Children of Catholic priests live with secrets and sorrow
With his parents already dead, Jim Graham pleaded with his Aunt Kathryn and Uncle Otto to tell him the truth about his family. Finally, Kathryn unfolded a newsletter published by a Catholic religious order and slid it across the table. She jabbed a finger at a picture of a sad, balding figure wearing a priest’s clerical collar.
“Only the principals know for sure,” she said, “but this may be your father.”
Jim Graham studied the picture. Those were his eyes, his nose, his mouth. Then he skimmed the obituary of the priest, the Rev. Thomas Sullivan, a cleric who had graduated from Boston College and trained for the priesthood in Tewksbury.
If a life can have a crystallizing moment, for Jim Graham that 1993 meeting was it, discovering that his father might have been a Catholic priest, rather than John Graham, the distant man who raised him with scarcely a kind or comforting word.
Jim Graham couldn’t know in that moment that the stunning secret which had seemed his alone was not that unusual. By any reasonable measure, there are thousands of others who have strong evidence that they are the sons and daughters of Catholic priests, though most are unaware that they have so much company in their pain. In Ireland, Mexico, Poland, Paraguay, and other countries, in American cities big and small — indeed, virtually anywhere the church has a presence — the children of priests form an invisible legion of secrecy and neglect, a Spotlight Team review has found.
Their exact number can’t be known, but with more than 400,000 priests worldwide, many of them inconstant in their promise of celibacy, the potential for unplanned children is vast. And this also comes through loud and plain: The sons and daughters of priests often grow up without the love and support of their fathers, and are often pressured or shamed into keeping the existence of the relationship a secret. They are the unfortunate victims of a church 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.
The church likewise makes no formal provision for the support — emotional and financial — of the mothers involved, or their children, allowing priests who father children to treat their secret offspring as a crisis to be managed rather than a life to be nurtured.
Sometimes, these sons and daughters are young when they learn of their father’s identity, and first feel the absence of a true paternal presence and bond.
“All I ever wanted was for him to take me out in public for an ice cream and say, ‘I’m so proud of my daughter,’ ” said Chiara Villar, a 36-year-old suburban Toronto woman who has known that her father was a priest since she was a toddler, but was told to refer to him outside the home as an uncle. “I just wondered why he couldn’t be my dad, so I started to take the blame on myself.”
Others, like Jim Graham, make the discovery as adults. For a few, the knowledge comes as a relief, the answer to years of longstanding doubts and troubling questions. But many others are shattered by the blunt truth, and their feelings of disillusionment and abandonment can lead to lives scarred by sundered relationships, substance abuse, and suicidal thoughts. Many find their faith in the church itself broken, as they recognize that an institution held out as a beacon of moral truth has countenanced, or looked past, priests who father children but shun a father’s responsibilities of support, attention, and love.
Emily Perry learned that her father was a priest in perhaps the most shocking way possible: Her older brother saw a TV report about a Salem priest who had fathered two children and later abandoned their mother to die when she overdosed on sleeping pills in 1973. Perry’s brother soon learned that the Rev. James D. Foley was their father and shared the cruel news.
“The first time I went to church after the story came out and I found out he was my father, it really bothered me,” said Perry, who was 31 and living in Stoughton when she learned the truth in 2002. “I walked into the church and said, ‘Wow, this is more important to you than your own child or the woman who bore your own children?’ ”
Still more children of priests, especially those put up for adoption, never know the identity of their biological fathers.
Church regulations provide nothing in the way of direction to priests on what they should do if they father children, relying on the priests’ generosity — or, simply, their conscience — to determine how much support to provide. And though priests have doubtless been fathering children throughout the long history of the celibacy requirement, canon law is silent on the subject of a bishop’s responsibility when one of his priests fathers a child.
