One bright morning three years ago, Vincent Doyle joined the thousands of Catholic faithful jamming St. Peter’s Square for a chance to see Pope Francis make his weekly public appearance and bestow his blessing on the crowd.
Unlike most of those standing in the searing Roman sun, Doyle was headed to a front-row seat in a reserved section very close to where the pope would emerge, and he was already silently rehearsing an urgent message in the pontiff’s native language.
“I am the son of a Catholic priest in Ireland,” he repeated in Spanish, praying he would not become tongue-tied or overcome with emotion when he met the Holy Father.
Doyle learned at the age of 28 that the beloved godfather he grew up calling “J.J.” — a Catholic priest from a rural diocese in central Ireland — was, in fact, his biological father.
J.J. had died years before, leaving Doyle with many unanswered questions. But, after discovering his true father and meeting a woman whose father was also a Catholic priest, one question in particular would drive him: Just how many children of Catholic clergy are there?
Though there had been notorious scandals in the 1990s involving Irish clergy who fathered children, there was little reliable information on the larger subject of priests and their offspring, Doyle found. So he came up with his own solution: He built a website he called Coping International and invited anyone who was the daughter or son of a priest to contact him.
Soon, he was hearing from dozens of people living in countries throughout the world, many of whom had suffered psychologically, or financially, while growing up without a caring father. And as they spoke to one another through a private Facebook forum, a community began to emerge, a community that may number in the thousands.
Now, sitting in his front-row seat at the Vatican, Doyle gripped a Spanish translation of a letter he had written to a conference of Irish bishops, who would be meeting the following Monday to consider addressing the needs of the children of priests. He wanted the pope to have a copy — and a reminder that it was time, past time, for the church to finally act.
Then, Pope Francis appeared. The crowd roared. And for a moment Doyle felt as if he were at a Rolling Stones concert.
When the Holy Father approached, Doyle did not flinch. He kissed the pope’s fisherman’s ring, introduced himself in Spanish, and stood by as Francis placed an arm around his shoulder and appeared to be reading the first paragraph of the letter that shared Doyle’s story and his hopes.
“He had a deep, sincere look on his face,” Doyle recalled. “Then he held the letter to his heart and said, ‘Si, si, I will read.’ The last thing I said to him was, ‘You have until Monday!’ ”
Celibacy had been a requirement for Catholic priests for more than 350 years by the time Rodrigo Borgia of Spain became Pope Alexander VI, in 1492. The College of Cardinals had elected him despite unmistakable evidence that he wasn’t following the rule: four children by his mistress Vanozza Catanei, all born after he was ordained a priest.
Borgia was perhaps the most notorious of at least four popes known to have fathered children over a 100-year span during the Renaissance, even drawing what the Catholic Encyclopedia calls “a scathing letter of reproof” from another pope for misconduct “so notorious as to shock the whole town and court.” His infamous lifestyle fueled outrage that helped trigger the Protestant Reformation, the great religious upheaval in which emerging Protestant leaders offered many complaints about church practice, including that celibacy was an unnatural requirement and an invitation to hypocrisy, like Borgia’s.
“The pope has as little power to command (celibacy) as he has to forbid eating, drinking, the natural movement of the bowels or growing fat,” said Martin Luther, the German theologian who incited the Protestant revolt.
Church leaders nonetheless reacted by affirming celibacy at the Council of Trent in 1563, and they have never wavered through the centuries. Even during the liberal 1960s, when many priests hoped they would soon be allowed to marry, Pope Paul VI disappointed them by reaffirming priestly celibacy, calling it “a brilliant jewel” and a cherished way of life intended to help priests dedicate themselves as completely as possible to the church and the people it serves.
And so Cardinal Sean P. O’Malley, the archbishop of Boston, was being to true to this long tradition earlier this year when he praised celibacy during a special Mass at the Cathedral of the Holy Cross in which priests renewed their vows of ordination. O’Malley said he found it “difficult to imagine the face of the church today if we had not had a host of men and women throughout the ages who renounced home, spouse, and children for the sake of the children of heaven.”
