Tuesday, September 13, 2016

‘Gobsmacked’ to learn my father was a priest

REVEREND Mother was on the phone from eastern parts to say she has a lovely baby girl... I can make the necessary arrangements for you to take the baby... maybe you would like to come yourselves... do not tell your business to anyone...”

The letter, its colour faded over the years, runs on with other details, imparted in a slightly peculiar mix of colloquialisms and telegraphese.

There is reference to “a station wagon” being used to transport the child, and a warning: “Do not tell of the child’s mother.”

That child now sits in the armchair of a hotel, unfolding and refolding letters and documents from a pile. Now a grown woman, she knows all this correspondence back-to-front, including one piece of paper which has the important line, “we have no information on *Sinead’s father”.

Her father, her dad, the priest.

It’s quite a story, but not unique. Sinead, who has children of her own, was told early on that she had been adopted. She absorbed the news and got on with life, growing up in a happy household, and eventually she got to a point when, she says, “I wanted to know where I was from. There is some need just to know where I was from.”

Sinead is warm and engaging, and at times her eyes widen so much that sitting across from her, you see yourself reflected in the pupils. She is candid, but nervous. She wants to tell her story, but doesn’t want to upset anybody.

On being adopted, she says: “I would have always felt like I had to be very good and that was the way I went. It turns you into a people-pleaser; there’s not a lot of room for manoeuvre. You’re trying to fit in.”

Being the daughter of a priest adds yet more layers of complication. “There is seemingly very few of us,” she says, referring to a closed Facebook group to which some people have contributed.

“We have never all met. I think it would be nice if we had a meeting, to talk face-to-face.” But, she adds: “I’m not putting my story on a Facebook page.”

Being adopted did not come as a shock to her after being told when she was very young by parents she believes were truly “enlightened”, particularly considering the Ireland of the time.

“I was quite lucky because my mother told me as I was growing up that I was adopted. She put it that we were more special because we were chosen, and the older I got, the more she was able to tell me, but there was very little information.

“She would always think about my birth mother, at birthdays and Christmas, that she gave me to her because they couldn’t have children.

“A lot of people were not as enlightened. You would often hear people say, and say it in front of you, ‘Oh, you’re great to take them on, how do you know what they are going to turn out like?’

“I was told at one stage when I was a child [at school] that they weren’t my real parents and because I knew about it, it wasn’t as bad, I was able to fight my corner. I might still have gone in and cried but I was able to hold my ground.”

This newspaper has covered many stories in recent years about the struggles and obstacles faced by adopted children in seeking information about their past.

It was when Sinead was in her late teens that she first thought of digging deeper into her history.

“I didn’t know how to go about it and where to go. I didn’t want to upset my parents at the time,” she says.

“Definitely in teenage years when we were doing biology class, about genes and genetics, and sometimes in religion classes and your family history and who you looked like... that used to make me really think about it then, but there was no recourse to finding out about it at all.”

In her adult years, she finally went for it. The process took about a year. First, photographs were exchanged.

Sinead didn’t think she shared much of a likeness with her natural mother.

“I didn’t see myself in her,” she says. Her adoptive mother, while supportive, had misgivings. “I think that she was afraid that there would be a younger, better version of her and I would transfer my feelings.”

When the first meeting happened, on neutral ground, a social worker was present. One can only imagine how difficult it is to manage your expectations of such a momentous point in your life; the reality was different.

“It wasn’t a bit like it was on the television,” she says, before breaking into a laugh that sounds a little rueful.

“There was no emotional thing at all from her. I would have liked it if she had been emotional and given me a hug as it would have put my nerves at ease and I would have responded.

“But it was just like... But I think she just shut down a huge amount, she has never been that type of person.”

The staged nature of the meeting affected the atmosphere. “You kind of wanted to impress her, ‘do I look ok?’ ‘Am I alright?’” Sinead admits her natural mother might have been in turmoil inside, but didn’t show it. Maybe there was a reason for that.

