CBS News has confirmed that the Vatican has secret guidelines for priests who father children, despite their vows of celibacy. Vincent Doyle, the founder of a support group for children of priests, told CBS News that a Vatican official showed him the confidential instructions.
Doyle said he's been pushing the Church to publicly support those children, who often grow up living in shame and secrecy. CBS News correspondent Roxana Saberi spoke with him and other children of priests fighting for recognition from the Catholic Church.
Sarah Thomas is one of those children. She told CBS News that she's proof priests sometimes break their vows to the Church, which for nearly nine centuries has forbidden its clergymen from sex and marriage.
"My mother had been told to keep it a secret by the Church," she told Saberi.
Thomas was 14 when she first met her father, a priest in England.
"It soon became apparent that he couldn't or wouldn't or wasn't allowed to be any sort of father to me in any meaningful sense," Thomas said, adding that the hardest part of her youth was "feeling very isolated. I literally thought I was the only priest child in the world."
But she now believes there could be thousands of children like her, and they're slowly being recognized -- starting in Ireland.
In 2017, Ireland's Catholic Church published ground-breaking guidelines for priests, declaring that if "a priest fathers a child, the well-being of his child should be his first consideration," and he should "face up to his responsibilities -- personal, legal, moral and financial."
Doyle told Saberi that he pushed for the guidelines after learning that his late god-father, an Irish priest, was his real father.
The guidelines were the first time the Catholic Church had publicly admitted that there even are priests' kids. But they are guidelines -- not requirements.
Doyle accepts that but said, "the first problem with children of priests is they're not recognized."
"When you're hidden… you are characterized by secrecy," he added. That, he said, "eats away at their sense of worth."
Nearly two years after the Catholic Church in Ireland approved the guidelines for priests with children, Church officials around the world are taking notice.
The Catholic Church in America is looking at a similar model, and the Vatican confirmed to CBS News on Tuesday that guidelines already exist for all Catholic clergy.
Vatican spokesman Alessandro Gisotti confirmed to CBS News the existence of "a document for internal use, which summarizes the practice formed over the years in the Congregation and is not intended for publication."
Gisotti said "the fundamental principle behind these lines is the protection of the child. For this reason, the document ordinarily requires that the priest present a request for dispensation from the duties of the clerical state and, as a layman, assume his responsibilities as a parent by devoting himself exclusively" to their child.
Doyle has pressed Pope Francis to announce such guidelines himself, publicly, and on Tuesday he said that while the Vatican guidelines "are an acknowledgement of a global problem, I now call on The Congregation for Clergy (Vatican office) to release them without delay."
Asked what he wants from the pope, in particular, Doyle told CBS News it would only take, "two words, three words, four words, that these children are recognized; 'we acknowledge your pain, we condemn this pain, and we want to fix this pain.'"
To help them with their pain, Doyle created the website "Coping International," offering resources and counseling. Now there's a worldwide community of people, growing.
Thomas is part of that community and is doing a PhD on it.
"What's coming out more and more is that these children are ready for some change," she told Saberi. "Change is very difficult for the Catholic Church, but change is happening."