Notes concerning the practice of the Congregation for the Clergy with regard to clerics with children - Congregation for Clergy. (Published with permission from the Congregation for Clergy. Holy See.)

Nota relative alla prassi della Congregazione per il Clero a proposito dei chierici con prole.

I. Regarding “cases of priests under the age of 40 with children” it is proposed “they obtain the dispensation from clerical state without waiting for the age of 40, as provided for in the norms. Such a decision […] has, as its principle objective, the safeguarding of the good of the child.” (Stella, 2019)

II. Priority focus “does not refer only to economic support”, but also “the affection of parents, an adequate education […] all that pertains to an effective and responsible exercise of paternity.” (Stella, 2019)

III. “The presence of children […] was treated, de facto, as a practically automatic reason […] [for] dispensation. […] The loss of the clerical state is imposed because paternal responsibility creates permanent obligations that in the legislation of the Latin church does not provide for the exercise of priestly ministry.” However, “exceptions” include “the case of a new-born, the child of a priest, who in a particular situation enters into a family already consolidated, in which another parent assumes […] the role of the father.”*(Stella, 2019)

IV. In the situation where a priest who has “children who are already grown up, 20- 30 years old […], in these situations, the Dicastery does not oblige the Bishop to invite the priests to request the dispensation” from priesthood owing to paternity. “The Dicastery counsels a more flexible discernment within the rigorous practise and guidelines of the Congregation.”(Stella, 2019)

Addendum to Guidelines:

The Vatican clarified the third guideline relating to ‘consolidated families.

The Holy See confirmed that any such priest who remains in ministry, who is the father of a new-born, the timing and the manner of conveying information relating to his paternity rest with the interested adults (biological parents/guardians).

Regarding the situation whereupon a priest fathers’ a child but neither biological parent wish to marry, regarding the impossibility of a priest remaining in the priesthood, recommitting to celibacy, and acknowledging his child (openly), the Holy See agreed that such a situation is not impossible, but that each case be examined on its own merits and its own particular circumstances, adding that many considerations must be taken into account, including the suitability of the priest for the priesthood. If a priest has fathered a child, one must consider two things:

1) the good of the child, all we have to do for that, keeping in mind any concrete situation.
2) the suitability of the priest for the priesthood and for exercising ministry.

The Holy See agreed that secrecy is not required in situations where children of priests exist but proper discernment as to when to tell the child (ensuring emotional stability of the child to receive said new so they are supported) beautifully citing the Gospel according to John 16:12, Coping fully concurs with this position. The Holy See has further commented upon the use of confidentiality agreements also noting the primacy of the good of the child, as per Irish Bishops 2015.

Coping remains grateful to the Congregation for Clergy for their unyielding congruent, transparent child-centered approach to the issue of the children of the ordained and encourages episcopal conferences and religious bodies to follow their Catholic example.

Further Supporting Documentation.

How are the issues concerning the children of the ordained and His Eminence, Secretary of State, Cardinal Parolin connected?
Former Pontifical Commission for the Safeguarding of Minors member, Bill Kilgallon, answers this question!
Click the Letter to Coping.

In 2018, the Irish Bishops made a brief statement in relation to Viri Probati.
Click here to read the document..

A theological formula was written up regarding ‘lamentable defection’ and Viri Probati. Re Lamentable Defection

The Archbishop of Dublin, Diarmuid Martin, Vice President of the Irish Bishops Conference has issued an open letter on related matters.

Open Letter from Archbishop Diarmuid Martin.

The National Board for Safeguarding Children in the Catholic Church in Ireland (NBSCCCI) provides advice and support on all aspects of child safeguarding to ensure practice conforms to the Catholic Church In Ireland’s Policy and Standards as specified in “Safeguarding Children Policy and Standards for the Catholic Church in Ireland 2016.”

Coping International and the NBSCCCI are engaging in ongoing communication regarding implementation and development of safeguarding guidelines in the Catholic Church for children of priests. Safeguarding Guidelines are anticipated by Spring 2017. The Safeguarding Board recently commented as follows:

“[The Board] had a full discussion on your request at the Board meeting last evening and there was considerable sympathy for Children of Priests. We note the letter you received from [the Irish Catholic Bishops Conference] which pointed out that the Bishops will soon release guidelines [on this matter]. In light of the forthcoming guidelines and your request, the Chair of the Board will write to the Bishops Conference – from whom we receive our mandate- to ask whether this is an issue that they would like the National Board to take on. The Board believes that this is important work, which should be appropriately addressed within the Church. We will be directed on this by the Bishops Conference.

In July 2017 the Safeguarding Board advised as follows:

Nathan’s Law, a term coined by Coping International in memory of the late Nathan Halbach consider imposition of confidentiality agreements, whether written, verbal or assumed, as contrary to both natural law and unethical. It considers the statement by the Irish Bishops on matters pertaining to confidentiality agreements and children of Roman Catholic Priests, and also Canon 384 as central to any destabilisation of unwanted confidentiality agreements.

If you have signed a confidentiality agreement with the Roman Catholic Church, this section may be of some help. Fr. Thomas Doyle is a priest, canon lawyer, and he has prepared a piece on confidentiality agreements and children of Catholic Priests. Below, a letter from the Irish Catholic Bishops on the same topic.

