World Health Organisation / Mental Health.
The World Health Organisation defines and understands ‘violence’ in terms of power relationships, child maltreatment and emotional abuse, all of which are characteristic of the social development of children of the ordained and religious.
Child maltreatment, emotional abuse and neglect (defined in terms of omission) are forms of interpersonal violence against perpetrated children.
1) Child Maltreatment:
According to the World Health Organisation 2006 document, Preventing Child Maltreatment: a guide to taking action and generating evidence, the term ‘child maltreatment’ includes in its definition emotional mistreatment, neglect and negligent treatment of children.
2) Emotional Abuse:
The W.H.O. defines emotional abuse in terms of the following:
Emotional and psychological abuse involves both isolated incidents, as well as a pattern of failure over time on the part of a parent or caregiver to provide a developmentally appropriate and supportive environment.
3) Defining Violence:
The W.H.O. defines ‘violence’ in terms of the following:
The intentional use of […] power [….] that either results in or has a high likelihood of resulting in […] psychological harm, maldevelopment or deprivation. […] The inclusion of the word ‘‘power’’, […] broadens the nature of a violent act and expands the conventional understanding of violence to include those acts that result from a power relationship, including threats and intimidation. The ‘‘use of power’’ also serves to include neglect or acts of omission, in addition to the more obvious violent acts of commission. Thus, ‘‘the use of physical force or power’’ should be understood to include neglect and all types of […] psychological abuse. This definition covers a broad range of outcomes – including psychological harm, deprivation and maldevelopment. ”
Child maltreatment includes in its definition emotional abuse, itself understood in terms of as a ‘pattern of failure over time on the part of a parent’. Emotional abuse is understood in terms of violence. Thus, forms of child maltreatment, emotional maltreatment are to be considered forms of violence against children.
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.
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.”
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.
Testimonials from Children of Priests Worldwide.
“God created my inmost being; he knit me together in my mother’s womb.”
I had such a profound beginning, as all newborns do, yet my life became shrouded in secrecy and
Because I’m the child of a priest.
I experienced fear of being rejected by peers, family and even the church if found out. My teens and
twenties were overshadowed with hating myself, wanting to be dead (I shouldn’t be here anyway),
feeling dirty, as if I did something wrong, and all I did was be born. Why?
Because I’m the child of a priest.
“Oh, did your parents get a divorce?” “No…”
“So, your mom wasn’t married to your father?” “No, she wasn’t…”
“Well where does your father live?” “City.”
“That’s not far! Surely you see him, at least on holidays?” “Not exactly…”
“Why are you acting strange?” “I don’t know…”
To most, I would become distant, leading to another befuddled parent of a schoolmate or, as an adult, a
potential friendship or relationship once again stopped before it started. As the years progressed I
learned to manipulate words, to side-step and redirect with better social grace than prior to my 30’s.
Why are these questions so hard for me?
Because I’m the child of a priest.
Growing up without a dad leads to questions, questions that are quite normal, but for me to think of
answering cause me, to this very day, to shudder in my soul. This is more than a case of a deadbeat dad
or some other tragic beginning. Mine is unheard of, so I’m put in a position to evade or shut down…or,
even worse, lie to protect my mom, the church, or myself. Why?
Because I’m the child of a priest.
Any acceptable answer I could give, makes it seem that the circumstances surrounding my birth were
that of just a casual liaison, opening my mother up to judgement, myself too, as well as bringing shame to
the church and potentially disrupting another person’s foundation of belief and faith. When, in fact, my
father, like many others, went into seminary with good intentions, was highly educated holding an
advanced degree, beloved by parishioners…and yet abandon of his child, me. His presence was
minimal in my life, just enough to severely damage me and, to this day, still be a weight around my neck.
Not only was I abandoned but I was also a fatherless child. The essence of my being and existence is
Because I’m the child of a priest.
I have suffered greatly by covering up and carrying the secret of my origin; my greatest fear always that
of being found out. Here I am, 40 years later, and the church refuses to acknowledge me. Still, I feel like
a shameful secret not even worthy of recognition by Christ’s Church on earth.
