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and Children of Catholic Priests..

The situation whereby the children of Catholic Priests are not allowed to express their identity and treated as “guilty secrets” as described in the coping website can cause significant difficulties for those involved. While secrets are found in every life situation, they are most destructive when they occur in the home. As our families are our major support systems, our identity and ability to form close relationships depend on the trust and communication we develop with our closest family members. If we keep significant secrets from each other and the outside world, we can be affected for a lifetime, including estranging family members, leading to painful miscommunication and causing unnecessary guilt and doubt; inhibiting the formation of future intimate relationships; preventing the growth of self and identity and freezing our emotional development. (Imber-Black E; The Power of Secrets: 1998).

This is not to say that developmental difficulties are inevitable, despite these undoubted serious issues. The key indicator for positive emotional development in a person is a normal attachment with a main carer. A secure attachment with one parent/guardian is sufficient for a person to develop to their potential even if there are serious difficulties in other areas (Bowlby ; Attachment: 1969)  Adults with secure patterns of attachment are able to integrate logical and emotional information in order to form close relationships and make accurate decisions and predictions (Crittenden, P.; Landini, A. Assessing Adult Attachment. New York: W. W. Norton; 2011.)   This is evident in the maturity and resilience of those who are promoting the rights of others who have been similarly mistreated.

It would now be unheard of that an adopted child should have the identity of one or both biological parents deliberately concealed from them. Until the 1970’s adopted children were kept ignorant of the fact of their adoption and that the people they thought were their parents were in fact not so. On discovering this truth, great distress, sadness and even mental illness ensued. Even now, children who are brought up aware of their adoption, seek out their birth mothers and fathers with impressive zeal and heartfelt longing.

In recent years the complexity of family life and the circumstances of conception have increased enormously. Sometimes a woman has a sexual relationship that ends and when an unexpected pregnancy ensues the father may never know that he has a child or perhaps only learn about this, years later. Similarly the child may reach adulthood unaware of who their father is or may believe that another man is his biological parent. I am personally aware of this in a number of people I have seen professionally.

Wanting information about one’s ancestors is as natural as wanting to hug your mother. As adoption waned, a new generation of people of uncertain origin are beginning to speak up and ask “who am I”. These are children conceived by IVF and more recently through surrogacy. The impetus behind such methods was to help couples, unable to have their own children, to use the sperm or eggs of others so as to conceive and have children. The script was simple – use donor gametes, become pregnant, have children and all is well. But all isn’t well, and for a few years donor conceived children have been speaking up and examining their origins. This has confused the world and made some defensive, wanting to ignore the reality of the biological bond of children with their parents.

Why give information about parentage?

There are several reasons why children should be informed of their parentage (Ravitsky et al 2010). One of the obvious is a practical one relating to family medical problems. If there is a family history of rheumatoid arthritis, diabetes 1, severe mental illness, breast cancer or cardiac problems then knowing who your parents are can have a life-saving effect. It allows preventive strategies to be put in place and allows diagnosis to be made earlier in the course of emergent symptoms.

Even more crucial is personal identity. Children and adults need to know who they resemble, not just physically, but also in temperament. They need to know why they are as they are. The colour of the eyes, the shading of the skin, the way they tilt their head and their talents and interests – where do these spring from? Identity is also bound up with place – where were my parent from. Where was I born? The absence of age appropriate information relating to these fundamental questions will lead to endless questioning and doubt about one’s past and about ones sense of continuity with the past. The popularity of programmes such as “Who do you think you are” is testimony to the power that knowledge of the past has in determining our sense of ourselves in the present.

In addition to information about the biological aspects of their parents, children and adults also wish to develop relationships with their biological parents. This is very apparent from studies of adoptees. The practice of concealing the identity of biological parents from adopted children has now been abandoned. Nevertheless, many adoptive parents feel threatened by the search that adoptees embark upon in order to meet their birth parents which they instinctively see as the quest for a relationship. They fear that their own bond with the child will suffer as a consequence of a new relationship with a biological parent. They fear rejection.

For their own part the adopted child/adult reacts negatively when their advances are rejected by their biological parents – they see it as a rejection of their total selves. This situation, where there is rejection and hurt felt by the circle of individuals involved in these parenting situations, has arisen partly because of the concealment ab initio of information relating to parentage. Age appropriate information about who the fathers are and who the mothers are could significantly mitigate these consequences. The possibility of contact in varying degrees during the child’s early years, such as cards and letters, would facilitate an easier transition to meetings and ultimately to relationship formation with their biological parents, than does the practice of concealment.

Some argue that children should know the truth about their conception but no laws exist to force parents to tell their children the facts about this. Even those countries that have banned anonymous donation do not force parent to disclose this information to their children. Ravitsky (2010) argues that the right to know about the manner of one’s conception might trumps the right to privacy that any parent may claim and that it may be in the best interests of the child to have this information. He also acknowledges that as yet there are no large scale studies demonstrating this. Others contend that not telling the truth about his/her conception is colluding in deception (Gollancz 2007).

The desire to know ones’ origins and all connected with this is very powerful and can only become more apparent and acceptable as the numbers conceived in non-traditional ways increase. The changes to family structure, particularly as the numbers with children from multiple partners increase, will also accelerate the clamour for openness. We should not forget the quote of James Baldwin, the African-American novelist who elegantly ties the individual’s history to their future “Know from whence you came. If you know whence you came, there are absolutely no limitations to where you can go.”

References:

David Gollancz, Time To Stop Lying, GUARDIAN (London), Aug. 2, 2007

available at http://www.guardian.co.uk/g2/story/0,,2139678,00.html

Ravitsky V. “Knowing Where You Come From”: The Rights of Donor-Conceived Individuals and the Meaning of Genetic Relatedness. Minnesota Journal of Law, Science & Technology. 2010;11(2):655-84.

Patricia Casey is Professor of Psychiatry at UCD and Consultant Psychiatrist in the Mater Hospital, Dublin. She is an adoptive mother.