ROME – A new letter from the global umbrella group of women religious has said the children of nuns must receive care, and acknowledged that in some cases, consecrated women will give their children up for adoption and return to their order.

The letter, dated Sept. 3 and signed by executive secretary of the International Union of Superiors General (UISG) Sister Pat Murray, was in response to a separate letter sent to the UISG by Irish psychotherapist Vincent Doyle, whose father was a priest.

In his April 21 letter, sent ahead of the UISG plenary assembly, Doyle asked what support women religious receive should they leave their order after becoming pregnant either “consensually or criminally,” and whether a woman religious who becomes pregnant is able to stay in her order if she gives her child up for adoption.

In her response, Murray said there is no specific reference in canon law regarding a religious sister who becomes pregnant, but Canon 702 requires each community “to observe equity and the charity of the Gospel towards a member who is separated from it.”

Therefore, Murray said each institute has its own policies regarding financial aid and other types of support, taking into consideration both the context and personal circumstances when a member leaves their congregation.

“These provisions would most certainly apply in the case of a sister becoming pregnant for whatever reason,” Murray said, explaining that if the pregnancy arose without the consent of the sister, “either through rape or abuse of power,” then a “special duty of care” would be required from all concerned parties in order to ensure the well-being of both mother and child.

Murray stressed that decisions on the part of a sister and the leadership of her order are “to be guided by both ethical and pastoral considerations, including the primary rights of the child and the duty of care that each institute has for its members.”

Making decisions in these matters requires “careful discernment” from all involved, Murray said, explaining that each case is unique based on culture and context, the situation of the parents, of the child, and the presence of extended family who are able to lend support.

Referencing recent Vatican statements, Murray said it is clear “that the right of the child to have both a mother and father should take precedence” over other matters in these situations.

While most women in these cases choose to leave their order to raise their child, Murray said the UISG is aware of a small number of cases in which a sister has left her congregation during pregnancy, given birth and then returned to the convent after giving her child up for adoption.

“In some of these cases, the sister later re-established contact with her child,” she said, wishing Doyle luck in his work.

When contacted by Crux, the UISG declined to comment on the letter, which they considered to be “private.”

In comments to Crux, Doyle head of the Coping International organization offering support to children of Catholic priests, said that while the majority of his work has focused on clerics, the issue is a problem throughout the Church’s various orders, male and female, as many non-ordained religious men have also fathered children.

He said he was inspired to address the issue of children of women religious by Sister Maura O’Donoghue, who after 45 years as a missionary in Africa and having spent six years as AIDS coordinator for the London-based Catholic Fund for Overseas Development, compiled a report in 1994 on the abuse of women religious by priests in more than 20 countries.

Doyle said he was “very conscious” of the stigma former women religious who become parents often face particularly in underdeveloped countries, often finding it difficult to secure a job and access social assistance.

“Whether it’s the child of a priest or female religious it’s the same problem,” Doyle said, explaining that regardless of how the pregnancy came about, “I would be concerned for the children, from a moral theological perspective.”

Doyle holds a pontifical degree of theology and a master’s degree in chaplaincy and pastoral care from Maynooth College.

Giving an example, Doyle said that if an order is aware of a pregnancy and decides to throw the sister out of the convent, “if you have direct knowledge of a foreseen consequence then you are culpable,” he said, noting that many former women religious end up in quick marriages just to prevent economic or social hardship.

“So, I’m concerned for these children who grow up in that situation,” he said, noting that this “has ripple effects on these adult children of female religious who grew up in a very difficult circumstance because there was a lack of provision.”

Doyle said he was satisfied with the UISG’s response to his question, and “I commend them fully. It’s not an easy situation to look at it and examine.”

However, just getting a response does not mean the work is finished, he said, “but it’s a really good first step.”

“Writing something down on paper is easy, actualizing it is a different matter. Making it happen. That’s been particularly difficult in developing countries, parts of Africa or even India and South America,” he said, explaining that his organization, Coping International, will be offering mental health and other support.

Coping International is a mandatory reporting authority in Ireland, and as such, any information shared regarding abuse is sent to the statutory authorities, including the police and social services, regardless of country of origin.

Follow Elise Harris on Twitter: @eharris_it

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