12 Feb 2018

Catholic Church asked to acknowledge priest's daughter

12:35 pm on 12 February 2018

Kathleen* holds the rosary that was her mother's.

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Photo: RNZ / Claire Eastham-Farrelly

On the living room wall behind her is the wooden cross that was her father's.

Her father was a Catholic priest.

He took Holy Orders. He had a high profile in the Auckland diocese, said Kathleen. He was meant to be celibate.

"He was a very good priest, a wonderful person, much loved, respected," she told RNZ, in what's believed to be the first time a New Zealander who is the child of a Catholic priest has spoken out.

"And unfortunately the journey that he took meant that he felt that he couldn't acknowledge me when he was alive, which is very sad in itself but it's my reality.

"He must have struggled in his daily life to continue doing what he did and not be able to be a father as he may have liked to have been."

While Kathleen had her suspicions, a half century of secrecy came to an end only about two years ago when she sought and received scientific evidence.

She carried on believing she was virtually the only one, then last year came across the fledgling online support network Coping International, which in three years has been contacted by hundreds of people like her around the world.

She feels both empathy and anger about what has happened.

"I understand how you can love somebody and that I think they had a wonderful, loving relationship... and they loved me very much."

However, the fact her mother, raising the family as a single mother, did not tell her while she was alive "must have been a terrible burden for her to bear, and a great sadness as well".

Listen to an extended interview with Kathleen:

Kathleen's immediate family had been supportive, but the revelation caused division in her wider family.

"Some of it was received well and with others, not at all well."

She has taken the evidence to Auckland Bishop Pat Dunn and asked him to acknowledge her identity in writing.

When first asked by RNZ for comment, the Catholic Church initially said it did not know enough about the situation to comment and that it was a private matter.

Bishop Dunn has not raised the matter with the Church's National Office for Professional Standards.

He told Morning Report he had seen the evidence of paternity put forward by Kathleen and it was not enough to confirm the facts.

He said "it's very possible" Kathleen's father was a priest, but he was not certain.

"I have met with her ... and I have huge sympathy for the situation that she's in."

However, he was "caught between a rock and hard place" because not all of Kathleen's siblings accepted her story.

"There's expert DNA advice that he may not be the father, he may be the uncle."

He wanted to know the truth too and wished someone had spoken out about it 50 years ago when Kathleen was born.

"If it's the truth ... then I'm more than happy to acknowledge it."

Kathleen's story had come as a "real shock" to him.

He was aware of only one other priest who had fathered a child in the 25 years he had been in the Church.

Cardinal John Dew, the Catholic Archbishop of Wellington, did not acknowledge requests to speak to him about the issue.

RNZ asked if seminarians are taught about the fact that some priests do father children. The Church's written response did not say yes or no.

Asked a second time, a spokeswoman said: "Candidates are made aware that some priests have had children. Priests and candidates for the priesthood do not live in a bubble... The church recognises the complexities involved."

"How I'm treated will be a public measure of how the Church treats other children of priests," Kathleen said.

"So I'm setting a precedent and I suppose they have to tread carefully and I do understand that. I don't want anything from the Church. I want them to acknowledge that I am the daughter of a Catholic priest, and that the other people that follow should also be embraced and supported by whatever means they need."

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Photo: RNZ / Claire Eastham-Farrelly

Marie Collins was on the Vatican's commission for safeguarding children for three years and said she had brought the issue of priests who had fathered children forward several times.

"It wasn't seen - particularly from the Church-based members of the commission - as an issue that we should be concerning ourselves with," she said.

"I know since I've left the proposal was brought back again to the commisison and they have taken it up as an issue that they want to follow."

Ms Collins believed it had been common practice in the church worldwide that mothers would be asked to sign a confidentiality agreement to not reveal who the father was, in exchange for financial support.

"Priests are not being accused of abuse [in these circumstances], but obviously the Church was dealing with it in the same sort of way ... in that there's absolutely no reason for any child who was fathered by a priest to feel any shame at all."

The guidelines from the Church in Ireland now made clear the father's first responsibility was to the child [and] that the best interests of the child was the most important, "whereas the church have been doing the opposite".

* Not her real name. RNZ has agreed not to identify her, her family or the priest.