”
The efforts of these children are bearing fruit.
On Aug. 31 last year, the Irish Catholic Bishops’ Conference blazed a trail by issuing “principles of responsibility regarding priests who father children while in ministry.”
“The wellbeing of his child should be his first consideration,” the bishops state. “At a minimum, no priest should walk away from his responsibilities.”
The statement was a direct response to the efforts of Coping International, a self-help mental health resource founded by Irish psychotherapist Vincent Doyle, himself the child of an Irish priest. “If a priest can take care of his flock, he can take care of his child,” Doyle says. He adds that dioceses shouldn’t make that more difficult by forcing these fathers to quit the priesthood, thereby leaving them unemployed.
The Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops seems unwilling to follow Ireland’s lead. It told the Star it is “very concerned” about priests who break their vow of celibacy. But the consequences of sexually active priests are strictly matters for local diocese and religious orders, according to the conference’s media relations official, Deacon René Laprise.
The Vatican may decide the matter for them.
Last September, after lobbying by Doyle and an article on the issue in the Boston Globe, Vatican officials asked the Commission for the Protection of Minors to expand its mandate and develop church guidelines for the children of priests. Kilgallon personally informed Pope Francis in a subsequent meeting that the task had been given to a commission working group.
Kilgallon hopes the Vatican guidelines force a sharp change in the approach of local churches, which he describes as mirroring the way they historically dealt with priests who sexually abused children.
“The reluctance has been the feeling that if you admit things openly it can damage the reputation of the church, it can damage people’s faith in the church,” says Kilgallon, who until February was also director of the National Office for Professional Standards of the Catholic Church of New Zealand.
“What the (sex) abuse issue has shown is that the best way to protect the church is to protect the children, not the other way around,” he adds in a phone interview from his Auckland home.
In 2012, when Pope Francis was Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio of Buenos Aires, he was quoted in an interview as saying that a priest who fathers a child “has to leave the ministry and should take care of that child, even if he chooses not to marry that woman. For just as that child has the right to have a mother, he has a right to the face of a father...”
...Margaret Jong, vice-chancellor of the Diocese of St. Catharines, said the diocese is “not aware of any priests in ministry at present who have children...”
...Writing on behalf of Bishop Gerard Paul Bergie, Jong said the diocese does not have a policy about priests who father children.
“If the bishop learned that a priest had fathered a child, he would want to ensure that the priest take responsibility for his child,” Jong said. “Of course, parental obligations would take precedence over responsibilities to the church. In most cases, if a priest wanted to pursue a relationship and have a family, he would voluntarily leave ministry, rather than leaving it to his bishop to make the decision to remove him from ministry...”
Read Toronto Archbishop Thomas Collins’ full reply to the Toronto Star.
Read Margaret Jong’s full reply to the Toronto Star.
Wednesday, April 25, 2018
Children of Roman Catholic priests are speaking out
As if the Roman Catholic Church doesn't have enough scandals to deal with in regard to homosexuality and pedophilia, scandals involving heterosexual misconduct are now coming to light. As reported by Mary Ormsby and Sandra Contenta of the Toronto Star, April 17, 2018 (links in original):