Stephen was eight years old when he first heard his father disown him. The two were out for the day together when Stephen fell into a game of cricket with some local children, and another parent asked whose child he was. Stephen's father swiftly denied he was his. The child was "the son of one of my parishioners", said the dog-collared priest – a description that was truthful as far as it went, but omitted a vital detail. To Stephen, it felt like an outright dismissal. More than 30 years later, being the half-acknowledged son of a Roman Catholic priest has cast an enduring shadow over his life.
Stephen (not his real name) is now in his 40s and has never approached his paternal family, has never reached out to cousins and other relatives, for fear of shaming his parents. "I didn't have a [close friendship] with my father," he says, "and I have not found personal relationships that easy since then. None of his family in Ireland knew I existed, so you could argue I have been denied another family."
His experience is far from unique. It's been estimated that there are at least 1,000 people in Britain and Ireland whose fathers were priests at the time of their conception. And in May this year, dozens of Italian women who have had relationships with Roman Catholic priests or lay monks sent an open letter to the Pope calling for the abolition of the celibacy rule. The letter argued that a priest "needs to live with his fellow human beings, experience feelings, love and be loved". It also pleaded for sympathy for those who "live out in secrecy those few moments the priest manages to grant [us], and experience on a daily basis the doubts, fears and insecurities of our men".
This group of women aren't the only ones questioning enforced priestly celibacy. The issue has been central to recent debate in the Catholic church, after a wave of clerical abuse scandals that have sometimes seen critics link sexual frustration to paedophilia. There has also been debate about the origins of celibacy in the early Christian church. In the face of these questions, Pope Benedict XVI, who is due to tour the UK in September, has defended the status quo. Celibacy "is made possible by the grace of God . . . who asks us to transcend ourselves," he has said; he has also argued that forgoing matrimony helps demonstrate a commitment to the priesthood.
For the reclusive partners and offspring of Catholic priests, lack of financial support and recognition is a longstanding complaint. The few support groups that have sprung up have made little headway in their efforts to alter church attitudes. And although Stephen has never felt inspired to confront church authorities or seek financial recompense, he says that his past has left him with an "undertow of regret and sadness" at his parents' renounced love.
"I don't know of any picture of my mother and father together," he says, showing me a black-and white photograph of the man he knew as "Dad". A handsome young priest stares out of the frame. The photo was taken in the 1950s, when his father was about to depart from his home in Ireland to minister to a large parish in Yorkshire. He brings out a letter on presbytery notepaper, addressed to him and signed "Love, Dad", and another addressed to his mother, which begins "My Darling". This accompanied a bottle of perfume sent to celebrate her 25th birthday. These candid letters suggest that, even if only subconsciously, his father might have been somewhat relieved to have been discovered and defrocked.
Stephen's parents met through the parish, where his mother's family were regular churchgoers. "He would have been a junior priest," says Stephen. "It was very risky. My mother was very guarded about it." Their long relationship culminated in Stephen being born in 1967. "By then, she was already 28," he says, "so she wasn't a gymslip mum. It looks like they had had a relationship for some time, and I suspect from the intensity of the [affair] that I was a wanted child rather than a mistake. But it appears that once my mother became pregnant she backed away from my father.
"I have it on reliable sources that he indicated his willingness to leave the priesthood, but she asked him not to. In some of his letters he talks about [the fact that] if she's pregnant it would be a good thing. Then afterwards he was very bitter that she kept him from his child. So it seems she ensured he stayed in the church."
Stephen's grandmother and maternal aunt knew the truth about his paternity, but the men in the family were never told. From the age of three or four, Stephen would be taken over to see his father most Saturdays, and initially, he says, "I didn't realise he was a priest, but one day, when I was eight or nine years old, I picked up his post in the hallway and it said 'Reverend . . .' My mother saw I was looking at the address and she broke down as she told me."
Pat Buckley, an excommunicated gay priest, has run what he calls an "independent ministry to disaffected and alienated Catholics and Christians" in Larne, Northern Ireland, since the mid-1980s. He runs a support group, Bethany, for women who are in relationships with priests.
"These problems have been hidden for centuries," he says, "but there's been so much in the news that people are getting a bit more courage to come forward." In 1992, for instance, there was uproar at the case of Eamon Casey, the then-Bishop of Galway, when it emerged that he had used diocesan funds to pay maintenance to the American mother of his love child; in the years since then, the church has been racked with controversy. "There are three common Irish names," Buckley continues, "McEntaggart, McAnespie and McNab, that translate as 'son of the priest', 'son of the Bishop' and 'son of the Abbot', so it's been around for some time."
Buckley believes that the Vatican wants to "hang on to celibacy for reasons of power and control. St Paul said in one of his letters that a bishop should be the husband of one woman. If a man does not have the experience of running a human family how can he run a church? Celibacy was unusual during the first 12 centuries of the Catholic Church. It was introduced [in the Middle Ages]. It's often very sad for the women and children in these relationships. A lot of them want some form of resolution, to sort out the baggage. Anybody who is abandoned by a parent suffers a very large injustice."
There are, of course, many who defend celibacy, including Father Stephen Wang, dean of studies at Allen Hall seminary in London. In a blog post earlier this year, he wrote that "there are practical aspects to celibacy. You've got more time for other people, and more time for prayer. You can get up at three in the morning to visit someone in hospital without worrying about how this will affect your marriage . . . But celibacy is something much deeper as well. There is a place in your heart, in your very being, that you have given to Christ and to the people you meet as a priest."
For Stephen, his relationship with his father never really blossomed. He was provided with occasional financial support, small gifts of money, while his father carried on being a priest. He died in his 60s. "I saw him shortly before his death," says Stephen, "and spoke to him. He was in a pretty bad way . . . My mother went to visit him in hospital regularly and insisted she should be the one looking after him. I don't think she ever stopped loving him. When he died she was devastated.
"I was denied a father, my mother was denied a partner and my father was denied a son . . . My father and mother loved each other intensely, and she never recovered from it. My mother dedicated her life to me and her work. She never fell in love with anyone else. She started to drink and . . . that was another measure of the burden." She died four years ago.
Stephen is not a practising Catholic, but says there is no residual bitterness towards his father. "Some people might say he deceived the church, but I don't think he was a bad man." He can still recall an afternoon playing in the presbytery's garden, around the same time that his father denied his paternity.
"It was large and overgrown, and I would go down this path that led to the church and there was a statue of an angel. That day I bumped into a nun who was coming in at the gate. 'What are you up to?' she asked. 'What are you doing in a priest's garden?' I said I was visiting my father. She assumed I was going to visit the church and had meant to say 'Holy Father'. It's amazing what you can get away with."