Thomas P. Doyle, J.C.D., C.A.D.C.

The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child issued a response to the Vatican’s second report on their participation as a signatory of the convention. This response was published on Feb. 25, 2-14. The focus of the report was the sexual abuse and sexual violence against children and minors by Catholic clerics. However Paragraph 34 of the report draws attention to a most serious problem that Church leaders have consistently failed to respond to in a just and compassionate manner: children fathered by priests in non-marital unions.

The Committee recommends that the Holy See assess the number of children fathered by Catholic priests, find out who they are and take all necessary measures to ensure that the rights of those children to know and to be cared for by their fathers is respected, as appropriate. The Committee also recommends that the Holy See ensure that churches no longer impose confidentiality agreements as a condition to providing mothers with financial plans to support their children. Concluding Observations on the Second Periodic Report of the Holy See. Feb. 25, 2014, Par. 34).

Historically the issue of children fathered by priests was enshrouded with a thick blanket of secrecy and shame. In many cultures such children and their mothers were the target of a combination of scorn and pity. If a mother approached a bishop asking for assistance she was either rebuffed outright or forced to enter into a very tight confidentiality agreement that provided her with what was usually minimal assistance in return for lifelong, deep secrecy. In other cases if the father was a member of a religious institute (Order, Congregation of Society), the mother would be told that the father of her child had a vow of poverty and therefore had no funds to give and furthermore the institute had no responsibility for his action or for the child. In some instances the Church authority figures would make an unspecified assertion that Canon Law was the basis for the confidentiality, “for the good of the Church.” The punitive response to children of priests and their mothers was justified in the minds of some by the exalted nature of clerical celibacy and by the obsession with protecting the image of the clerical world. Yet in truth this response has been diametrically opposed to an aspect of Catholicism that is more fundamental to the Church than either celibacy or clerical image and that aspect is the dual notion of justice and charity. The active values that should guide Church leaders in their response to the children of priests and their mothers are those which are deeply embedded as the core of Christianity and not the values that protect and earthly establishment known as the institutional Church.

Traditionally most lay people knew little about Canon Law. If the priest or bishop said that a question was answered by canon law and provided the answer, he was generally believed without challenge. The clergy and hierarchy have been seen by the laity and consider themselves to be the arbiters of canon law. Consequently it is common for someone to be told by a cleric that canon law requires this or and for that person to believe it without question. This is an unfortunate response that often results in an erroneous application of the law of the church.

Most Roman Catholic priests are bound by mandatory celibacy. A diocesan priests promises this at the time he is ordained a deacon and a religious order priest assumes the obligation at the time of his final profession of vows. The only exception are Anglican/Episcopal priests who were already married and were permitted by special papal dispensation to be re-ordained in the Catholic Church. In these few cases, nearly all of which are in the U.S. or Canada, the priest retains his wife and is not bound by mandatory celibacy. The other category of married priests are those who belong to the Eastern or Oriental rites for whom mandatory celibacy has not been a constant tradition.

When a priest engages in an illicit intimate relationship and fathers a child, whether he is a celibate or happens to be one of the exceptional minority who are not bound by celibacy, he assumes a moral responsibility for the child. Depending on the civil jurisdiction he also assumes a legal responsibility for the child. Canon Law does not contain any specific provisions for children fathered by celibate priests or any other priests for that matter.

However Canon 384 states in part: “…he [the bishop] is to attend to presbyters [priests] with special concern…he is to protect their rights and see that they correctly fulfill the obligations proper to their state…”

A priest would have an obligation in justice to respond to a child he had fathered with financial support at the very least. Since a diocesan priest is far more than a mere employee of a diocese or a bishop, but one with the bishop in exercising the ministry of pastor or shepherd of the diocese, it would seem that the bishop also shares in the obligation towards such children.

In the event that a written agreement is entered into between a priest, his bishop, the mother of the child or the child himself, the primary focus should be the welfare of the child and not the reputation of either the priest or the institutional church. Such agreements should protect the right of the mother and the child and assure that these rights will be honored into the future.

In the past and in some instances in the present the Church authorities have insisted on complete secrecy on the part of the mother and/or the child and possible also on the part of the priest. The sole purpose of such agreements is to protect the reputation of the institutional Church and serve in no way to enhance the welfare or rights of the mother and child. There is no provision in canon law that either directly or indirectly requires, suggests or recommends such an agreement. In effect it is a form of blackmail against the mother and the child.

The institutional Church’s leaders, namely the bishops, have often insisted on such confidentiality agreement with persons who have been harmed or in some way been negatively impacted by the decisions or actions of a cleric. This has been especially true in situations involving victims of sexual violence by clerics. There is no valid reason for such agreements or contracts under any circumstances. Aside from any legal aspects of such agreements, if indeed they are framed as a civil law agreement, a person so bound would not be under any moral obligation to honor the terms of such an agreement.

Thomas P. Doyle, J.C.D., C.A.D.C.


Children of Priests: A Theological Note. – D. Vincent Twomey.

