Children of Catholic priests live with secrets and sorrow
By Michael Rezendes | Photos by Suzanne Kreiter | Videos by Emily ZendtAugust 16, 2017
This is the first of a two part Spotlight series.
HE CARRIED HIS DOUBTS and disappointment across miles and decades, from childhood to adulthood, and finally at the age of 48 to the kitchen table of a modest house outside of Buffalo. There, he would ask an elderly aunt and uncle to help him answer the question that had troubled him all his life: Why had his father always seemed to dislike him so much?
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?’ ”