21 April 2023, The Tablet

The children of priests do exist, so why can't they be properly recognised?

The children of priests do exist, so why can't they be properly recognised?

Irish Sinn Féin politician Claire Kerrane has always supported Coping.
Artur Widak/NurPhoto

Last year, I wrote about the Irish Government and their treatment of the issue of the children of priests. Subsequent to this happening, the Irish Government met with the United Nations in Geneva to respond to the UNCRC 2016 Concluding Recommendations, a document wherein the Committee asked the State party to respond to the needs of the children of priests. It was simple enough, you would think. I only wanted the State to confirm verbally/in writing, that indeed it is wrong to stigmatise a child based on paternity. I watched the Irish State meet with the UN delegation. Unfortunately, nobody brought up the issue of priests’ children and so the statement which preceded the visit to Geneva would suffice it would seem.

However, after all was done and dusted, the UN issued its reflections on what the State party had presented. In February 2023 document, the UN requested the Irish State to “strengthen measures to eliminate discrimination against […] children of Catholic priests, […]. [And], where appropriate, ensure their access to adequate accommodation, health care, education and a decent standard of living, and ensure regular and systematic monitoring and impact assessments of the measures taken.”

What did the State do? Well, I wrote to my local political representative, Claire Kerrane, a Sinn Fein TD. Claire has always proudly supported Coping for which I am eternally grateful. She issued a parliamentary question to the Minister responsible for responding to the UNCRC about priests’ children (amid other matters arising.)

Claire Kerrane asked the minister, “What measures the State will implement to ensure the elimination of discrimination towards children of Catholic priests, as recommended by the report; and if he will make a statement on the matter.” The minister responded as follows:

“In order to ascertain the scope of the number of children that may be impacted by this issue, my Department has written to each male Catholic religious congregation in Ireland to ask that they advise if they [are] aware of any current member who has declared himself the father of a dependent child/children. Replies are still coming in from the congregations, and the next steps will be informed by the responses received. To date, 17 responses have been received and no cases of children or young people currently under 18 have been identified.”

Now, this is very problematic for several reasons. The State should never have undertaken the task of trying to ascertain the exact number of how many priests’ children there are, such a number is impossible to ascertain. All we do know is that they do absolutely exist and as the Vatican commented to me in the presence of BBC Radio Four, such people are “inevitable”.

The State excluded from its analysis, children of diocesan priests, so immediately, the figure is going to be inaccurate. They wrote to the Provincial of the Order, and in all likelihood, he is going to be the last person to hear about such children. The statement issued by the State uses the words “dependent child/children” thus, under 18. In addition, “current member” suggests only members who are alive in 2023.

So, in order to be included in the Government’s infamous quantitative analysis, you must be under 18 years of age, your existence must be known to the Provincial of the Order your father belonged to. Your father must be alive and supporting you. Now, how many under 18 do you think exist in Ireland, who are the sons and daughters of retired religious order priests? This would suggest that said children would have to have been conceived no later than the year 2006, 17 years ago and then declared to the Provincial with the father remaining in the Order since he is marked as “current”. That is going to be a very small list. Indeed, the State notes, “no cases of children or young people currently under 18 have been identified”.

There are so many problems with what the State is doing here it is hard to know where to begin, but one thing I believe is for sure, the result will be to undermine this phenomenon and for it to be marked as a “non-issue”. 

Both the Mill Hill Fathers and the Spiritans advised me at the start of April that they never received any such message concerning priests’ children from the State. One Order that did receive the message from the State concerning the priest’s children advised that it stated that the order’s response would form part of a report that would be filed and sent back to Geneva to the United Nations.

So, the Irish Government has taken the issue of the children of the ordained/religious and has been asked by the UNCRC to “ensure [priest’s children] […] access to […] a decent standard of living”; in turn, they decided to introduce a rigorous questionnaire that would inevitably result in a figure that suggests that no children of priests exist within the State. (Did they even consider the fact that religious order priests’ children might exist in many countries except Ireland – because many of these were missionary order priests?)

In summary, a report could be filed to Geneva and the UN that could well read something like, “We conducted an investigation as to the number of children of priests in existence born to Irish priests and the number was found to be zero.” Hey presto, problem solved!

In other words, a group of marginalised children and adults, whose very existence is already characterised by being invisible, has had that invisibility exacerbated by this claim that “no cases of children [of priests] […] have been identified.”

Because no children fathered by living religious order priests who are “current member[s]” of the “catholic religious congregation”, known to the Provincial in question and noted as “dependent” have been found to be in existence. So, if your dad is dead, or you are over 18, or you are not a dependent, or the provincial knows nothing about you, or indeed your parent was a female religious or if your dad was a diocesan priest or is a diocesan priest, in effect you do not count. 

The two sons of Irish missionary priests living in London and Yorkshire with whom I spoke recently are just two of those precluded from the figures, owing to the fact that they are over 18 and therefore eliminated from a figure that could never be accurately calculated, no matter how this investigation be conducted.

I really hope this situation can still be addressed one day, and long-overdue justice for the children of priests finally achieved.

What do you think?


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