I am the child of a priest. A baptised Catholic. One of your own
I am a 56 year old Female from Australia
When I was about 8 years old my mother told me that my Dad wasn’t my real father. Over time she told me bits about my birth including that I have 2 half sisters and a half brother older than me. But no matter what I said she never revealed my true father’s identity. Any family I asked no one knew who he was. I presumed it was an affair with a married man. I was lucky I had a wonderful Dad who raised me, but my mother took the identity of my biological father to her grave.
Earlier this year I did my DNA and that lead me to my biological family surname, and when I mentioned the name to my Aunties the family secret was revealed, my father was a Catholic priest.
I was in total disbelief and shock. It has sent me through many different emotions over the last few months. I felt the shame and stigma that my mother must have felt, emotionally I was totally shattered and I felt grief and heart ache for the loss of a man that I never knew. I found this extremely difficult to fully understand.
I decided that I needed to find out as much as I could about my priest father but every document I came across showed more evidence of false names, altered documents and nothing about me was complete. I felt I needed to get my birth identity back. I felt abandonment from the Church and my priest father.
I have now taken steps to have the Catholic church recognise me as the daughter of one of their priests. This is part of my healing process. The Church has taken away my right to know who my father is, to have him in my life. instead I lived knowing that I was referred to as illegitimate. That caused shame to myself and my mother. Psychologically this has affected me all my life, the not understanding as to why I couldn’t be told who was my father caused extra mental trauma to me. Now that I know who he is, the psychological effect has become even more traumatic and stressful for me.
My life never has been fully my own, there were always question marks, the unknown and the lies and secrecy have had untold effect on me. Why? So the church can keep their image and cover the misdemeanours of their priests. The untold trauma on my mother affected her all her life too, I saw the terror in her face when I would ask who he was. I know she was silenced not to reveal him to me. Her carefree life was totally upended. She loved the wrong man and believed in him, to be thrown away with a child she was told to have adopted, mentally would have scarred my mother for life.
I now know what she was thinking when I would find her sitting alone, staring into space with tears streaming down her face. How can a church allow such mental trauma to a mother and child, abandonment from the Church and priest. She like me, was taught as we grew up that they were a safe haven for all humans. They need to stand up and be accountable for such deplorable trauma.
At age 38, I was given an ancestry.com DNA kit as a Christmas gift from my husband. I was excited to find out how Irish I was. It turns out I am 43% Irish, but what confused me was that no familiar paternal surnames appeared in my DNA matches. As I quietly explored and researched, it slowly became evident that I was not my daddy’s natural daughter, as I was raised to believe and never question, but the result of a brief affair my mother had with her parish priest in 1979. At that time she was going through a divorce and seeking an annulment. There had been a rumor about this relationship that I inadvertently had been exposed to a few times as a child, but I sort of suppressed it, not knowing how to process it then. With the help of a paternal second cousin match, I was able to identify my biological father. Then I confirmed that this man was indeed the priest assigned to my mother’s parish at the time of my conception. This news was shocking to me. It has caused a great deal of confusion, some depression, and feelings of anger, betrayal, and abandonment. It’s also fascinated me, and as a Catholic, caused me to question my identity. I approached my mother about what I had learned and she was saddened that I had discovered her secret, but admitted to it. The cover-up she orchestrated, and my biological father apparently agreed to, is complex. The lies to me, my siblings, my daddy, and our extended family run deep, and are almost insurmountable to me. What makes me the most sad is that I was not conceived in love but in a fling, never meant to last for either party. My biological father apparently walked away very easily. But right now, I only have one side of the story. I am cautiously optimistic about reaching out to my father, but worried about what will happen. It’s becoming apparent to me that I’ll need professional therapy as I explore this because it’s affecting me and my family in many ways.
Growing up with a long distance relationship with my father was difficult. Growing up as a secret daughter was heartbreaking. Living a life with so many questions about my father is overwhelming. Learning about him – that he was a priest is an on-going game I try to find answers and an ordeal I currently find closure.
