VATICAN CITY (AP) — Pope Francis' committee of advisers on protecting children from sexually abusive priests is expanding its workload to include the needs and rights of children fathered by Roman Catholic priests.
Committee members told The Associated Press on Sunday that a working group is looking into developing guidelines that can be used by dioceses around the world to ensure that children born to priests are adequately cared for.
"It's a horrendous problem in many cultures, and it's not something that is readily talked about," commission member Dr. Krysten Winter-Green said.
Indeed, the church has tried to keep such children secret for centuries, because of the scandal of priests breaking their vows of celibacy. But it has gained visibility after Irish bishops published guidelines earlier this year that focused on ensuring the wellbeing of the child and the mother, who often suffer psychological problems from the stigma and silence imposed on them by the church.
The Irish guidelines were believed to represent the first comprehensive public policy by a national bishops' conference on the issue. They have already become a model of sorts: The Union of Superiors General — an umbrella group of male religious orders — has sent the Irish guidelines to their members to apply, and the International Union of Superiors General, the female umbrella group, is expected to endorse them at a November assembly, said Vincent Doyle, a lead campaigner on the issue.
Commission member Bill Kilgallon briefed Francis on the decision of the working group to take up the issue of priests' children during an audience last week.
Kilgallon told the AP that the issue falls squarely under the broad mandate of the commission, which is officially known as the "Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors" and has as its mission the aim of promoting and protecting the dignity of minors and vulnerable adults.
"If someone fathers a child, they have a responsibility to that child, end of story," Kilgallon said.
The issue has been placed on the church's agenda in large part due to a campaign by Doyle, an Irish psychotherapist who discovered late in life that his father was a priest. With the backing of the archbishop of Dublin, Doyle launched Coping International, an online self-help resource to help eliminate the stigma he and others like him have faced, and educate them and the church about the emotional and psychological problems that some children suffer. They can include depression, anxiety and other mental health issues, as well as social isolation and financial hardship.
The plight of priests' children was also the subject of a recent series in The Boston Globe.
The number of children known to be fathered by Catholic priests isn't known, but there are about 450,000 Catholic priests in the world and the Catholic Church forbids artificial contraception and abortion.
Doyle said Sunday he was pleased the issue was now on the agenda of the pope's advisory commission, and said there is a very real connection between the children of priests and victims of sexual abuse: He said many of the mothers in question were raped as girls or teens by priests, and are therefore themselves victims of sexual abuse.
"It's not always 'The Thorn Birds,'" Doyle said of the classic story of young woman's love for the family priest. "More often than not, there's rape and pedophilia involved."