SEAN COLLOPY IS 13 AND STURDY. For most of his life, it's been just him and his mom. In the mornings, the two squabble as she prods him to get ready for school. In the evenings, they eat hamburgers at the kitchen table in the house where they rent a room. On the weekends, they go grocery shopping in her used Volvo sedan.
Early on, Sean—not his real name because he is a minor—hardly noticed that his father wasn't around. He and his mom occupied a basement room at her parents' house in the working class suburb of North Portland, Ore. As soon as he could hold a brush, Sean helped his grandfather paint the place, giggling at the old man's corny jokes. After his grandfather died, Sean looked to his uncle as the man in his life.
One day, a kid who had been picking on Sean at school dumped him into a garbage can, bruising his face. Fearing for his safety, Sean's mom moved him to another school, and his father's absence began to matter. His new classmates had families with a mom, a dad, two kids, and, sometimes, a dog. They were curious about Sean's dad, and when they asked about him, Sean didn't know what to say.
He would ask his mom where his father was, and she would answer, "We just haven't found him yet." She said it with such tenderness and conviction that, for a while, it quelled his curiosity. But one fall afternoon, when he was about nine, the taunts of classmates became too much. His mom picked him up from school, and he simmered during the ride home.
"Do I have a father?" Sean demanded when they reached the house. His mother paused, uncertain of her answer. "Of course you have a father," she replied.
She was unnerved by the edge in his voice. From a metal filing cabinet in the bedroom, she pulled out a plain blue photo album. Together, they looked through it. Sean, who has his mother's narrow, sleepy eyes, stared in silence at images of a slender man with black, bushy hair and a sparse mustache. Your father's name, Sean's mother said, is Arturo.
She asked Sean whether he wanted one of the photos, and Sean nodded. He planned to show it to the kids at school, but it still wasn't enough.
"I want to talk to my dad," Sean insisted.
His mom explained that his father's job made it hard to get in touch with him. Sean said he didn't care; he pleaded to speak with his dad. Her son's frustration and growing suspicion that she was keeping him from his father pushed Sean's mother to pick up the phone and make the call he wanted. The voice on the other end of the line announced that she had reached St. Mary of the Assumption Parish, in Whittier, Calif.
"Hello," Sean's mother said. "I'd like to speak with Father Arturo Uribe."
DESPITE MORE THAN 17 CENTURIES of requiring sexual abstinence from its priests and priests-in-training, the Roman Catholic Church has long fallen short in enforcing celibacy. Between A.D. 310, when a group of Spanish bishops called the Council of Elvira mandated that priests be celibate, and A.D. 989, 10 popes were born to priests. In 1522, a Catholic bishop in Switzerland collected fines from an unspecified number of clerics who, that year, had fathered about 1,875 children.
Today, celibacy remains the rule in the Catholic Church, and it is broken with remarkable frequency. A. W. Richard Sipe, a priest who has spent more than 30 years researching clerical celibacy, estimates that at any given time half of American priests are sexually active. (A spokesman for the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops contends that there are "no solidly researched numbers on celibacy in the priesthood.") Uribe became a priest in 1995 but made a promise of celibacy in 1985, six years before he met Sean's mother and the year he entered a Catholic order called the Redemptorists.
Uribe is still a priest, but many priests and priests-in-training who take lovers quit and marry them. So many priests have followed this route that, over the past few decades, more than 30 support groups for married former priests have emerged around the world. The largest in the United States is CORPUS, which estimates that 25,000 priests are married in the United States, which prevents them from performing in Roman Catholic services.
One is the husband of Cait Finnegan, a former nun who met her husband at a prayer group. They married 25 years ago and, recognizing the need to support the female lovers of priests as well as the priests themselves, the couple started Good Tidings, a group that does both. Finnegan estimated that, over the past 20 years, she has met thousands of women who had affairs with priests, and about 50 who bore children as a result of the affairs.
Finnegan has also met and counseled many of those children. Other than the occupation of their fathers, they have surprisingly little in common. Some have never met their fathers. Others see them regularly. Some receive financial support from the church and their fathers, but most do not. Almost all feel shame and anger at being the product of a union between woman and priest, said Finnegan.
"Loving people do not ignore their children," she said. "As Jesus asked, what loving father gives his child a snake when he asks for bread? The answer seems to be those fathers who are priests who put their own career and security above their children."