But church officials have been less eager to formally address a painful byproduct of its commitment to priestly celibacy: the children who are sometimes conceived when priests stray. Although the children of Renaissance popes may have lived in luxury, the children of priests today often have nowhere to turn. While some quietly receive financial support from their fathers’ bishops, many others are dependent on their priestly father to decide how much time and money to devote to their well-being, while he conceals the fact that he’s become a parent. Only in rare circumstances have mothers braved public scrutiny and sued for child support.
‘Fundamentally, a child has a right to know their father and the father has fundamental obligations towards his son or daughter.’
The Code of Canon Law, the internal system of laws, regulations, and principles the church uses to govern the Catholic world, is entirely silent on the subject, leaving bishops whose priests father children without formal guidance, and consigning many of the children to lives of secrecy, unmet needs, and shame.
A few Catholic leaders have publicly called for the church to address the issue. Archbishop Diarmuid Martin of Dublin, who provided funds to help Doyle launch Coping International, said bishops can require priests to honor their financial and emotional obligations to their children — and they should.
“Fundamentally, a child has a right to know their father and the father has fundamental obligations towards his son or daughter,” Martin explained.
And the conference of Irish bishops recently approved a set of guidelines requiring every priest who fathers a child to “face up to his responsibilities — personal, legal, moral, and financial.”
O’Malley, a key adviser to Pope Francis and head of the pope’s advisory commission on protecting minors, declined repeated requests for an interview to discuss the church’s responsibility to the children of priests.
He did, however, issue a statement saying that any priest who fathers a child has “a moral obligation to step aside from ministry and provide for the care and needs of the mother and the child.”
O’Malley said the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, which he leads, has decided it will not address the needs of children of priests.
“After careful consideration of this important issue, it was judged to be beyond the Commission’s mandate,” O’Malley said. “The Commission determined to refer this issue to the Holy See for further review.”
One former member of the commission said O’Malley’s statement represented a retreat on the issue. Marie Collins of Ireland said that O’Malley and other commission members last year supported her call to investigate the needs of children of priests by sending letters to church officials to determine current policies and procedures.
“I am disappointed” at the reversal, said Collins, who resigned from the commission in March to protest what she saw as the Vatican’s resistance to reform. “If a child is fathered by a Catholic priest and he is not fulfilling his parental duty to that minor, then surely the church cannot also abdicate its responsibility for the welfare of that child.”
Vincent Doyle, a practicing Catholic, knew exactly what he was in for when he began to champion the cause of the children of priests — a hard push back from a powerful institution that has shown a remarkable ability across centuries to resist change, even in the face of tectonic social forces.
Doyle believes he will ultimately succeed, largely because he’s tackling the issue from inside, not outside, the church. “I’m doing this because I love Catholicism,” he said. “I just don’t like the fact that my faith is being used to keep the children of priests a secret.”
As a teenager, Doyle often felt troubled for reasons he could never quite identify. He felt a strong connection to the church, and the priesthood, but wasn’t sure how to act on that inner pull. He even enrolled in a seminary in Spain, only to return to Ireland a year later.
“This confusion usurped all of my attention to the point that all I knew was that I was somehow connected to the priesthood,” he said.
Doyle also believed that his inner turmoil had been triggered by the death of his godfather, the Rev. John J. Doyle, when Vincent was only 12 years old.
As a boy, Doyle was especially close to J.J., as the priest was often called, spending nearly every weekend with him. From time to time, they would stop at a park overlooking the River Shannon. There, they’d take a walk or kick a soccer ball around before sharing a picnic lunch.
“It was all very magical,” Doyle recalled.
