If a priest father’s a child, the needs of the child should be given the first consideration, according to guidelines agreed to in May by the Irish Catholic Bishops’ Conference.

The guidelines have not been published on the conference website, nor on any individual diocesan website, but were obtained by The Irish Times newspaper.

The document – called “Principles of Responsibility Regarding Priests who Father Children While in Ministry” – was written in consultation with Vincent Doyle, an Irish psychotherapist whose own father was a diocesan priest.

Doyle helped found Coping International, which seeks to protect the rights of the children of priests. (Doyle’s story was the subject of a feature last week in The Boston Globe.)

According to The Irish Times, the document states the principles are an attempt “to articulate a position based on natural justice and subsequent rights regarding the children of priests,” and include five general principles:

  • The parents have a fundamental right to make their own decisions regarding the care of their new-born child.
  • The needs of the child should be given the first consideration. 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 – legal, moral and financial. At a minimum, no priest should walk away from his responsibilities.
  • Each situation requires careful consideration, but certain principles present themselves on which the decision of the priest should be made: The best interests of the child; dialogue with, and respect for, the mother of the child; dialogue with Church superiors.
  • The importance that the mother, as the primary care-giver, and as a moral agent in her own right, be fully involved in the decision.
  • In arriving at a determination regarding these cases, it is important that a mother and child should not be left isolated or excluded.

Coping International has been meeting with different church organizations to publicize the issue, and in May met with several Vatican officials.

Its work has been supported by the Archbishop of Dublin, Diarmud Martin, who said he hopes the Church “will be able to find ways which will bring the children of priests and their natural parents together for the benefit of both.”

In 2015, the Irish bishops agreed with Coping International to pay for the counseling needed by any of their members.

It is not known how many people in Ireland were fathered by clergy, but The Guardian in 2010 estimated the number for both Great Britain and Ireland to be one thousand people.

In 2014, the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child expressed its concern to the Vatican about the situation of children fathered by Catholic priests, who, in many cases, are not aware of the identity of their fathers.

The committee also questioned the fact that sometimes a mother could only get financial support for their children if they agreed to sign a confidentiality agreement stating she would not reveal the identity of the father.

The Vatican’s representative to the UN offices in Geneva at the time, Archbishop Silvano Tomasi, said, “Concerning the children of priests, a father must fulfill his obligations under the law of the State in question and assume the natural responsibilities that came with fathering children.”

(Tomasi now serves as the secretary of the Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development; the new Vatican representative to the UN offices in Geneva is Archbishop Ivan Jurkovič.)

The committee recommended that the Vatican “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.”

It also said the Vatican should ensure that local church entities no longer impose confidentiality agreements as a condition for providing financial support to the mother of a priest’s child.

The Vatican was asked to respond to these recommendations by September 2017.