It was not until his late 20s that Vincent Doyle discovered that his dead godfather, a priest based central Ireland, was in fact his biological father. And Doyle, a Catholic himself, says that startling discovery inspired in him an abiding mission: to offer support to other children of Roman Catholic priests, who are bound by a vow of celibacy — and to ensure the church supports them, too.
"I'm doing this because I love Catholicism," he told The Boston Globe as part of a two-part series the newspaper published last week. "I just don't like the fact that my faith is being used to keep the children of priests secret."
Doyle's quest marked a milestone earlier this year: Partly as a result of his urging, the Irish Catholic Bishops' Conference approved a document in May — recently published online by Doyle — outlining the "principles of responsibility regarding priests who father children while in ministry."
"Upon ordination, priests promise to live a life of celibacy in their dedication to Christ and to pastoral ministry in the Church," states the document from the bishops' conference, also called the Irish Episcopal Conference. "However if, contrary to this obligation, a priest fathers a child, the wellbeing of his child should be his first consideration."
As The Associated Press reports, the guidelines are thought to "represent the first comprehensive public policy by a national bishops' conference on the issue."
They also represent a breakthrough for Doyle, a psychotherapist who says his efforts began in 2011. In 2014 — the same year he visited the Vatican to bring the issue to Pope Francis' attention in person — he created the website Coping International, a site billed as a "voluntary mental health organisation" supporting the children of priests. It's designed to embrace people who may feel they've been considered "guilty secrets" all their lives, and to help them cope with resulting problems such as depression and anxiety.
To date, Doyle told his local newspaper The Longford Leader, people from 175 countries have visited his website. Coping International's wide net underscores that he's not alone in his struggles, Doyle says, even if data on how many children are born to priests are not readily available.
"I thought I was unique. I thought I was unusual," he told the Globe. "I was wrong."
He's not alone in another respect, too. While he had expected pushback from Catholic authorities, he has nevertheless gained at least one powerful ally in his quest: Diarmuid Martin, archbishop of Dublin.
"I pray that COPING will be able to find ways which will bring the children of priests and their natural parents together for the benefit of both," Martin is quoted as saying on the site.
And the bishops of Ireland intend their guidelines to aid in that process of reconciliation, setting forth five points "to articulate a position based on natural justice and subsequent rights regarding the children of priests."
"In justice and in love, the needs of the child should be given the first consideration," reads one of those points.
"In the case of a child fathered by a Catholic priest, it follows that a priest as any new father, should face up to his responsibilities — personal, legal, moral and financial. At a minimum, no priest should walk away from his responsibilities."