I had a normal childhood. My parents were once married. Despite our long distance relationship as father and daughter, I got used to our set-up because he would write letters and visit me often. When I was in my fifth grade, I asked my mother why I can’t write my full name on my letters to him. She told me that it has something to do with his work. She never gave me a concrete answer. It was my aunt who told me that he was a priest. My younger self back then didn’t want to believe her because the idea was insane. Since I live in a Catholic country and I used to study in a Catholic school, accepting the fact that my father was a priest was never easy. I tried to live a normal life because my father was so loving and provided my needs. Because he has been a good father to me, I grew up waiting for him to tell me the truth which never happened. I didn’t had the courage to confront him with the truth because of fear – that our relationship would change and pride – because it was his responsibility to tell me his real story.
Since I didn’t want to be judged and feel different, I had to make up stories about my father’s identity. When people asked me about him, I told them that he was a teacher. Pretending to be okay – living a normal life despite my intuitions was never easy.
Up to this date, I have so many questions. Why he chose to stay quiet about his identity to me? Why he chose to raise a daughter in secret? Should I feel grateful because he never abandoned me or should I feel upset because I had to cope up with this unconventional reality alone?
What should a child feel if he/she learned about the death of his/her father through an online obituary? How should a child cope up to grief and acceptance if learning that her father was a Catholic priest was through Google?
Looking back to my 31 years, I realised that my self-esteem and trust issues were (maybe) caused by my own coping mechanism to live a normal life haunted by my real life with so many questions left unanswered.
When I was younger I heard a man say “the real measure of a man is how many people are at your funeral”. By my own estimation my funeral will be a quite time, but not because the people are grieving, but rather because they aren’t there. Don’t get me wrong. I’ve had friends in my life, but I am better at doing things to drive them away than pull them closer. Now I’m not writing this because I feel death is coming. I mean I may be a little depressed and in the hospital but I’m not going to die. – Nathan Halbach Dec 19, 1986 – Nov 27, 2009.
My story starts 73 years ago with my birth to a Catholic priest and a married woman from the parish. My birth certificate fraudulently shows my mother’s estranged husband as my father. This was the first step in saving the Church from scandal in the 1940’s.
My father was transferred out of the parish to quell the growing rumors in the community. He reported to his new assignment yet disappeared after a month. Around the same time, my mother departed the parish with me (aged one and a half), leaving behind her husband and two daughters. These actions only fueled the rumors that “the powers that be” were attempting to extinguish.
A well-financed and professionally orchestrated scheme was launched to head off a disaster for the Church, in the conservative era of post-World War Two. Private detectives were hired by “the powers that be” to find this “union on the run.” Six months later, we were discovered. One-night, private detectives, along with my mother’s husband and two other witnesses from the parish, barged into my parent’s flat in the middle of the night. The purpose of this inhumane raid was to establish a case of adultery against my mother.
Shortly after the incursion, my father was picked up by a priest who was known as
“the enforcer” and coerced back into the order’s remote camp, near the Canadian border. In exile, he was punished for 16 years for having fathered me. The attorney who handled the divorce against my penniless mother, was a legendary high-priced defense attorney and the head of a political party in the county. The witnesses at the trial for divorce, not attended by my mother, responded to the judge when asked “who” they saw in bed the night of the break-in. They answered, that they had seen my mother and a man they knew from the parish. The judge, conveniently, never asked them for the name of the man they knew.
The judge, then asked my mother’s husband, the plaintiff, if I was his son. In a lie, he said “yes.” Thus, I was taken from my mother’s custody, as a toddler and raised in a household, where I reminded him daily of his former wife’s infidelity. This man was my adversary. He NEVER offered a word of kindness to me in the 16 years I lived in his house. One day, at 18 years of age, I left that house and never returned.
In a game of chess, where a powerful Church took on an underfinanced “union on the run”, there was no contest. My mother and I were merely pawns in a high stakes game, that saved the Church from scandal.
What I’m telling you, I learned at the age of 48, 25 years ago, just months after my father died. No, they wouldn’t tell me of my true origin during his lifetime. The scheme devised to save the Church from scandal, ensured I would never know my father, which is a basic human right.
Since 1993, no details were offered of my history. The only item I received from the people I thought were my relatives was an obituary of a priest, with his photo, that looked very much like me. The people I thought were my aunt and uncle, siblings of the man now deceased and, in whose household I was raised, said to me as they passed the obituary across a table, “This man may have been your father, but only the principals know, and they are dead (my mother, father, and their brother). These three individuals went to their graves as instructed, not revealing to me that my father was a priest.