STEPHANIE COLLOPY, SEAN'S MOTHER, has the unadorned look of a church mouse and an informal way of speaking that makes her sound half her 39 years. While her father was raised a Catholic and insisted on Catholic school for his daughters, Collopy's mother, a devout Episcopalian, made sure that the family attended her church as well as his.
For the Collopy girls, summers and holidays were bleak and occasionally terrifying. They spent most vacations at their grandparents' house, where their grandfather would sometimes molest them, Collopy said, though she declined to specify how. She said she mentioned the abuse to her mother, who, as far as Collopy knows, did not confront Collopy's grandfather. Collopy began to burn and cut her arms and hands during high school and to binge on and purge food. "I figured that if people are hurting me, and causing me pain," she said, "one way I control that is if I hurt myself."
The abuse subsided for her when she reached her mid-teens and became strong enough to resist her grandfather. At 19, she went to a college in Kansas, but the memories of her grandfather's acts stayed with her. In her sophomore year, she tried to kill herself by taking most of two 100-pill bottles of Extra Strength Tylenol and was sent back to Portland to recover.
Collopy rented an apartment in the neighborhood where she grew up, and her godparents helped her financially while she worked at odd jobs for several years. In 1992, looking for solace and impressed with her father's Catholic faith, she began to attend Holy Redeemer Church, a few blocks from her apartment. Uribe, then 34 and recently arrived from Mexico, assisted the church's pastor. Collopy said she didn't notice him at first, but her roommate pointed him out one Sunday and suggested that they ask him to help organize a communion service at their apartment. Uribe seemed nice enough, and when Collopy asked him to help, he agreed.
They developed an easy friendship. Uribe was struggling with English, so despite the gap in their ages, he asked her to help him with homework from English classes he was taking, and he began to appear on her doorstep, textbook in hand. He would also stop by after jogging around her neighborhood, and Collopy would offer him a cup of coffee. Within a month after the communion service, they were having sex. Collopy knew the affair violated rules of the church, but she told herself that if it felt right, it was right, and God would understand.
Experts hesitate to generalize about what draws women into these forbidden relationships, but Collopy seemed to fit a common profile. The women often volunteer at their churches, and many have been sexually abused as children. They "tend to be psychologically vulnerable, and they tend to have personal troubles, so they're seeking out the clergy person as a father- or husband-like figure," explained Thomas Plante, a Santa Clara University psychology professor who has counseled women and priests in sexual relationships. The women are seduced by the promise of friendship, love, and comfort that a religious figure conveys.
Collopy suspected that her relationship with Uribe wouldn't last, but that didn't stop her from fantasizing about a quiet family life with him. It frustrated her when he wrote her love letters that in one sentence declared his passion and in the next suggested that she look for someone else. Collopy hoped that Uribe would abandon the path to priesthood for her, especially after May 1992, when she discovered that she was pregnant.
ARTURO URIBE WAS BORN IN IRAPUATO, MEXICO, a farming town between Mexico City and Guadalajara known for its abundant strawberries. With few options beyond working in the fields or roving with local gangs, Uribe entered a Catholic seminary in 1974, at age 16. He spent years studying theology and philosophy and in 1984 earned a degree from the University of Guanajuato. Rather than limit himself to one region by becoming a diocesan priest, Uribe joined a Catholic order, an international religious community whose members imitate Jesus by taking vows of chastity, poverty, and obedience. It was the Congregation of the Most Holy Redeemer, also known as the Redemptorists, which had a branch in Irapuato and described its mission as bringing the word of God to society's downtrodden.
In 1991, after he had demonstrated that he could live according to Redemptorist rules, the order sent Uribe to St. Mary of the Assumption Parish in Whittier. The parish was largely Latino, and Uribe served as a counselor to its newest members, most of whom came from Mexico. After serving there successfully for several months, he was assigned to the Holy Redeemer Parish in Portland. "This will most probably be a difficult time for you, Arturo," the order's provincial superior wrote to him, "since you will be in a totally Anglo culture."
Gone was the Latino congregation that had given Uribe so much comfort in Whittier. The priests in the Portland parish were much older than he, and he didn't talk to them much. When Collopy approached him about performing the communion service, Uribe was happy for the opportunity. After the ceremony, he and Collopy and others went for dinner in Portland, and it was one of the few times since his arrival that he'd been out with people close to his age. Collopy seemed particularly open, and he felt comfortable enough to admit to her that he felt lonely. He began to find a reason to see her nearly every day. Uribe was thrilled but also frightened when their relationship grew serious, because he knew it could end his career. He was careful to keep it secret. He walked to her apartment so other parishioners wouldn't see his car in front of her house.
