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Vincent Doyle
Vincent Doyle

Government 'failing to support' priests' children as they search for their fathers

Vincent Doyle said time is running out for the government to implement a UN recommendation.
May 23rd 2021, 7:30 AM 34,793 0

THE GOVERNMENT IS failing to adequately support the children of clergy who are trying to find out information about their birth fathers, an advocacy group has said.

Vincent Doyle – the founder of Coping International, an organisation which advocates on behalf of the children of priests – said time is running out for the government to implement a UN recommendation.

In 2016, the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child raised concerns about the lack of measures implemented by Ireland “to ensure that children fathered by Catholic priests are able to access information on the identity of their fathers”.

The UNCRC recommended that the Irish State “ensure measures to assist children fathered by Catholic priests in upholding their right to know and be cared for by their fathers, as appropriate, and ensure that they receive the necessary psychological treatment”.

Ireland has to submit reports to the UNCRC by 27 October 2021, outlining how it has addressed these issues. Doyle, himself the child of a priest, said not enough has been done in the last five years in this regard.

“Despite the 2016 recommendations, the government’s tone, to date, is slightly different, than perhaps what is required to implement said recommendations,” he said.

“The government has a role to play in promoting tolerance, the State must implement measures as requested by the UNCRC or contravene the Convention on the Rights of the Child.”

‘Bittersweet anniversary’

Ten years ago this week, when he was 28, Doyle found out that the man he believed was his godfather, Father John Doyle, was actually his father. Fr Doyle had died 12 years previously.

Speaking to The Journal, the psychotherapist said this life-changing anniversary was “bittersweet, if I am honest”.

“I loved my father and yet his absence has allowed for something to grow, so many others may be helped. I ask myself, ‘Why did people stigmatise me, hate me, silence me and berate me for something beyond my control?’ I am still answering that question every day.”

Doyle said he is “surprised and grateful” that his life experience resulted in him becoming an author and the director of an organisation that helps the children of priests and clergy globally, adding: “I do not think that appeared on my CAO form.”

While Doyle knows his own story, he said many other children of priests are still looking for information about their birth fathers. Doyle believes that priests, many of them now deceased, fathered hundreds of children in Ireland in recent decades.

“Coping would conservatively estimate that there are a minimum of 500 children of the Irish ordained and religious alive today; this figure, though speculative, considers the number of men ordained to the Catholic priesthood in Ireland since the beginning of the twentieth century,” Doyle said.

He added that this figure is also based of the number of people who sought information and support from Coping. He believes the actual figure could be much higher.

Doyle said that while proposed legislation that would grant adopted people the right to their birth certs is to be welcomed, it will not help non-adopted people who are seeking information.

“Any effort at making transparent, one’s genetic heritage should be welcomed but it does not even begin to scratch the surface of the issues priests’ children face,” he told us.

Meeting with department

Doyle said the government cannot ignore the specific needs of the children of clergy and he has asked for “a far more practical, robust response to the issue of children fathered by priests who are subsequently silenced”.

He met representatives from the Department of Children earlier this month to discuss his concerns.

A spokesperson for the department confirmed that the meeting took place on 11 May. They said, in preparation for submitting its report to the UNCRC in October 2021, “Ireland will respond to a list of issues developed by the Committee that was sent to the State last October”.

“The report will also take into consideration the Committee’s recommendations put forward in 2016.

“Engagement with civil society stakeholders is an integral process in the preparation of the report, as demonstrated in the meeting with Mr Doyle.”

In 2016, the UNCRC also recommended that Ireland do the following:

  • Ensure that children born through assisted reproduction technologies, in particular with the involvement of surrogate mothers … have access to information about their origins; in doing so, the State party should consider providing surrogate mothers and prospective parents with appropriate counselling and support
  • Undertake measures, including possible amendments to legislation, to ensure that children born out of wedlock have legal certainty in respect of their family name and that those measures are taken with a view to minimizing the stigma or discrimination that could be faced by such children

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Doyle said the State may be reluctant to act on these recommendations as, implementing measures for one group, would mean also having to implement measures for other groups.

“Does the Government feel it more beneficial to ignore marginalised children, not formally recognising the issue or endorsing UN recommendations, out of fear of if you do it for one, you must do for all?,” he asked.

Information and tracing legislation

Earlier this month, the government published legislation that would enshrine in law a right for adopted people to access their birth certificates, and birth and early life information.

Children’s Minister Roderic O’Gorman described the legislation as “groundbreaking”.

The long-awaited Heads of Bill, which were published on 11 May, provide “a full and clear right of access” for adopted people and others with questions on their origins to birth certificates and related documents.

The legislation will encompass all people who may have a question in relation to their origins and support access to the broad range of birth, early life, care and medical information that may be contained in institutional or other records.

The Bill will undergo pre-legislative scrutiny in the coming months before an Oireachtas vote.

The department said the purpose of the legislation is “to recognise the importance of a person knowing their origins, and to achieve this through the full release of the birth certificate, birth information, early life information, care information and medical information for all persons who were adopted, boarded out, the subject of an illegal birth registration or who otherwise have questions in relation to their origins”.

This legislation will, for the first time, create “a full and clear right for these people to access information relating to their identity at birth”.

Under the new law, if passed, even if a birth parent says they don’t want their child to get their birth cert or related information, the adopted person will still get access – a huge shift in the right to information versus right to privacy debate.

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Órla Ryan

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