Priest and His Son Are Bound by Poverty

Times Staff Writer

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.

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.

"We are just the moms in the grocery stores, at parent-teacher night and standing next to others at our kids' dance recitals," Engelhardt said. "Most of us don't talk because we want to protect our minor children and fear the impact the publicity will cause them.

"Many moms are under confidentiality agreements also and feel they must abide by them or else they will become destitute and not be able to raise their child alone," she said.

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In 1991, Collopy said, she met Uribe -- then a 33-year-old seminarian working for the Redemptorists at a Portland parish -- when he agreed to go to her home and serve Communion to her girlfriend, who had a brain tumor.

Within weeks, Collopy said, they began an affair that lasted seven months and ended when she told Uribe that she was pregnant.

As the birth of the baby approached, Collopy, then 26, went to court seeking child support from Uribe. She also sued the Archdiocese of Portland and the Redemptorists for $200,000. She alleged that the seminarian, by having sex with a parishioner, had breached his fiduciary duty as someone who "performed pastoral duties for the archdiocese."

Their son was born in February 1993.

In 1994, the archdiocese -- headed by then-Archbishop of Portland William Joseph Levada, now a cardinal in the Vatican and advisor to Pope Benedict XVI -- filed a motion to have Collopy's suit thrown out.

The archdiocese said it had never directly employed Uribe. It further argued that "no one other than the parents are responsible for support of a minor child" and that the case had statute of limitations problems.

Finally, the archdiocese said the "birth of the plaintiff's child and the resultant expenses ... are the result of the plaintiff's own negligence," specifically because she engaged in "unprotected intercourse."

Collopy acknowledged that although she was using birth control pills, she was sometimes lax about taking them daily.

Meanwhile, Uribe requested a DNA test to establish paternity. When the results proved that he was the father, the court ordered Uribe to pay $215 a month in child support.

In exchange for Collopy dropping the suit and signing a confidentiality agreement, the Redemptorists agreed in 1994 to pay monthly support until Collopy's son turned 21.

Soon after the agreement was signed, Uribe was ordained as a Redemptorist priest.

In 1998, the court ordered Uribe to increase the child support payment by $108 a month, a tab picked up again by the Redemptorists.

Collopy said her son's health issues, coupled with her unemployment, led her to seek another increase and attempt to get the boy on his father's insurance plan.

But before going to court, Collopy tried a different tack. She asked Uribe's superiors in the Redemptorists' Denver Province to provide, on moral grounds, financial support for her son.

"He's having success, moving up the ladder, and we're just stuck here, struggling," Collopy said. "My situation is not ambiguous. I've got DNA walking around that proves he and the Redemptorists have responsibility. They are so morally corrupt."

In February 2004, Collopy mailed the Redemptorists a stack of documents, including a doctor's letter listing the boy's illnesses.

She provided the names and prices for 28 drugs her son had been prescribed over an 11-month period. She forwarded a therapist's report that detailed the family's hardships, living in a basement of a house in a working-class neighborhood in Portland and having to join a food-donation program to save money.

Collopy also handed over a report that showed she had missed 94 hours of work in 2003 to take care of her son, absences she believed cost her a receptionist job with the Port of Portland.

Two months later, Father Richard Thibodeau, then the provincial superior of the Redemptorists' Denver Province, wrote back to Collopy and said "after a great deal of reflection" the Redemptorists would offer her a one-time payment of $3,876.

"I sincerely hope this generous amount helps you make the decisions ... for [your son's] well-being."

Collopy thought the check might represent a settlement and so she returned it.

"This amount does not put any sort of dent into the ongoing expenses required to raise/support [my son]," she wrote.

Thibodeau sent another letter, returning the documents and closing with, "May you have a peace-filled summer!"

Uribe, in a written statement to The Times, said, "The leadership of the order agreed to assume my obligations for child support. The order has continued to do so and has provided or offered more support than I have been [legally] obligated to pay....

"I will continue keeping my son and his mom in my prayers."

Collopy said that any support she received had been under court order and that Uribe had never attempted to contact his son -- even after the boy sent him an album filled with photographs of himself or tried to interview him for an elementary school journalism project after Pope John Paul II died.

"It is unclear to me just who Arturo is praying to on our behalf," she said. "Certainly the God of my faith has no tolerance for a father shunning his own child."

Catholic experts questioned the order's decision to allow a man with a young child to join the order and take a vow of poverty that crippled his ability to provide financially for his son.

Fathers are not barred from the Catholic priesthood, but they are rarely ordained because, in theory, their worldly obligations must be taken care of before they give their lives to the church.

"It would seem to me that the order may have been misguided in accepting the man in the first place," said Father Ladislas Orsy, professor of canon law at the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C.

Redemptorist officials did not tell the Archdiocese of Los Angeles about Uribe's child when he was offered work at St. Mary in Whittier, said archdiocesan spokesman Tod Tamberg.

He added that the archdiocese would provide for a child fathered by one of its priests and would encourage a religious community to do the same. Tamberg said he didn't know of any children fathered by the archdiocese's priests.

At the Portland court hearing, Uribe was represented by a private Portland attorney. The priest declined to say who paid for her services.

Collopy said she didn't have enough money to hire a lawyer and represented herself.

For three hours in the courtroom, Collopy stumbled through her arguments, unfamiliar with basic points of law. Many times, the judge and even opposing counsel helped her along.

"It didn't look that great," Collopy said. "It didn't sound that great, and I didn't get all that I wanted, but at least I stood up for myself."

She said she fought for more money because she didn't believe "Oregonians should have to pay for the upbringing of my son. That's not how my dad taught me.

"Arturo and I together created the life of this person, and we have a 50-50 responsibility to raise him."

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