VATICAN CITY — Pope Francis’ committee of advisers on protecting children from sexually abusive priests is expanding its workload to include the needs and rights of children fathered by Roman Catholic priests.
Committee members told the Associated Press on Sunday that a working group is looking into developing guidelines that can be used by dioceses around the world to ensure that children born to priests are adequately cared for.
“It’s a horrendous problem in many cultures, and it’s not something that is readily talked about,” commission member Dr. Krysten Winter-Green said.
Indeed, the issue is one the church has tried to keep under wraps for centuries, because of the perceived scandal of priests having sex. But it has gained visibility this year. In August, the Globe Spotlight Team published a two-part series reporting that there are thousands of men and women around the world with strong evidence that they are the sons and daughters of Catholic priests, and that many are forced to lead lives of secrecy and sorrow.
Soon afterward, Irish bishops published a set of guidelines that focused on ensuring the well-being of the priest’s child and the child’s mother, who often suffer psychological problems from the stigma and silence imposed on them by the church.
The Irish guidelines were believed to represent the first comprehensive public policy by a national bishops’ conference on the issue. They have already become a model of sorts: The Union of Superiors General — an umbrella group of male religious orders — has sent the Irish guidelines to their members to apply, and the International Union of Superiors General, the female umbrella group, is expected to endorse them at a November assembly, said Vincent Doyle, a lead campaigner on the issue.
Commission member Bill Kilgallon briefed Francis on the decision of the working group to take up the issue of priests’ children during an audience last week.
Kilgallon said that the issue falls squarely under the broad mandate of the commission, which is officially known as the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors and has as its mission the aim of promoting and protecting the dignity of minors and vulnerable adults.
“If someone fathers a child, they have a responsibility to that child, end of story,” Kilgallon said.
The issue has been placed on the church’s agenda in large part thanks to a campaign by Doyle, an Irish psychotherapist who discovered late in life that his father was a priest. With the backing of the archbishop of Dublin, Doyle launched Coping International, an online self-help resource to help eliminate the stigma he and others like him have faced, and educate them and the church about the emotional and psychological problems that some children suffer. They can include depression, anxiety, and other mental health issues, as well as social isolation and financial hardship.
There are no figures about the number of children fathered by Catholic priests. But there are about 450,000 Catholic priests in the world, and the Catholic Church forbids artificial contraception and abortion.
The Globe reported that the Pontifical Commission had taken up the issue at the request of Marie Collins, a former commission member who resigned earlier this year. But the head of the commission, Cardinal Sean O’Malley, the archbishop of Boston, said in a statement to the Globe that the commission would be not be examining the issue, and would refer the matter to the Vatican.
Reached Sunday night, Terrence C. Donilon, O’Malley’s spokesman, said he could not explain the apparent about-face at the Pontifical Commission. “I can’t comment on it because I haven’t had a chance to talk to [O’Malley] about it,” Donilon said. “You’re telling me something I don’t know.”
Doyle said Sunday he was pleased that the issue was now on the agenda of the pope’s advisory commission, and said there is a very real connection between the children of priests and victims of sexual abuse: He said many of the mothers in question were raped as girls or teens by priests, and are therefore themselves victims of sexual abuse.
“It’s not always ‘The Thorn Birds,’ ” Doyle said of the classic story of young woman’s love for the family priest. “More often than not, there’s rape and pedophilia involved.”