Priests who father children while serving in the Catholic church in Scotland may be able to continue their religious work, the organisation representing Catholic bishops has said.
The general secretary of the Catholic National Endowment Trust, otherwise known as the Bishops’ Conference of Scotland, said every bishop would want to “discern the best ways in which it is possible” for the father of a child who is a priest to “fulfil his responsibilities”.
Hugh Bradley said it would not be a “simple default position of insisting that a man leave the priesthood”.
It is believed many priests who fathered children did not acknowledge their offspring for fear they would be cast out from the priesthood. Instead, youngsters’ mothers kept the identity of their child’s father a secret, citing “father unknown” on their birth certificate.
Campaigner Vincent Doyle, from Ireland, who discovered late in life his own father was a priest, has fought for church organisations to relax rules to allow the religious leaders to have a normal relationship with their children.
He has since set up Coping International – a charity to support the children of priests across the world.
Doyle, who had a close relationship as a child with the man he thought was his godfather, but without knowing he was actually his biological father, described the statement from the Bishops of Scotland as “empowering priests”. He said it would put the child first.
Doyle said: “I would like to publicly thank the Catholic Bishops of Scotland for addressing this. It is not an easy thing to do. This is a sociological move by the episcopal conference of Scotland to eradicate sociological default norms.”
He said the problem was not a historical one, with Coping International now advising a young mother whose unborn baby’s father was a priest. Another family in the same situation has a child of two.
Bradley said: “The Bishops of Scotland wish to reiterate that, with regard to children of the ordained and religious, every bishop would want to discern the best ways in which it is possible for the father of a child, who is a priest, to fulfil his responsibilities. Every bishop is willing to meet anyone in their diocese in a similar situation to discern an appropriate and just way forward.”
He added: “With regard to a priest who has become a father, the Bishops recognise it is not possible to rule out, at the beginning, any possible responses to these situations ... each case should be judged on its merits.”
There are no figures about the number of children fathered by Catholic priests. However, there are about 450,000 Catholic priests in the world and the Catholic Church forbids artificial contraception and abortion.