Fr. Michael Cleary. Bishop Eamonn Casey. Some of the high-profile names read out by Ray D’Arcy during a discussion on children of Catholic priests. Sarah Thomas joined Ray on RTÉ Radio 1 to share her experience of finding out she was the child of a priest.
When Sarah was 12, her mother told her that her father is a Catholic priest.
“As I grew older I knew that there was something I wasn’t being told and I just sort of kept asking questions.”
Sarah told Ray that she “didn’t really see what the big deal was”. She wasn’t particularly religious herself.
“I knew that, officially, priests weren’t allowed to have children but I kind of thought ‘Oh, fantastic. When he gets to know me, he’ll really like me and we’ll have a great relationship… that’s when I started asking her [Sarah’s mother] to organise a meeting between the two of us.”
She took Ray back to the days of her parents’ relationship.
“I understand they were in a relationship for about 2 years and when she told him that she was pregnant with me, he sort of dumped her on the spot and refused to meet her again by himself. He met her one or two times with a senior priest present after that.”
Ray wanted to know if Sarah thinks her mother was angry about this.
“I think she was very hurt because she really loved him and she was hurt that someone she thought loved her as well could treat her like that. But not only did she have to deal with the rejection of him, I think she felt very overwhelmed by having to deal with the senior priest who was representing the Catholic church. And she felt like there was really a whole organisation pressuring her, as well as just one man.”
What was the purpose of the senior priest? Sarah explained that at the point, her father was a seminarian.
“He thought my father should go on to ordination but my mother and I, the baby, would have to be in complete cahoots with the secrecy and not talk about who my father was. I would have to be brought up not knowing about him, basically.”
The secrecy continued when Sarah was born.
“After I was born, bits of money arrived. They would be accompanied by letters saying if you talk about this, then the money will stop”.
Sarah met her father when she was 14, an encounter she deemed “very formal”. He hadn’t wanted to meet her by himself so a Catholic psychotherapist and the husband of one of Sarah’s teachers were also present.
“I was with three men that I’d never met before… It was a very bizarre situation to be in... I found him quite cold and reserved and very objective. He clearly wasn’t going to show any kind of the emotion that I was hoping for, I suppose.”
Sarah told Ray that her behaviour “started to go downhill a little bit after that in school”. She recounted a life-threatening accident she had got into in Tenerife as a 20-year-old. She survived a 50ft fall off a cliff but was badly injured. Her mother was told to fly out right away as it was a possibility she wouldn’t make it through the night. Sarah says that when offered the chance to fly to Tenerife to see her, her father said no. She hasn’t had contact with him since 2004.
“When one of your parents does not put you first and puts their own welfare first, above yours, it’s not a very healthy situation.”
Since then, Sarah has embarked on research towards a PhD. The topic is children of priests. She’s spoken to hundreds of people like her, a comfort because initially, she thought she was “the only one”. She explained that she could see patterns in the “effects of secrecy” on their lives. Ray asked how she can reconcile her father’s behaviour with the teachings of the church.
“One of the things that I found so difficult as a teenager was the hypocrisy… the Catholic church saying one thing about love and families officially and then finding out that priests like my father behaved so differently towards their own children… there’s a certain paradox there.”
Listen back to the whole interview on The Ray D’Arcy Show here.
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