Our human dignity and self-esteem are not based on how we came into the world. They are based on the fact that we are created by God in His own image and likeness, irrespective of the circumstances of our birth. God says to each one of us: it is good that you are, that you are unique, and that you will exist for eternity as an adopted child of God. As Pope Francis states: “Each child has a place in God’s heart from all eternity; once he or she is conceived, the Creator’s eternal dream comes true (Amoris Laetitia, #168). These are objective, theological facts.

Subjectively, however, our feelings and self-estimation are greatly determined by our own personal history, upbringing, and social context. We live in an environment that has been more or less deformed by sin, original and personal. We live more or less in a state of injustice, which affects everyone, but some more than others.

Every sin, including sexual sins, are sins against justice. Adultery is an act of multiple injustices: against the child who may be conceived, against the injured spouse, and against God. The injustice against the child is based on the fact that the boy or girl would thus, generally speaking, be deprived of the normal (or optimal) conditions needed to mature: namely a father and mother united in their parenting. This injustice is compounded, if the father has taken a vow of celibacy and has caused a breach of sacred trust. In addition, there is the injustice in some cases of the child being deprived of knowledge of his or her father’s identity. The father of the child may be still ministering as a priest and be known to the child, enjoying the child’s trust. When the true identity of the father eventually becomes known, the resultant experience of deception, confusion re one’s identity, and breach of sacred trust can be traumatic.

Coping International was set up to promote the natural rights and the mental health of children born to Catholic priests. A Coping International representative requested my endorsement as a moral theologian, which I readily give.

Not only is each child unique, so too the situation of each one is unique. And so it is difficult to lay down general guidelines. The very minimum owed to children of priests is that they know their parents, if at all practicable, as soon as possible but at the very latest when they come of age, as in the case of adoption. This may require considerable courage on the part of the father, who may have to face a certain amount of public shame, especially if he is well-known and respected in his community. A Christian attitude in society would be one of sympathy for the weakness of the flesh (“Who am I to judge?”, cf. Mt 7:1; Lk 6:37), but also a recognition that justice must be done to all injured parties. In any case, the father of the child must accept his share of responsibility for the upkeep and rearing of the child. As Pope Francis said: “If a child comes into this world in unwanted circumstances, the parents and other members of the family must do everything possible to accept that child as a gift from God and assume the responsibility of accepting him or her with openness and affection (AL #166).”

Breaking one’s vow of celibacy in this way is, clearly, a grave sin. If a child results, then the father has a duty of care towards both child and mother. He has to ensure the best possible upbringing for his child – including the child’s moral education and the handing-on of the faith (cf. AL, ## 84, 263, 287) ). Children need the affection and unique emotional contribution of their fathers as well as that of their mothers (see Pope Francis on the role of fathers in AL # 177). In the past, this may not always have been recognized by Church authorities. To the best of my knowledge, today Bishops and Religious superiors tend to encourage the priest to take responsibility for the child. They also facilitate laicisation (now made easier by Pope Benedict XVI’s ruling) so that the father of the child could marry and rear the child, all other things being equal (such as his age or suitability for marriage). In that case, every effort should be made by Church authorities to help the man to find suitable employment, which may not be easy for a priest who has no other professional qualifications. To quote Pope Francis again: “when speaking of children who come into the world, no sacrifice made by adults will be considered too costly or too great, if it means the child never has to feel that he or she is a mistake, or worthless or abandoned to the four winds and the arrogance of man” (AL #166, see the rest of the paragraph).

Some children who are adopted do not want to know, or indeed to have anything to do with their biological father or mother. Others do. Some discover their parentage by accident and, if the father is a priest, feel greatly distressed, above all if they are practicing Catholics. They experience at one remove a breach of sacred trust. Like anyone who suffers grave injustice, healing will only come about by facing the truth with courage and with the help of God’s grace. Here is where the person’s consciousness of his or her inherent dignity -what I called the objective theological facts outlined at the outset of this note – comes into play. One must recognize in the depths of one’s being that one’s own dignity is God-given, and so cannot be erased by any injustice. What must be avoided, it seems to me, is that feeling of victimhood which is a form of self-pity. It is also important to believe that each one of us has the capacity to rise above the limitation of our own particular circumstances, provided that we turn to God the Father in trust. And finally, difficult though it may be, one must pray for the grace to forgive those who have caused such suffering. God’s grace is the deepest source of healing and inner joy.

© D. Vincent Twomey.


A recipient of the Pro Ecclesia et Pontifice medal, Fr D Vincent Twomey, SVD, is a professor emeritus of moral theology at St Patrick’s College in Maynooth, Co Kildare. After ordination he spent a term in Münster, Germany, studying under Karl Rahner, before transferring to the University of Regensburg for doctoral studies under the supervision of the then Professor Joseph Ratzinger. On completing his doctorate in 1979 he taught at the regional seminary of Papua New Guinea and in the Solomon Islands. Having taught at the theology faculty in Mödling, Austria, in 1983, he was appointed lecturer in moral theology at Maynooth and subsequently became a professor. He was also visiting professor at the theology faculty of the University of Fribourg, Switzerland.