In his 2001 book The Unhealed Wound, Eugene Kennedy, a former priest and emeritus professor of psychology at Loyola University Chicago, argued that staying celibate makes priests and priests-in-training more likely to engage in sexual misconduct, because the self-denial prevents them from maturing. His studies of the clergy led Kennedy to estimate that more than half of American priests were psychologically underdeveloped. Those most likely to break their vows are also narcissistic or unhappy in their personal lives, according to Thomas Plante, and they tend to seek relationships with female parishioners.
Uribe was apparently too immature and lonely to resist a relationship with Collopy. A few months after the communion service, he told Collopy that he loved her, and he began to write her poems. One reads, "Stephanie, when I see your blue eyes—I can feel the presence of the ocean and receive his tranquility and his silent voice."
THE CATHOLIC CHURCH REQUIRES PRIESTS and other servants of God to be celibate so that they will be more like Jesus Christ, who is assumed to have been celibate and unmarried. But liberal theologians and members of the clergy have argued that celibacy is unrealistic and impractical, serving mainly to dissuade men from the priesthood. In 1967, Pope Paul VI ended public debate over the issue with an encyclical—a letter to bishops stating church doctrine—that described "the golden law of sacred celibacy" as a "brilliant jewel."
Church law prescribes a process for investigating and punishing violations of all kinds, including of this golden law, but it is generally followed only in serious cases involving offenders who resist reform. Priests and others who breach the vow of celibacy are far more likely to undergo an informal process of rehabilitation with their religious superiors, a response that church law strongly encourages. "The entire Code of Canon Law, the entire theology, is based on man's redemption," explained Joseph Maher, the president and co-founder of Opus Bono Sacerdotii, an organization that represents priests in trouble. "The church looks at canon law in terms of helping the priest to increase his desire to grow in Holiness and thus be saved and enter Heaven."
The church delegates much of the power to enforce the law to dioceses and orders. Orders are particularly independent, having their own rules tailored to their missions. When someone in the order breaks the vow of celibacy, his religious superior considers factors like whether the violation was a first-time offense, whether it caused a public scandal, and whether the relationship was consensual. The superior can refer the case for punishment, but more commonly he asks the offender to confess his sins, speak with his spiritual advisers, and think and pray upon what he has done. When the offender is not yet a priest, the superior may ask him to take a leave from the order and contemplate whether he has truly been called to God. He may also be dismissed as having a character flaw that makes him unsuited to the priesthood.
Officials of the Redemptorists' Denver Province, which had jurisdiction over Uribe's case, learned of Collopy's pregnancy soon after she did. One official said Uribe was "upfront and honest" about the relationship, though Collopy said the Redemptorists were in the dark until she wrote a letter to them when she found out. The Redemptorists responded by sending Uribe to a church "renewal center" in Arizona, so that he could receive spiritual counseling and psychological help. During his stay of about a year, he worked as a janitor.
The Redemptorists have declined to discuss their response to Uribe's transgression, but their apparent leniency was no doubt based on several factors, say religious scholars familiar with such cases. The order apparently believed that he was honest about his affair with Collopy, and he tried hard to convince his superiors that he wanted to stay, writing a letter stressing his commitment to the priesthood. He had been with the order for seven years, a significant period, and there was no evidence that he had committed any other offenses or had forced Collopy to have sex. Young men willing to pledge their lives to the church were increasingly rare, and when Uribe persuaded his superiors that he had reformed, they welcomed him back and, in a few years, made him a priest.
That Uribe had fathered a child seemed of little consequence to the Redemptorists or the church. Church law and the Redemptorist constitution are silent on the matter of priests with children. Still, religious leaders and experts on church law agree that the father and perhaps his religious order have a moral obligation to support the child and to respond with emotional and financial generosity.
"It's a matter of justice," said the Rev. Robert Silva of the Chicago-based National Federation of Priests' Council. "How can he assume the responsibilities of being a good priest if he's not assuming the responsibility for his child?"
