Beyond Thorn Birds (again): Vatican confirms there are rules for priests with secret children

Is it just me, or does anyone else suspect that this is a great time for journalists to ask Vatican officials hard questions about the sins of priests who want to have sex with females?

I am not joking about this, although I will confess that there is a rather cynical twist to my question.

Let me also stress that we are talking about serious stories, with victims who deserve attention and justice. We are also talking about stories that mesh with my conviction that secrecy is the key issue, the most powerful force in Rome’s scandals tied to sexual abuse by clergy (something I noted just yesterday).

Still, the timing is interesting — with Vatican officials doing everything they can to focus news coverage on the abuse of “children,” as opposed to male teens, and a few young adults, as opposed to — potentially — lots and lots of seminarians. I am talking about this week’s Vatican summit on sexual abuse.

So first we had a small wave of coverage of this totally valid story, as seen in this headline at The New York Times: “Sexual Abuse of Nuns: Longstanding Church Scandal Emerges From Shadows.”

Now there is this semi-Thorn Birds headline, also from the Gray Lady, the world’s most powerful newspaper: “Vatican’s Secret Rules for Catholic Priests Who Have Children.” Here’s the overture:

ROME — Vincent Doyle, a psychotherapist in Ireland, was 28 when he learned from his mother that the Roman Catholic priest he had always known as his godfather was in truth his biological father.

The discovery led him to create a global support group to help other children of priests, like him, suffering from the internalized shame that comes with being born from church scandal. When he pressed bishops to acknowledge these children, some church leaders told him that he was the product of the rarest of transgressions.

But one archbishop finally showed him what he was looking for: a document of Vatican guidelines for how to deal with priests who father children, proof that he was hardly alone.

“Oh my God. This is the answer,” Mr. Doyle recalled having said as he held the document. He asked if he could have a copy, but the archbishop said no — it was secret.

Now, the Vatican has confirmed, apparently for the first time, that its department overseeing the world’s priests has general guidelines for what to do when clerics break celibacy vows and father children.

So what is the news here, the key element that makes this story a must-cover right now?

Well, it isn’t the fact that Catholic priests have been known to father secret or not-so-secret (in some cultures) children. This hot-button topic has already received some ink in the past year or so, including a report by the most widespread news source possible — the Associated Press (click here for background). The “Spotlight” team at The Boston Globe has also addressed this topic.

No, the time element here is the sexual-abuse meeting and the Vatican’s interesting decision to confirm the existence of these guidelines for how to handle cases in which priests father children.

As for the Times story itself, it’s rather good. To no one’s surprise, this angle — priests with children — leads to another popular topic among critics of Catholic doctrine.

… Stories like Mr. Doyle’s draw uncomfortable attention to the violation of celibacy by priests and, for some former clerics and liberals inside the church, raise the issue of whether it is time to make the requirement optional, as it is in other Christian churches. ...

The tradition of celibacy among Roman Catholic clergy was broadly codified in the 12th century, but not necessarily adhered to, even in the highest places. Rodrigo Borgia, while a priest, had four children with his mistress before he became Pope Alexander VI, an excess that helped spur Martin Luther’s Protestant Reformation.

By the way: It would be interesting to read a news report about these celibacy debates that talked to Catholic CONSERVATIVES who are beginning to ask questions about mandatory celibacy for priests in the Western Catholic rites. Why are some conservatives thinking the unthinkable on this topic? That’s a good question.

As always, it also would have been good if the Times had included a sentence noting that there are Catholic priests (mostly former Anglicans) who are married and that Eastern-Rite Catholic priests (but not bishops) have the option of getting married (before they are ordained).

The most interesting subject in this story, at least for me, was the discussion of whether Catholic priests who father children should be required (a) to leave the priesthood or (b) at least offer to leave the priesthood.

That’s an interesting doctrinal line to draw.

Mr. Gisotti, the Vatican spokesman, said that the internal 2017 document synthesized a decade’s worth of procedures, and that its “fundamental principle” was the “protection of the child.” He said the guideline “requests” that the father leave the priesthood to “assume his responsibilities as a parent by devoting himself exclusively to the child.”

But another Vatican official said that the “request” was a mere formality. Monsignor Andrea Ripa, the under secretary in the Congregation for the Clergy, which oversees more than 400,000 priests, said in a brief interview that “it is impossible to impose” the dismissal of the priest, and that it “can only be asked” for by the priest.

But he added that the failure to ask to be relieved of priestly obligations was reason for the church to take action: “If you don’t ask, you will be dismissed.”

So, the key is that this maybe-requirement gives the Catholic powers that be a chance to make a decision about the future of an individual priest?

What are the key factors here? Consent vs. seduction or even rape? The story also includes remarks from Pope Francis that raise yet another question about sin and motive.

Pope Francis’ remarks on the issue are limited. In his 2010 book, “On Heaven and Earth,” which he co-wrote when he was the archbishop of Buenos Aires, Francis argues that a priest who in a moment of passion violates a vow of celibacy could potentially stay in the ministry, but one who fathers a child could not.

Wait, there is another quote that adds even more complexity.

Canon lawyers say that there is nothing in church law that forces priests to leave the priesthood for fathering children. “There is zero, zero, zero,” on the matter, said Laura Sgro, a canon lawyer in Rome. “As it is not a canonical crime, there are no grounds for dismissal.”

Let’s see if there are many journalists still interested in this topic after the release of openly gay French sociologist Frédéric Martel’s much discussed book — “Sodom” — discussing the lives of homosexuals inside the Vatican.

Stay tuned.

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