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Priest and His Son Are Bound by Poverty

A Whittier pastor fends off a woman's legal bid for more money to raise their sick child.

July 24, 2005|William Lobdell | Times Staff Writer

PORTLAND, Ore. — Single and unemployed, Stephanie Collopy asked a Portland judge this month to order her son's father to increase her child support and to add their chronically ill boy to his health insurance plan.

Sitting on the witness stand in a white button-down shirt, gray slacks and blue blazer with a small gold cross on the lapel, Arturo Uribe -- the 12-year-old boy's father -- had an unusual defense: He is a Roman Catholic priest.

Uribe, who was a seminarian when he fathered the boy during a consensual affair with Collopy, had taken a vow of poverty and therefore had no money to support his son, he told the court. Now pastor of the 4,000-family St. Mary of the Assumption Roman Catholic Church in Whittier, Uribe had never seen the boy, who was born in 1993.

And as for health insurance, Uribe said his plan -- tailored for priests, nuns and brothers -- didn't provide for children.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Monday July 25, 2005 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 2 inches; 78 words Type of Material: Correction
Priest who fathered boy -- An article in Sunday's Section A about a Whittier priest who fathered a child in Oregon in 1993 said that the former archbishop of Portland, William Joseph Levada, is now a cardinal in the Vatican. Levada has not been made a cardinal. He was appointed in May by Pope Benedict XVI as prefect of the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, and will remain archbishop of San Francisco until Aug. 17.

Uribe's legal argument worked.

Multnomah County Judge Keith Meisenheimer ruled that Uribe only had to continue his $323-a-month child support, paid by his religious order, the Redemptorists. And while the jurist instructed Uribe, 47, to formally ask his health plan carrier if an exception could be made for his son, the priest wasn't ordered to provide insurance.

Like other women whose children were fathered by Catholic priests, Collopy, 38, could get only limited help from the legal system, which decides child support based on a parent's income. Although dioceses and orders often have considerable wealth, most Catholic priests -- especially those in religious orders -- make little or no money. Their living expenses are paid for by the church.

Canon, or church, law didn't help Collopy either. It is silent on financial support for children fathered by priests. Still, several Catholic scholars said religious orders, such as the Redemptorists, should be guided by higher standards when it comes to providing for children. The Redemptorists are an order of missionaries, priests and brothers whose "special mission," according to its website, is "preaching the word of God to the poor."

Father John J. Coughlin, a professor at the University of Notre Dame Law School and canon law expert, said it was "customary" for religious orders to provide financial support for the children of its members.

"Given the special needs" of Collopy's child, who has chronic asthma and allergies, "it would seem that the Redemptorists have a moral obligation to contribute to the child's support ... in accord with the order's ability to provide that financial support," Coughlin said.

Officials with the Redemptorists' Denver Province could not be reached for comment. Archdiocese of Los Angeles officials said they had not been informed by Uribe or his order about the priest's child until recently. In April, Uribe announced that his order was transferring him to Chicago later this summer.

Parishioners at St. Mary also were never told that their pastor had a son.

"I'm very, very disappointed," said Rene Desmedt of La Habra, when told about the priest's secret child and the support dispute. Desmedt, 84, has served as an usher at St. Mary for 45 years. "I never expected that. When this becomes public, there's going to be very many people really angry."

Desmedt said the church collects $12,000 to $13,000 each week from parishioners and that it could support the priest's child.

"St. Mary's Church is a rich church, in my book," Desmedt said. "We can afford it. Boy, that news is going to knock the heads off a lot of people."

Uribe declined to be interviewed but issued a statement.

"Since [my son's] birth I have taken my obligation of support for him seriously, although as in many such situations this has not been easy because of the strained relationship and lack of contact between the parents," Uribe wrote.

No statistics exist on the number of U.S. Catholic priests with children or how those children are supported. But several national support groups provide legal advice and encouragement for women whose children were fathered by priests.

Cait Finnegan, 54, runs the Pennsylvania-based Holy Innocents website, which was founded "as a result of the tragic situation of children who receive nothing or merely financial support from their priest-fathers and of women who are left feeling emotionally raped by the institutional church when they fight for the rights of their children."

Finnegan said the site had helped more than 50 women raise children fathered by priests.

"An order priest will cry poverty, but all of his needs are taken care of by his religious order," Finnegan said. "If the community is going to protect him from his legal duties, they need to take care of his baby."

Children of priests also talk with each other online about their feelings of abandonment and other issues.

Theres Ann Engelhardt of Schnecksville, Pa., has a teenage son who was fathered by a priest. She counsels others in similar circumstances through Holy Innocents.

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