VATICAN CITY — Irish bishops, who have taken the lead in addressing the plight of children of Catholic priests, are signaling another envelope-pushing response to a problem that the Catholic Church has long sought to hide.
The Irish bishops' conference has left open the possibility that a priest who fathers a child could remain in the priesthood under certain circumstances, such as if it's in the best interest of the child and if the priest respects his vow of celibacy going forward.
"All reasonable and fair options should be considered as possible, so this neither rules in or rules out various outcomes," said conference executive secretary Monsignor Gearoid Dullea.
Dullea made the comments in an April 10 letter obtained this week by The Associated Press. He was responding to written questions posed to the conference by Vincent Doyle, the Irish son of a priest who has been lobbying the church at large to better care for these secret families.
Doyle founded Coping International, an online self-help resource that also seeks to educate church leaders about the emotional and psychological problems that sometimes afflict priests' children and their mothers. They often suffer depression, anxiety and other mental health issues due to the silence and stigmatization imposed on them by the church to hide the "scandal" of priests having sex.
Doyle has successfully pressed dioceses and religious orders around the world to adopt guidelines drafted by the Irish bishops that emphasize the wellbeing of the child and the need to respect the mother, rather than focus exclusively on the obligations of the priest.
For Doyle, the wellbeing of the child often depends on the father's ability to provide financially — difficult when the church's knee-jerk response is to effectively fire a priest him from a job that has few parallels in secular life.
Pope Francis, for example, has said that if he were confronted with a priest who fathered a child, he would try to persuade him to leave ministry even if he didn't marry the mother.
"Because the child deserves to have a mother as well as a father with a face," then-Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio wrote in a 2010 book "On Heaven and Earth."
Doyle has bristled at such a response, which is common practice in the church. While laicizing the priest may save the church embarrassment and the financial strain of providing for a family, it may not necessarily be in the child's best interest if the father cannot find work, Doyle said, noting that Francis has frequently extolled the need for "dignified" work for all.
"How can we ethically respond to the birth of a child with an assumption that the biological father must automatically leave his livelihood owing to this child's existence?" Doyle told The Associated Press.
Doyle says he knows of several destitute former priests who are struggling to care for their families, as well as mothers who can't openly press for more financial help because the fathers have chosen to remain priests and keep their families secret.
He praised the Irish bishops for having "opened a new path." In pressing the bishops, Doyle made clear he was not challenging the Catholic tradition of priestly celibacy, and that any such decisions would obviously need to be made on a case-by-case basis, in consultation with the priest's bishop.
"This is child centered and this is what makes the Irish Episcopal Conference world leaders in terms of safeguarding in this regard," he said.
The conference declined further comment beyond Dullea's letter. In it, Dullea stressed that each situation requires careful consideration.
"It is not possible to rule out, at the beginning, any possible response to these situations which involves a simple default position of insisting that a man 'leave the priesthood,' or that he automatically be permitted to continue in active ministry," Dullea wrote.