Part-time "celibacy": How Jane was left holding a priest's baby

  • By a Broken Rites researcher

The Catholic Church in Australia has apologized to a vulnerable woman who was a victim of "nine-to-five" priestly celibacy. The Melbourne Catholic archdiocese has accepted the woman's complaint that one of its priests had fathered her child. This priest allegedly had been living with the woman and her child in a de facto relationship but he later abandoned the woman and the child.

The archdiocese made a settlement with the abandoned mother.

The mother (who wishes to be known as "Jane" — not her real name) contacted Broken Rites in August 1999 and again during 2000. She said that the priest's son was missing his father and wanted to re-establish contact with him. But, she said, the Melbourne archdiocese supported the priest's decision to break up the family, abandoning his child and the mother.

Fearing that the case would become public in Melbourne, the archdiocese arranged for the priest to move to Western Australia.

Therefore, Jane told her story to a journalist at the Melbourne Sunday Herald Sun. An interview with Jane was published in that newspaper on 12 November 2000 and in the Perth (Western Australia) Sunday Tines seven days later. Both articles printed the full name of the priest (and a photograph of the priest was also published).

To protect the privacy of the family, Broken Rites will refer to the priest as Father "Basil" (not his real name).

How the case began

Jane said she met Father Basil when she was in a major Melbourne Catholic hospital in the 1980s, when she was in her thirties. Broken Rites has checked the annual editions of the Australian Catholic Directory for the 1980s and found that Fr Basil was indeed listed as a chaplain at this hospital.

Jane said: "One day, at the hospital, he turned up to talk with me. I was vulnerable because I was going through a difficult time with my marriage. He asked me to call in to his parish to have a cup of coffee and offered to counsel me ... It was [Father Basil] who made the first approach to begin the relationship."

Jane said Father Basil then began a relationship with her that lasted for eleven years. Father Basil fathered her son ("Timothy"), born in the late 1980s. Jane said the priest's name is on her son's birth certificate.

After their son was born, the priest remained closely involved in the boy's upbringing. "In the months that followed his birth, Timothy became very ill and was in hospital for several months and he nearly died," she said. "[Father Basil] stayed by our son's bedside night after night ... and as his health improved we even went on regular holidays to Sydney. No one in Sydney knew he was a priest. We were a family.

Jane claimed that Fr Basil secretly lived with her at least three nights a week. She said the couple had constant discussions about Father Basil leaving the priesthood. "At one point, he told me that he was considering leaving the priesthood but he never did," she said.

She said Fr Basil had urged her, in the early stages of their relationship, to distance herself from her friends. "He did not want anyone to find out about us," she said.

She said that in 1999 Father Basil failed to arrive for his scheduled visit.

"When I telephoned him at his parish, he told me that he had decided not to see Timothy or me any longer," she said. "Timothy was heartbroken. So was I. I was shocked."

Timothy began grieving over his father's disappearance and wanted him to come back to resume his parenting role. Jane said Timothy had Down Syndrome, plus an intellectual disability.

Another woman

Around the time of the separation, Jane learned that Father Basil had been having an intimate relationship with another woman from his parish, who had gone to the priest for counselling after a marriage break-up. It was not until the second woman became suspicious of where Father O'Brien went on his days off that he was caught out as "two-timing". The priest's relationship with the second woman had been going on for about four years.

Soon after being caught out, he left his Melbourne parish and evidently began working as an assistant in another parish.

Jane said: "I received a phone call from the other woman, who wanted to talk about our relationship. Basil later admitted that he had been in a long-term relationship with the other woman.

"Basil and I were very close, or at least I thought we were. I was devastated when I learnt about the other woman, and realized all his promises were just talk."

The myth of celibacy

In 1999, Jane notified the Melbourne archdiocese office about her predicament (and about the breach of celibacy), but, she said, the church authorities did not seem surprised and did not seem to care. They were happy to leave the priest in active ministry, even though he had a child by one woman and was having a relationship with another woman.

"The archdiocese does not mind about priests breaking their vows of celibacy as long as it is all kept secret," Jane said.

Jane then contacted the archdiocese's commissioner on sexual abuse, Peter O'Callaghan QC, who is hired by the archdiocese to investigate such complaints. O'Callaghan gave a finding in favour of Jane — that Jane had indeed been sexually abused by Fr Basil. O'Callaghan then reported this finding to the archdiocesan office.

In December 1999, Melbourne's Archbishop George Pell (who was then in charge of the Melbourne archdiocese) wrote to Jane. The letter contained an apology, which in part read: "On behalf of the Catholic Church and personally, I apologise to you and to those around you for the wrongs and hurt you have suffered at the hands of [Father Basil]." (The letter mentioned the priest's full name.)

Together with the apology, the archdiocese offered Jane a small, token amount of compensation.

Jane accepted the nominal compensation but "this is not about money - it never has been", she said. "It is about the principle, about the church and Fr Basil accepting responsibility for what he has done. It is about me doing everything in my powers to give Timothy access to his father."

The archdiocese realised that this case might become public, thereby undermining the public image of "celibate" priests. Therefore, the church made arrangements for Fr Basil to move to Western Australia. Broken Rites found that in the mid-2000 edition of the Catholic Directory, he was no longer listed in his Melbourne parish but was listed as being "on leave from the archdiocese of Melbourne". His forwarding address was care of the Melbourne archdiocese office. In 2000, Jane asked the archdiocese for his new location but they simply told her to address a letter to him at the archdiocese.

"What right does the Catholic Church have to deny a child contact with his father? They should not have to hide the child's father away," Jane said.

After Jane spoke to the media in November 2000, a journalist contacted the office of Archbishop Barry Hickey, of Perth. Hickey admitted that he was in touch with Father Basil.

"I don't know if he's hiding or what he's doing", Hickey said (according to the journalist). "Whether he contacts the family or not is really up to him. I can't get further involved than that."

Moral issues

This case raises questions about the church's code of morality. The church's official protocol says that clergy sexual abuse includes any conduct of a sexual nature that is inconsistent with the public vows taken by a priest. Unofficially, nine-to-five celibacy is possible provided it is kept secret.

The case also raises questions about the church's ethical responsibility to the mother and child.

Furthermore, what does this case say about a church which, officially, preaches about "the sanctity of the family"? Archbishop George Pell, for example, has spoken against making invitro-fertilisation available to single women who want to have a child. Every child, Archbishop Pell said, is entitled to have a father.

Every child, that is, except the child of a Catholic priest.