Some priests in cases reviewed by the Globe took their responsibility seriously. They were devoted fathers, albeit in private. Some promised the women who mothered their children that they would leave the priesthood, though few ever did; and still others consoled the women with assurances that it was only a matter of time before the church dropped the celibacy requirement, which pope after pope, including Francis, has declined to do.
But even in cases where the priest tried to be a good father, the tension between the demands of faith and the demands of family can be wrenching. Villar’s mother finally stopped believing the man who fathered Chiara would keep his word when he vowed to abandon the priesthood; she wound up marrying another man.
Often, the priests failed to take full financial or legal responsibility for their children, and neither the church nor the women who bore their children took any legal action. In 10 cases reviewed closely by the Globe, only two of the mothers went to court to obtain child support, while others left it up to the priests to decide how much to provide for their offspring, and found scant help there.
Six children received no financial support from their biological fathers at all. And priests who did provide child support made the payments, in some cases, on the condition that their identities remain secret.
In some cases, the demand for secrecy was unnecessary. The mothers were devout Catholics who deferred to the men who were not only the fathers of their children, but representatives of God. Their deference echoes that of victims of clergy sexual abuse who told the Spotlight Team investigating that scandal that they were often reluctant to report their abusers, imagining they themselves were somehow to blame for what had been done to them, since their abusers were considered holy men.
Vincent Doyle, the son of a priest and founder of Coping International, a website that offers support for the children of priests, noted that if only 1 percent of the 400,000 priests worldwide have fathered a child, there would be a minimum of 4,000 sons and daughters of priests who may need emotional and other assistance from the church.
Priests fathering children has been a fact of church life for so long that the Irish, to name just one example, have put a name to it. The Irish surname McEntaggart, for instance, comes from the Gaelic for “son of a priest,” while the surname McAnespi is commonly thought to mean “son of a bishop.”
It was a plain fact of life, but not of public discourse.
“People knew, but didn’t talk,” Dublin Archbishop Diarmuid Martin told the Globe.
But global leaders are beginning to pull back the curtain on the phenomenon. Three years ago, in a blistering report on clergy sexual abuse, the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child worried that Catholic priests were coercing women who bore their children into remaining silent in exchange for financial support.
The UN committee asked the Vatican to “assess the number of children fathered by Catholic priests, find out who they are and take all necessary measures to ensure that the rights of those children to know and to be cared for by their fathers is respected.” The committee gave the Vatican until Sept. 1 of this year to respond.
Recently, the Vatican’s office at the United Nations in Geneva invited Doyle to meet with its ambassador, Archbishop Ivan Jurkovič, adding that the office is “constantly” working on a response, although it declined to provide details.
“Since we are getting closer to the finalization of the work we are not in the position to release any declaration or forecast on the Report,” read the e-mail Doyle received.
After the encounter, Douglas, who had been living in Madrid, returned to Spain and resumed her life. She exchanged letters with Inneo and, after running low on funds, decided to move to Buffalo to be near her friends. There, she quickly found a job as a music teacher and began an intimate relationship with the man who had charmed her in the Buffalo bar. When Inneo finally told her that he was a Catholic priest, she could hardly believe it.
“It was like a bad joke,” Douglas said.
Inneo promised to leave the priesthood. Douglas, a working, single mother who had fled the Communist regime in her native Cuba, chose to believe him. She traveled the short distance to Niagara Falls, Canada, where Inneo served as a priest, and moved into the church rectory. She said she worked as a housekeeper, played the organ during church funerals, and continued her intimate relationship with a man who had promised to live a life without sex.
All the while, Douglas said, Inneo pocketed the money she earned, promising to invest it in a better future — principally real estate — that they would share when he left the priesthood.
“ ‘Just give me a chance, just give me a chance,’ he always said,” Douglas recalled.
Douglas resolved to be patient, until she was faced with another surprise. “I got pregnant with Chiara,” she recalled. “It was a shock. I didn’t know what to do.”