COLLOPY GAVE BIRTH TO SEAN IN FEBRUARY 1993. He was a healthy newborn and arrived with a head of hair in a surprising variety of colors—brown strands leading to blond tips. But when Sean was a month old, he suffered an asthma attack so severe that Collopy took him to a hospital. He was later diagnosed with allergies to dairy products, and he required a variety of costly medications. With no job and living on welfare, Collopy wrote the Redemptorists for help in supporting Sean. State officials, meanwhile, noted on Collopy's welfare benefits form that Uribe was Sean's father, and they sent him a letter seeking partial reimbursement for the child support that the government had paid.
The Redemptorists told Collopy that Uribe "has refused to accept paternity of the child until tests are made, because he knows Stephanie was spending time with another man," an allegation that Collopy denied. To state welfare officials, Uribe replied that he wanted a paternity test "for the good of the child and for myself. . . . If I were the father immediately I will be able to get a job I will pay the amount that you said because it is reasonable." Uribe took the test, and the results proved that Uribe was Sean's father.
Like most states, Oregon requires unmarried parents with a child to contribute to the child's support according to their means. The state calculated Uribe's share on the basis of the minimum wage, even though he technically earned no money, and in early 1994 ordered him to pay $215 a month. The question of custody did not come up, so under state law Uribe, as the father, had joint custody of Sean.
For Collopy, $215 was not enough. Though she had recently started to work as an administrative assistant, child care expenses and Sean's health problems left her chronically short of money. She consulted a lawyer about suing Uribe, the Archdiocese of Portland, and the Redemptorists' Denver Province, and the lawyer said a case could be made that Uribe, as her trusted adviser, breached his fiduciary duty to her by seducing her. The lawyer also said that the diocese and the Redemptorists could be found negligent for failing to monitor Uribe's conduct. In July 1993, at Collopy's request, the lawyer told the diocese and the order that he would file a lawsuit against them if they did not provide Sean and Collopy with financial support.
After the Redemptorists' provincial superior tried to wash his hands of the matter, Collopy's lawyer filed a suit demanding $200,000, and settlement negotiations began. In June 1994, after almost a year of talks, the order agreed to pay the $215 a month that Uribe owed in child support (it was increased to $323 a month in 1998) and give Collopy an additional $3,000. In exchange, Collopy promised to release the parties from further liability.
IN 1995, URIBE BECAME THE PASTOR AT ST. MARY'S IN WHITTIER, the parish where he had done well when he first arrived in the U.S. Over the next nine years, the parishioners grew fond of Uribe's affable personality and never learned that he had fathered a son. Uribe, meanwhile, never contacted Sean.
When Sean was about 11, he noticed that his mom was always worried about money. So when his canvas shoes started to feel tight, he didn't tell her. But she saw the blisters on his toes, and she bought him a new pair of shoes. After years of worry about the medical expenses for Sean's allergies and her other financial struggles, the shoe incident prompted Collopy to contact the Redemptorists for more help. "I'd like to give him a real chance of success in life," she wrote in August 2003.
This time, the order did not dismiss her request. Although the Redemptorists declined to explain their change of heart, a new provincial superior had taken over, and he asked Collopy for more information about her plea. She sent him a two-inch binder filled with letters from doctors and documentation of the days she had missed work when Sean was sick. In April 2004, she received a check for $3,876. Collopy returned it immediately. "This amount does not put any sort of dent into the ongoing expenses required to raise/support Sean," she told the provincial superior.
In March 2005, Collopy filed a petition for full custody of Sean and an increase in child support. She knew the petition contradicted the settlement agreement, but when she told Sean that she was trying to get full custody of him, he said he was glad. In July, Collopy represented herself at the hearing on her petition, and her inexperience undermined her attempts to make her case. But Uribe was there, and she wanted him to admit publicly that he had a son.
When it was her turn to question Uribe, Collopy asked the priest, "Can you state your child's name?" Uribe responded by saying Sean's full name.
"How do you meet your obligation to your son?" Collopy continued.
"I don't own anything, so the order have this responsibility," Uribe said.
"Do you plan to talk to Sean in the future?" she asked.
Uribe's lawyer objected to the question as irrelevant, and the judge sustained the objection, so Uribe did not answer.
After the three-hour hearing was over, Collopy believed that she had won an important victory. Although the judge had denied an increase in child support, the Redemptorists agreed to discuss additional payments for Sean, and they recently reached a confidential settlement with Collopy. Most significant, the judge had granted her full custody of her son, and Uribe had acknowledged Sean in open court. "I got what I wanted," she said....