It turns out, there was. Some time later, as their relationship developed, Sinead’s birth mother was showing her photographs and Sinead guessed the identity of her birth father. 

She had by then come to the conclusion that one possible scenario was that her natural father had been a priest. It wouldn’t have been unknown, as high-profile cases involving Bishop Eamon Casey and Fr Michael Cleary illustrate.

Sinead says she had been “dodging around” the issue of the identity of her birth father for some time, living “on tenterhooks”.

That day, when confirmation came from her birth mother, she was rattled.

“I thought I was prepared for it, I thought I was ok, but when it registered and I was, I think that I was gobsmacked myself,” she says.

“Having to act normal then, like nothing had happened.”

The revelation didn’t open the floodgates. Circumstances didn’t allow that, and while the relationship with her birth mother continued, there was a “tapering-off”. There were more questions than answers, and a void.

She did hear some details of how it happened: Consensual, just the once.

“I got the impression that she loved him,” Sinead says.

The reticence and distancing made more sense now, once she realised the historical baggage her natural mother had been carrying for much of her life, but still there were outstanding questions. 

“I never got the timeline,” she says. “I have been trying to talk to her since, to get the A, B, and C of what happened. Who decided to send her, what happened when she came home, all that kind of stuff.”

In 2014 an organisation began, which sought to offer advice and assistance to people fathered by priests. Since then, Coping International has developed a worldwide network and has been corresponding with the Church at all levels, including in Rome. 

The Coping spokesman says of the Irish cohort: “Between 10 and 20 in Ireland are directly engaging in the process currently. Some left without ever approaching anyone.

“The main thing that people look for is authentication. Coping found its feet as it grew, thanks be to God. Most are delighted to meet with other priests’ kids and now we meet on Facebook and in person, when and where possible.

“For the most part they say ‘my dad is/was Fr XYZ, from the diocese of ABC and I have been shut up for my entire life and I am sick and tired of being subject to a lie.’ From here we get to know the person and it becomes clear if they are having you on, and so forth.

“Nobody has come asking for money to date. Almost everyone wants to be able to talk.”

THE spokesman also commended the Church for providing counselling services, adding that “being perfectly honest, [the issue] is not new to them.

“The Church must be commended, though there remains much to be done, for the most part at least, doors are open. Priests’ children owe a great debt of gratitude to Archbishop Diarmuid Martin, who at the onset believed in what Coping is doing.”

Patricia Carey, CEO of the Adoption Authority of Ireland, said she was not aware of people making contact and seeking information in any cases where they had been fathered by a priest.

“Obviously when the children were born it was highly unlikely that the birth father was even named [on the birth certificate] and certainly would not be putting forward his profession,” she said. For its part, the Catholic Church here is aware of the issue.

A spokesman for the Catholic Bishops said: “The Irish Catholic Bishops recognise the significance and importance of adequate care being provided for children born to priests and are anxious to ensure that appropriate support is being offered to all children.

“In particular, it appreciates the sensitivity required in any pastoral outreach to children of priests.”

In a letter to Coping sent in March of last year, the Irish Episcopal Conference referred to confidentiality agreements, claiming that while it was possible to enter into such an agreement as long as it was done freely by both sides and in the best interests of the mother and the child, there was a number of caveats to that, such as undue pressure being brought on the mother to comply, if used primarily to protect the priest with a “veil of secrecy”, or if there was “a power imbalance” that might “distort the powers of natural justice”.

It certainly hasn’t been easy for many of those who make the unexpected discovery that their father was a priest.

According to the Coping spokesman: “I myself was asked to leave the country, to go to Australia, and received late-night phone calls calling me all sorts of profanities. These calls were not from priests; they would not act so foolishly. Many expect you to be discreet, which is curious and evocative of the influence of the Church on our psyche in a secular society.

“One Irish mother now lives in hiding in the North from her own family, having been physically assaulted by her own family when they found out in 2012. Another family whose mother and father (former priest and nun) both left, having fallen in love in the early 1970s, lives socially excluded lives and this exclusion has fallen upon their children also.