She told Inneo, but he still wasn’t ready to leave the priesthood and she grew convinced he never would. She had met his domineering mother and other family members while posing as Inneo’s “friend” and felt certain his family’s religious beliefs and his own devotion to the clerical life were too strong to be set aside. She was sure he would never openly acknowledge he had fathered Chiara Villar.
The truth would have to remain their secret, a choice that, however generously intended, would prove damaging to Villar. “I said, ‘Your father is a secret and you have to keep it a secret.’ Because Anthony would deny he was her father and it would be hurtful to her,” Douglas told the Globe.
Her mother’s admonition could scarcely have been more confusing to Villar. Just before she started kindergarten, in the mid-1980s, she was told never to let anyone know that the man she knew as “Papi” was her dad. And if anyone asked, she was to tell them Inneo was her uncle.
Always a dutiful daughter, Villar took the instructions to heart, though it was impossible for her to understand why she had to lie — or to imagine the price she would later pay for living that lie.
“I don’t think either one of them understood the psychological trauma that telling me that I had to lie would cause,” Villar said.
Inneo had been a frequent visitor to the small apartment where Villar lived with her mother and her older sister. He delighted in lifting his daughter high in the air so she could reach for his nose, and he took hours of video of himself playing with his baby girl.
“I was the light of his world,” Villar said.
But the lie governed her life.
When her mother dropped the young girl off for a visit with her father at the rectory, Villar would sprint from her mother’s car to where Inneo was waiting by an open door. “I’d quickly run inside because I was afraid of anyone seeing me with my dad, because it was clear to me I was to hush up,” she said.
As she grew older, Villar occasionally played the rebellious teenager during these visits, lighting a cigarette or telling her father she was having sex, which wasn’t true, to spur his concern and remind him she needed his attention. For a few hours the act would work, until the visit drew to a close and her Papi once again became Father Inneo.
“Behind closed doors, he was my dad, but in an instant, when I walked out to my mom’s car, it was like, ‘OK, Chiara, God bless you.’ It was all so Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde,” Villar said.
The burden of secrecy never affected Villar’s grades at a local Catholic school. In fact, she was an A student and the prom queen. By all appearances, she was doing beautifully.
She wasn’t. Feeling guilty and unworthy of her father’s love, she punished herself in various ways, including regular cutting.
“I started to take the blame on myself. I started to contemplate whether I was even important enough to live. I started to cut myself because I loved this man so much,” Villar said.
In the 1990s, leaders of several women’s religious orders issued a series of confidential reports to the Vatican saying that the sexual abuse of nuns by priests living in Africa and other parts of the developing world required immediate attention. One report described a 1988 incident in Malawi in which the local bishop dismissed leaders of a women’s congregation after they complained that local priests had impregnated 29 sisters.
In the report, Sister Maura O’Donohue said she was aware of similar incidents in more than 20 countries, including the United States, Ireland, and Italy.
In another report, O’Donohue, a doctor with the Medical Missionaries of Mary, wrote that a leading African priest said “quite openly” that “celibacy in the African context means a priest does not get married but does not mean he does not have children.”
According to the National Catholic Reporter, which reviewed the still-confidential reports and revealed their existence in 2001, the senior nuns who described the problem also provided documentation that in “a few extreme instances priests impregnated nuns and then encouraged them to have abortions.”
But, as it did with early reports of clergy sexual abuse, the Holy See treated the pregnancies as an isolated phenomenon, rather than a sign of a widespread but hidden problem. “A few negative situations must not make us forget the often heroic faithfulness of the vast majority of monks, nuns, and priests,” a Vatican spokesman said at the time.
Meanwhile, there were fresh accounts of priests who had fathered children. And the drumbeat of scandal grew louder, even as the church continued to treat each incident as an unfortunate exception.
Perhaps most famously, Eamonn Casey, a charismatic bishop in Galway, was forced to resign in 1992 following revelations that he had fathered a child with an American woman, Annie Murphy, who teamed up with a writer to publish a gushy book about their affair, “Forbidden Fruit.”
