New Zealand’s Catholic bishops have discussed and reflected upon the issue of children of Catholic priests who have promised celibacy.
In a message to Coping International’s Vincent Doyle sent last month, New Zealand Catholic Bishops Conference communications advisor Amanda Gregan noted that the bishops “firmly believe that the rights and sensitivities of the child and the mother should be respected and that being the father of a child carries with it particular responsibilities”.
The bishops also referred to civic guidelines and policies in New Zealand concerning a child’s right to know his or her natural parents, adding they (the bishops) would be guided by this practice.
Mr Doyle, an Irish psychotherapist whose own father was a Catholic priest, had previously worked with Ireland’s Catholic bishops in developing a set of “principles of responsibility” regarding priests who father children while in ministry. Five principles were developed and the second states that “the needs of the child should be given first consideration”.
Mr Doyle reportedly requested the New Zealand bishops adopt the Irish principles on this matter.
In the message to Mr Doyle, Ms Gregan stated that the New Zealand Catholic bishops had “read with interest the Irish bishops’ guidelines”.
But the New Zealand bishops will “continue to follow their own pastoral practices in regard to any encounter that may arise”.
It was noted that pastoral praxis in multicultural New Zealand is informed “through a wide range of resources, expertise and reading and in turn every pastoral encounter is subject to a context which should never be predetermined”.
Mr Doyle told Radio New Zealand that it was good that the New Zealand bishops were trying to come to terms with the concept, but they lacked the experience to handle it.
Last September, New Zealander Bill Kilgallon briefed Pope Francis on a decision by a working group within the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors to take up the issue of children of priests.
Mr Kilgallon, who is no longer on the pontifical commission, told NZ Catholic that what was being envisaged at that time was “fairly simple principles on the child’s rights to know its parents, and also the responsibility of someone who fathers a child”.
These principles, once completed, would be made available to bishops’ conferences around the world.
“I think this will be on the commission’s agenda at their next meeting, and they should be able to say then how they are going to take it forward,” he said.
“It’s not as simple as saying if somebody has a child, they should go and work and look after them, because you have got to look at each circumstance, because not every child is conceived in a happy, consensual relationship.
“So each one has to be dealt with individually — but starting from some common principle, particularly about the rights of the child, the respect for the mother, and also about complying with any legislation in the country that pertains to it about financial responsibility as well as moral responsibility.”
Mr Kilgallon added that it is likely that any guidelines would include “a strong discouragement from having secrecy clauses, which in the past were used and that is a real infringement of the rights of the child and of the mother — because particularly the child has a right to know its father”.
He added that it is likely “the commission is likely to go down the route of saying the rights of the child are the starting point, because that’s’ what the [commission’s] guidelines have said in terms of abuse, that you start from two foundations — one is the Gospel and the second is the UN Convention of the Rights of the Child”.
Mr Kilgallon said this is not a new issue in the Church; “it has been around forever”.
“But there has been a really good example of someone working and taking an issue here with Vincent Doyle. And he has clearly met a real need because he has had a lot of responses around the world to this issue [largely through his website]. A lot of people, from his own experience, have been in this situation, as the child of a priest.
“He’s worked well to bring it to attention, not in order to damage the Church in any way, but in order to enable these people to get help and get some understanding of their own situation, their own lives and access to information that they should have.
“It is a natural thing to know who your parents are.
“It is absolutely in the interests of the Church, I think, to be honest and open about it.”
Mr Kilgallon said he thought the number of children of priests in New Zealand would be quite small.
There was recent media coverage of an Auckland woman getting acknowledgement from the Church that she was the daughter of a priest.
In 2014, the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child expressed concern to the Vatican about the issue of children of priests.