Even as a toddler, he was powerfully drawn to J.J., his mother recalled. She would put her little son in the aisle at the Church of the Sacred Heart in Arva and watch as he crawled up to the altar where the Rev. Doyle was saying Mass. The priest would pick up the little boy and place him near him, and the child would watch quietly as his godfather completed the liturgy.
“I just loved him so much,” Doyle said.
When the Rev. Doyle died of lung cancer in 1995, Doyle felt an absence he was never able to fill.
Then one summer evening in 2011, while visiting his mother, he happened upon a folder of old poems in a drawer. Instantly, he recognized his godfather’s handwriting.
“As I was reading the poems, something came to me, like a clearing,” Doyle said. “I recognized a tone, a diction like my own.” Then Doyle turned to his mother, sitting in the kitchen. “I looked at her and said, ‘He was my father, wasn’t he?’ And a tear hit her eye.”
All at once, a mystery was solved. His mother’s husband, the kindly man who raised Doyle, was not his biological father at all; J.J. was.
“Being told who I was — that was essentially the answer,” said Doyle, who eventually changed his surname, Finn, to the name of his father. “I wasn’t mad. I had been right all along.”
Soon, Doyle was studying part time to become a psychotherapist. When, by coincidence, he met a woman who told him she was the daughter of a Catholic priest, he conceived the idea of the support group he would found, Coping International. His goal was to make his and others’ hidden hurt known to the world — and challenge the church to make a place for them.
“I thought I was unique. I thought I was unusual,” Doyle said. “I was wrong.”
Doyle was motivated in his one-man campaign not only by the pain of his personal experience but also by the hostile reaction of some family members to the news that he had a different biological father than his mother’s three other children. Their distress, Doyle said, had less to do with the family’s embarrassment than with the way Doyle’s true father’s actions reflected on the church.
“I personify and embody the exact opposite of what has been promulgated by the church for centuries,” he said. It was a reaction that Doyle said filled him with “anger, fury.”
“It was this experience of rejection and abandonment that was my first witness to stigma against children of priests,” he said. “I felt so hurt, so let down,” adding that only his mother stood by him.
As an advocate, however, Doyle has tried to avoid letting his anger show and sidesteps unnecessary fights. That’s why he avoids taking a stand on the hot-button issue of priestly celibacy, even though many of the children of priests who have contacted him are convinced that the requirement is unnatural and lies at the heart of their suffering.
“If the pope walked in the door right now and said we’re going to get rid of celibacy, I’d say great. But that would not deal with the issue at hand, which is what to do about the children of priests today and in the near term,” he said.
London school teacher Sarah Thomas had been haunted for years by her father’s refusal to play an active role in her life. When she discovered at the age of 12 that he was a priest, she imagined him as “a jolly man who would of course want to be part of my life.” But the reality was quite different: a cold office visit during which he made no effort to embrace or even touch her.
Later, when she was 20, her father erased any lingering doubt about their connection: She nearly died from a fall while on vacation in the Canary Islands, and her father declined to come to her bedside.
“I think I’d always felt guilty, that it was my fault, that I had sort of scuppered his life by being born because I was such an annoyance that had to be hidden,” she told the Globe.
When she contacted Doyle through his website, she told him that her father had pressured her mother into keeping his identity a secret — even from his daughter — by threatening to withhold child support payments if she ever told anyone he had fathered a child.
Doyle thought the church owed Thomas an apology, or at least the opportunity to share her story. So he contacted Cardinal Vincent Nichols, the archbishop of Westminster, who oversaw Thomas’s father, and asked for a meeting.
Nichols agreed. And when Thomas told Doyle she was worried about another cold encounter, Doyle assured her he’d accompany her to meeting.
It proved to be a turning point.
Nichols, who is also president of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales, was contrite on behalf of the church and later wrote Thomas a letter of apology. He said her father should have informed his bishop when she was conceived and, if he had, he would not have been allowed to complete his training as a priest.
“I express my deep regret for so much that followed from that error of judgment, particularly the sense of rejection which you have experienced over many years,” wrote Nichols in the March 17, 2016, letter.