Annie Murphy and her son, Peter, then 17 and living in Connecticut, became instant celebrities. “I talked to an Irish [reporter] in the morning and went to school and thought, ‘OK, that will be it,’ ” Peter Murphy recently told the Globe. “But when I came home, I’d say there were more than 100 reporters slathering round our condo complex.”
A stream of similar scandals followed Casey’s downfall, each publicly treated as an outlier:
■ In 2006, a Mexican priest, the Rev. Marcial Maciel Degollado, was forced to resign and relinquish his position as leader of the influential religious order the Legionaries of Christ after formal charges by the church that he sexually abused seminarians. In 2009, a year after his death, the order disclosed that Maciel had fathered several children by at least two women.
■ In 2009, the president of Paraguay, Fernando Lugo, acknowledged he was the father of a 2-year-old boy who was conceived while Lugo was a Catholic bishop. The mother said that Lugo began the affair when she was 16 and studying for her confirmation.
■ In 2012, the popular Los Angeles bishop Gabino Zavala quietly resigned after revealing to church officials that he was the father of two teenage children who were living with their mother in another state. The archdiocese said it would offer the mother support, including help with college expenses.
There are many more. Anecdotal evidence is so abundant, in fact, that at least one noted Catholic scholar believes the children of priests may outnumber the victims of clergy sexual abuse. In the United States alone, more than 18,500 people have alleged they were victims of clergy sexual abuse since 1950, according to information gathered by the National Conference of Catholic Bishops and reviewed by the Globe.
‘Celibacy is a difficult bar for a young man to overcome to become priest, so young men who do overcome that bar are going to be the most highly committed.’
D. Paul Sullins, a priest and sociologist at The Catholic University of America, said his belief that priests with children may be more numerous than priests who abuse children is based on common sense: “It’s a much less common impulse for an adult male to want to have sex with a child than it is to have sex with a woman.”
Sullins, who has a wife and children, is one of about 125 Catholic priests in the United States who were permitted to remain married after serving as clergy in the Episcopal Church and converting to Catholicism.
Yet in his recent book, “Keeping the Vow: The Untold Story of Married Catholic Priests,” Sullins favors maintaining the celibacy requirement.
“Celibacy is a difficult bar for a young man to overcome to become priest, so young men who do overcome that bar are going to be the most highly committed young men,” he said in an interview. “I think that has tremendous advantages for the church.”
Finding the answer would not be easy because “the principals,” as his aunt called them, were dead. Sullivan had died in March 1993, according to the obituary his aunt showed him. And Graham’s mother, Helen, had died the previous November.
But Graham soon learned that there might be documents that told the story. He learned from a close friend of his mother’s that she had moved from the Buffalo area to Manhattan with Jim when he was still a toddler.
There, she entrusted him to the care of a Catholic orphanage, the New York Foundling Hospital, and took a nursing job at a Queens hospital.
When Graham received his records from the orphanage, he felt he’d struck gold: A cover letter referred to John Graham, the Buffalo gas station owner who had raised him, as his stepfather. And the records referred to Jim Graham as an “o.w. child,” or a child born out of wedlock.
He was not John Graham’s son after all.
The records, more than 30 typed pages covering the year 1947, indicated that Helen Graham had hoped to gain sole legal custody of Jim Graham as well as two older sisters, both fathered by John Graham and still living in Buffalo. The records referred to a sympathetic “alleged father” of young Jim Graham living nearby and said that Helen Graham was so fearful that her husband would discover her whereabouts that she was going by her maiden name, Helen O’Connell.
She had good reason to fear: John Graham was planning to divorce his errant wife and win legal custody of all three children. He soon headed to New York City to gather evidence that Helen was having an affair.
