When Pat Bond told her lover Henry Willenborg, a Franciscan priest, that she was pregnant, he urged her to have an abortion.
Bond, who was 28, had a miscarriage and then became pregnant again. This time Willenborg’s superiors urged her to give up the child for adoption.
Bond, from Missouri, kept the child but agreed to a vow of silence. In a signed contract with the Catholic Church, she undertook to keep the priest’s identity secret in exchange for financial support for her son, Nathan.
In America, Britain, Ireland, Germany, France, Italy and Austria, women made pregnant by priests have signed such pledges in exchange for hush money from the church.Pope Benedict XVI refused to comment on the scandals on his flight to Malta for a weekend visit yesterday, saying only that the church had been “wounded by our sins”. But he faces a new battle over the children of priests. Many former lovers and their offspring are preparing to mount lawsuits.
Bond was 25 when she started a five-year relationship with Willenborg in 1983, after going to him for marriage counselling. He kissed her passionately as she left his parlour, then she left her husband.
After Bond became pregnant by him for the second time in 1986, Willenborg’s order, the Order of Friars Minor, offered her $50,000 and a confidentiality contract. “They said: ‘Here, take this money, sign this contract and you’ll have support for your child’. I was very naive and I signed,” said Bond.
She broke her promise of silence last year after the Franciscans refused to meet part of the cost of treatment for her son Nathan, then 22, who died in November from a brain tumour.
When Willenborg’s liaisons with Bond, now 53, and another woman became public, the priest was suspended from his parish in Ashland, Wisconsin. He was treated for sex addiction, then returned to his pastoral duties. Catherine Schroeder, a St Louis lawyer for the Order of Friars Minor, declined to comment. Willenborg and the order failed to return calls and emails.
Other cases are reaching the US courts. In Maryland, two children of the late Father Francis Ryan are suing their local archdiocese and a religious order for $10m after discovering through DNA tests that he was their father.
Carla Latty, 58, and Adrian Senna, 65, say Ryan never admitted he was their father or made any payments to their late mother. Senna was sent to an orphanage, while Latty was put up for adoption.
Cait Finnegan, of the Good Tidings association, an American charity for priests and their lovers, has been contacted by nearly 2,000 women who had relationships with priests. She said one pregnant friend had been told by a bishop to “get rid of the child” — a comment she took to mean she should have an abortion. The woman kept the baby.
Thousands of priests in German-speaking countries are believed to have fathered children. Paul Zuhlener, an Austrian theologian, has estimated that up to 22% of Austrian priests have sexual relationships.
Sabine Bauer of the Austrian branch of We Are Church, a reform group, predicted a spate of lawsuits. “The children of priests, and their mothers, are the next ones who will take legal action against the church. Their numbers are large and they have been denied basic rights,” she said.
In Britain, Adrianna Alsworth, who has two children by a priest and runs the Sonflowers helpline for those who have had relationships with priests, said she knew of several women who had been offered confidentiality contracts in return for child support.
“The children aren’t given an opportunity to have a normal family life, and they suffer,” she said.
In Ireland, the former Down bishop Pat Buckley, who runs Bethany, a support group for women in relationships with priests, said he had dealt with two whose abortions had been paid for by priest lovers. In one case, the priest had accompanied the woman to England for the abortion.
In central Italy, Luisa, a psychologist who has an 18-month-old son by a priest, was told by her bishop: “If you give up the baby for adoption, you can stay with the priest and I’ll pretend there’s nothing wrong.” She refused but the couple have since broken up and the priest refuses to recognise the child.
Lorenzo Maestri, a former priest and member of Vocatio, an association for married priests in Italy, accused the Pope of leading a cover-up. “Benedict is responsible for the secrecy, because in 2001, as head of the Vatican office which dealt with all sexual problems involving priests, he ordered the bishops to send these cases to him in Rome,” Maestri said.
Benedict, whose fifth anniversary of his election is tomorrow, may acknowledge the child-abuse cases by agreeing to meet seven victims on his Malta visit. There is no such prospect for the children of priests. When asked what she would like the pontiff to do, Bond quoted her late son: “Nathan told me, ‘I want the Pope to tell me he’s sorry. The church abandons us, it calls us legal obligations. It doesn’t even call us by our names’.”