Despite the deep hurt she felt, Thomas told Nichols she did not want her father sanctioned in any way, in part because she believes he has been a good priest and in part because she feels the celibacy requirement is really to blame for his failings — and her sorrow. Nichols, she said, abided by her wish.
Thomas would later write a book about her experience as the daughter of a priest, “Dying to be Free,” under the pseudonym Hannah Robinson. And she’s been accepted by a PhD program at The Open University, outside London, where she plans to study the use of social media by the children of priests as they build a new community.
The pope missed the deadline Vincent Doyle set.
Three years after his encounter with Pope Francis, Doyle has yet to hear back from the Vatican. And his letters, phone calls, and e-mail to American prelates — including O’Malley — have largely fallen on deaf ears.
But in Ireland, a predominantly Catholic country hit especially hard by revelations of clerical sex abuse, Martin and other Irish bishops have been eager to hear Doyle out and to take up his cause.
“I expected a fight. I expected doors closing. But they just welcomed it,” said Doyle.
They also, rare among those in the church hierarchy, welcomed questions from the press.
Archbishop Martin, an outspoken supporter of clergy abuse survivors, agreed to a taped interview with the Globe without asking for questions in advance. And over the course of an hour, he expressed his support for the rights of the children of priests, frankly discussed the difficulties posed by managing priests who father children, and noted the lack of any guidelines in canon law.
“One solution is he marries the girl,” Martin said, which would mean the priest would have to give up his job. He added the same would be likely be true “if the relationship between the priest and somebody was an abusive one . . . a person like that, you know it’s very hard to see how they belong in the priesthood.”
Three months ago, on May 29, the Irish Episcopal Conference, the confederation of Irish bishops, showed Doyle that his efforts have not been in vain when it approved its “Principles of Responsibility Regarding Priests Who Father Children While in Ministry.”
While the five principles do not require Irish bishops to discipline these errant priests and do not require priests who father children to leave the priesthood, they clearly state that the primary duty of a cleric with a daughter or a son must be to care for his child and to “face up to his responsibilities — personal, legal, moral, and financial.”
The Vatican has yet to respond, but it seems unlikely the Holy See would do anything to weaken the principles because Pope Francis has appeared to take an even harder line — similar to O’Malley’s — saying at one point that he would be inclined to tell a priest who fathered a daughter or a son that “he must leave his priestly ministry and take care of his child.”
Pope Francis made this comment in a book, “On Heaven and Earth,” which he wrote when he was archbishop of Buenos Aires, then known as Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, with Rabbi Abraham Skorka. In the book, Bergoglio says he could imagine situations in which a priest who fathers a child could be allowed to remain in ministry, if he expresses remorse. But he makes clear the priest’s first responsibility would be to his child, not the church.
“Natural law comes before his right as a priest,” Bergoglio says.
Doyle, while he has cheered the set of principles approved by the Irish bishops, believes it is essential for the Vatican to adopt something similar, so the rights of the children of priests can be affirmed and protected by dioceses around the world.
He shrugged off the news that O’Malley’s commission on protecting children has decided to refer the matter of the children of priests to the Holy See.
“The Vatican running away from an issue is hardly news,” he said.
Over the last few years, Doyle said, O’Malley has declined to respond to several letters, including one that he personally delivered to the Cathedral of the Holy Cross while visiting Boston earlier this year.
On that day, Doyle even attempted to meet with O’Malley by appearing unannounced at the archdiocesan Braintree offices with his wife, Emer, on a rainy day in April. Although staffers invited him in and heard Doyle out, O’Malley did not meet with him, much less embrace him as Pope Francis did that sunny morning in Vatican city.
But Doyle said O’Malley hasn’t seen the last of him.
“What if you went through life and you didn’t do anything?” he said, when asked to explain his persistence. “What if you went through life and didn’t try to help your fellow man?”