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

By a Broken Rites researcher

The Catholic Church in Australia has supported a priest who abandoned his own child. The priest (let us call him Father "Basil") had a long-time relationship with a woman ("Jane"), resulting in the birth of a son. But the priest eventually left the relationship and refused to see his son again. The child was grieving over the loss of his father but the church refused to reveal the priest's whereabouts. In December 1999, when the son was twelve, the church made a very small financial settlement with the abandoned mother, freeing the church of any further liability.

The mother (who wishes to be known as "Jane" — not her real name) contacted Broken Rites in August 1999 (before the settlement) and again during 2000 (after the settlement).

Frustrated by the church's indifference towards the priest's child, Jane then told her story to a journalist at the Melbourne Sunday Herald Sun. She hoped to warn other vulnerable women about the myth of priestly "celibacy". A full-page interview with Jane was published in that newspaper on 12 November 2000 (on page 5), together with a photograph (supplied by the mother) of the priest bottle-feeding the baby. The case was also reported in the Perth (Western Australia) Sunday Times seven days later.

Both articles printed the full name of the priest. To ensure the privacy of the family, this Broken Rites article will refer to the priest as Father "Basil" (not his real name).

How the case began

Jane said she met Father Basil while 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 for my marriage difficulties."

That is, the priest was acting in his pastoral role as a counsellor.

Jane said Father Basil then initiated a relationship with her. In the late 1980s this resulted in the birth of her son ("Timothy"). Jane said the priest's name is on her son's birth certificate.

Jane said Fr Basil became 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. "As Timothy's health improved, we even went on holidays to Sydney. No one in Sydney knew he was a priest. We were a family."

Jane said that Fr Basil secretly lived with her at her address for about 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.

Jane said that Fr Basil remained closely involved in Timothy's upbringing until the boy was eight and a half years old.

She said that one day in the mid-1990s 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."

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 and he needed lots of parenting.

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 Basil 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.

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."

Part-time celibacy OK

In 1998, Jane contacted a senior administrator of the Melbourne archdiocese but, she said, this official did not seem surprised about the part-time celibacy and did not seem to care. She said the hierarchy seemed happy to leave the priest in active ministry.

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

The church's apology

In 1999 Jane 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 been sexually abused by Fr Basil. O'Callaghan then reported this finding to the archdiocesan office.

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."

In accordance with the Melbourne archdiocese's usual custom, Jane's compensation was accompanied by a format-letter in December 1999, signed by Melbourne's Archbishop George Pell (who was then in charge of the Melbourne archdiocese). 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.)

Priest in hiding

Meanwhile, the Melbourne archdiocese had 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, Western Australia. 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."

It is not known how long Fr Basil remained in Western Australia. It is not known whether the church has helped him to re-locate to another part of Australia or even overseas.

Father Basil was also referred to (using his real name) in an article (entitled "Speak no evil") by journalist Peter Ellingsen, published in The Age newspaper, Melbourne, on May 4 2002. The article said that, after leaving his Melbourne parish (in 1999), Fr Basil "was supported by the Perth church [that is, the Perth archdiocese in Western Australia] before going overseas." (No further information about this seems to be available.)

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.

  • For another example of the church's problem of "part-time celibacy", see a Broken Rites article about a different female victim, "Zelda"