A transcript of their divorce proceedings, which a detective agency located for Jim Graham, shows that in the early morning hours of July 29, 1947, John Graham, his brother Otto Graham, a friend, and several private investigators went to an apartment at 332 W. 45th St., where they believed John Graham’s wife was staying. After persuading the superintendent to give them a key to room number 5, they barged in on an unsuspecting couple.
“When you walked into the room what did you see?” the judge in the divorce case asked Otto Graham, the elderly uncle Jim would later confront at his breakfast table.
“We saw a man getting out of bed. He was unclothed. He was just slipping on a pair of pants,” Otto Graham answered.
“What else did you see in the room?” the judge asked.
“We found Mrs. Graham in the room. She was just getting out of bed and putting a smock on,” Otto Graham answered.
“Did you know the man?” the judge asked Otto Graham.
“Yes, sir,” he replied.
“Where did you know the man from?” the judge asked.
“From Buffalo,” Otto Graham said.
That was all he was asked to say, but it was enough: John Graham won full custody of all three children. After that, Helen O’Connell made yearly visits to Buffalo to see Jim Graham and his two older sisters.
The fate of her lover was scarcely less bleak. Jim Graham obtained some of Sullivan’s personnel records from the Eastern Province of the Oblates in Washington, D.C., and they told the story of a priest facing an emotional crisis after something “serious” happened in Buffalo around the time Jim Graham was born.
First, Sullivan was transferred from Holy Angels Church in Buffalo to the Oblate College in Newburg, N.Y., on or before Jan. 1, 1947, about the time Jim Graham’s mother left for New York City. The transfer was made, the records say, “to protect him and save him” from “a serious occasion.”
A month later, however, Sullivan departed the college without leaving a forwarding address, saying he did not intend to return. “I have heard that he wishes to be left strictly alone and that he is through with the Oblates,” one notation said.
‘I look so much like my father. I must have been a constant reminder of the man who took his wife away.’
Still, it wasn’t long before Sullivan had a change of heart. The records show that just two months after John and Otto Graham caught Helen Graham in bed with her lover, Sullivan attempted to return to the life of a priest.
It would not be easy. The Oblates suspended many of his privileges, and, for the next 16 years, Sullivan lived on the grounds of a retreat and religious shrine in upstate New York, translating religious texts and performing menial tasks.
Eventually, after Sullivan was deemed “rehabilitated,” and after completing assignments in Georgia, Nebraska, and Ohio, he returned to the Lowell area, where he had attended the local schools, and moved into the Oblate Infirmary in Tewksbury. He died there in 1993 after what his obituary describes as “a long illness.”
Jim Graham still visits Sullivan’s grave in the small cemetery on the infirmary grounds. He now thinks he understands why his stepfather, John Graham, treated him so indifferently.
“I look so much like my father,” Graham said. “I must have been a constant reminder of the man who took his wife away.”
Today, Graham is seeking official confirmation from the Oblate order in Rome that Sullivan was his father, but to no avail. The Globe attempted to interview officials in the Oblate order, but requests delivered through mail and e-mail remain unanswered.
“I have tenaciously and respectfully approached the church, all the way to Rome, to tell me the truth,” Graham said. “So far, they have not cooperated.”
Many other children of priests do get that chance, but often find frustration and sorrow in the effort to build a paternal bond. Of the sons and daughters of priests interviewed by the Globe, no one tried harder to win a father’s love than Chiara Villar.
After making regular visits to the Rev. Anthony Inneo’s home with her partner, Jason, Inneo was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. And when Inneo’s family moved him to a home for the elderly without telling her, Villar was heartbroken.
But Villar eventually found her father’s address, and, when she visited him, her father no longer recognized her. She showed him photos of his two granddaughters on her phone and told him that they loved him. Then, Villar bade her Papi a final farewell.
“He hid me all his life and would ultimately get Alzheimer’s and truly forget me,” she said.
Additional video footage by Taylor de Lench/Globe Staff