“One girl aged only 19 (location withheld) came to our knowledge through a mutual friend. She never attended college and her self-confidence is through the floor as she feels worthless, while her father still ministers in the diocese wherein she lives. Social exclusion is the primary phenomenon we experience, and/or expectation of discretion.”

SINEAD certainly felt excluded, or at least a sense of personal exile, carrying her newly- acquired secret around with her.

“The worst thing was I was involved in the Church as a reader,” she recalls.

“I was being brought to Knock a couple of times a year. Then that hit me and I thought, ‘Oh my God, should I be doing this? What if somebody found out?’ And there was nobody to ask, so I decided to go to Knock to confession.

“I thought, I’ll go to someone I don’t know and then I will say the oath of confession. You don’t know who you’re going to get and you really just want to ask advice — what are you going to do? And I got a priest and my God, he ate me.

“He asked me was I looking for something, and he gave out to me about it and all I wanted to know was... He just went off and gave out to me. Did he think I was looking for money, did he think I was lying? It felt like it. I know myself, I just cut off.

“He was yelling at me, was I looking for money, where did I think I was going, and what did I think I was doing, all this. I was trying to explain. I suppose I was asking was I still joined up with God, was he still going to be there for me and also was it ok for me to read at Mass? I came out of there in bits.

“I came out then and I cried my eyes out and I didn’t know where to go. I actually felt, I felt like it was all my fault. What am I going to do? My husband told me it was ok and he loved me but I was afraid to say it to anybody, I didn’t know what to do.

“I did go to counselling a few years ago. But a lot of people don’t get the adoption issue. They don’t get how intense it is, the feelings you have.”

It has become something unspoken between her and her natural mother.

“I don’t know how to do it without causing problems,” she says.

It’s not hard to see why. Who knows? What do they know? How much do they know? Do they need to know? There are so many people to consider, across different generations, and between mother and daughter it is a secret seldom, if ever, spoken about.

Sinead has found out more about her father over the years. She knows when he was ordained, where he served, some of his interests and hobbies, and when he died. She visited his grave once, terrified that someone would see her and wonder why she was there.

Yet questions still remain, the answers just out of reach. People have helped her, not least a social worker who did a tremendous amount of digging to help retrieve some files.

More recently she has worked with Coping, and met with people in Maynooth to find out a little more about her natural father.

Figures in the Church have shown understanding, and even suggested “a little healing ceremony-type thing” at her natural father’s grave. “I would like to do something like that but I am worried about someone seeing me there,” she says. She has also confided in others, including some family members, who were “all fine with it”.

Years ago, on a visit to Medjugorje, she got into a deep conversation with a priest and was on the brink of telling him. More recently, she did tell a priest closer to home. “He was just lovely about it,” she says. “I will always remember, he said to me: ‘God doesn’t make junk.’ That was the first time I didn’t feel bad.”

To say it’s a tricky situation is a gross understatement. Sinead agrees that her natural mother might be more open about certain aspects of the issue if it had been a more conventional situation to begin with.

“I think I just want her to tell me once, where I could hear it from her own mouth and ask her some questions, step by step by step, and put a timeline on it. I’m not looking for the gory details and I would like to hear it from her.

“I get annoyed sometimes. I get annoyed that I have spent this long and she has seen that I am not going out to cause her any problems. I do get frustrated, and I hate myself for it because I think, ‘look what she has been through, she didn’t get counselling’. I had counselling myself and I know how hard it is. But I am thinking, what about me?”

If some of the obstacles put in place for adopted children were removed it might make things easier, she says. “You’re supposed to take what you get and be grateful for it, and that hurts.”

Sinead and her natural mother did have a brief chat about the short period of time when mother and baby were still together, before Sinead was passed on into a new life.

“She told me that she looked after me. I know whatever she dressed me in was what I was wearing.” 

In that station wagon, all those years ago.

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