Over the last two decades, I crisscrossed the Northeast to learn the history I was denied. I interviewed numerous individuals, who knew my mother and father. I met with at least a dozen priests, several nuns, and dozens of lay people who contributed important pieces to my life’s puzzle. Two things stood out during my journey; my physical appearance shocked those who knew my father since we looked alike. Secondly, what I call the “thread of fear.” Most were cautious with what they shared with me, since they didn’t want to be known as a whistleblower. Many of these interviews were emotional, since I was learning for the first time, the depth of pain my mother and father endured, as they desperately tried to make us a family of three.
Interviews with two priests, who knew my father well, were especially enlightening. The first, a contemporary of my father, immediately asked if I had received the money for my education. I said, “What money?” He looked disturbed when I told him of my struggle over education with my mother’s former husband. He said, “We wanted to do the right thing.” I assured him, the “right thing” didn’t happen. At the end of our conversation, as my wife and I were leaving, he said, “Forget the injustices of the past, you are relatively young, you have good genes, get on with the rest of your life.”
The second priest I met with, higher up in the order, demonstrated empathy for my plight, by giving me my father’s crucifix, which I greatly cherish. He also gave me numerous documents, written in Latin and English, which was correspondence between Rome and the USA. At the same time, he mentioned other documents had been were purged. The documents I have, describe a relationship between my father and a woman. The documents I don’t have, those that were purged, likely spoke of a child, me.
I can’t forget the injustices of the past, since the injustices continue. For me, I’ll have closure, when the Church comes clean. I’m looking for transparency, not remuneration. No money could ever replace what “the powers that be” took from me, my mother and my father.
Yes, papers were purged, but the child wasn’t. I survived a confusing and unfair childhood at the hands of an institution, more concerned about its reputation than the welfare of one in its flock.
On June 18th, 2018, with the permission of the Oblate hierarchy, I exhumed the body of Father Thomas S Sullivan, from Lowell, MA. The DNA results proved irrefutably, that he was my father. It is unconscionable that the Oblates put me through this emotional experience, when they could have been transparent with the knowledge of my paternity that they known for my lifetime, 73 years.
I grew up the youngest of five children, in a catholic household, with my mum and dad. Although at the age of 26 I discovered that actually none of this was true. My childhood wasn’t a happy one, my parents never seemed to get on. Staying together for the sake of the children. I never felt a great connection with my dad and he worked away a lot. From the age of 12 I began to have depression, I self-harmed and contemplated suicide many times. There was no one for me to speak to, I never shared this with my family. And I never really understood why or why it all came from, other than the emotional war that took place around me between my parents.
But when I found out the truth, it began to be clear. My dad wasn’t actually my natural father. He knew this too. But no one told me. Until it came out by accident, why and how doesn’t really matter. But the truth was he was the father of all my siblings, but my mother had a relationship with her local priest and I was the result. This man was in my life, I knew him as Uncle and he was my godfather. In fact I knew him as the man who sent me the best birthday and Christmas presents my whole childhood! Safe to say my life fell into place and apart all at the same time. I had lost the connection with my brothers and sisters, I had a life based on secrets and lies. I could no longer look in the mirror and know who I was. When I approached my natural father with the truth he rejected me at first. Saying I was too old to have been told. He always knew but no longer thought I would find out. That eventually changed and we met and talked. But he made sure it was a long way from where he lived. I wouldn’t say we developed a relationship and we never talked openly about how he was my father. It was all left unsaid. Pleasantries.
This is the way it continued, with everyone. Secrets. words left unsaid. No one to talk to. No explanation. No support. Not able to tell anyone, how they react in shock, horror, disbelief when you do. And the feelings of guilt! Shame. My mental health didn’t recover and I continue to be treated on and off for depression. My natural father died 3 years ago. I was asked not to attend his funeral. Finding others who share my story, my feelings, my guilt, the secrets, the confusion. The questions. It has changed my life. It has started to make me more open and unafraid. All we want is recognition we are here. Acceptance.