A Roman Catholic religious order that had until now refused to increase child support payments for a boy fathered by one of its priests pledged Wednesday to provide additional financial support and counseling for the 12-year-old.
Father Thomas Picton, who heads the Denver Province of the Redemptorists, said he would also encourage the Whittier priest, Arturo Uribe, to get counseling to learn how to be a proper father.
"This should never, ever have happened," said Picton, who since March has run the Denver Province, which oversees 200 priests in 31 states. "You don't not take care of the kid."
This month, Stephanie Collopy, the boy's mother, fought unsuccessfully in court for increased child support payments from Uribe.
She argued that, as an unemployed single parent of a child with chronic asthma and other health problems, she needed more than the court-ordered $323 a month paid by the Redemptorists. She also asked that Uribe be ordered to provide health insurance for the boy.
The judge ruled that because Uribe had taken a vow of poverty -- he receives a monthly allowance of $100 plus room, board and the use of a car -- he could not be ordered to pay more child support.
Picton said his order's attorneys, who had fought Collopy in court, had not spoken with him directly about the case while proceedings were underway and that he was told about it only when lawyers feared the story was about to appear in The Times.
Collopy was pleased by Picton's announcement.
"If [he] really means what he's saying, I'm like, 'Thank God, maybe they have a good leader this time around,' " said Collopy, who said she lost her job as a receptionist because she missed 94 hours of work in 2003 to care for her ill son. "If they provide medical insurance, and more money and counseling for my son, that would be great. I welcome them finally taking responsibility."
Uribe, the outgoing pastor of the 4,000-family St. Mary of the Assumption Roman Catholic Church in Whittier, has never seen the child he fathered in 1993 while working with the Redemptorists as a pastoral assistant at a Portland, Ore., parish.
Although his superiors knew he had an infant son, he was accepted into the order a year later on a trial basis and was ordained in 1995.
"I question the wisdom of having accepted Uribe for temporary vows and ordination without further reflection on how he could be a priest and a father," Picton said.
He said that if he had been in charge, he would not have accepted Uribe into the order because of the baby. Still, Picton said Uribe had been a good priest and had no complaints of poor behavior in his file.
Picton said Wednesday that his religious order needed to go beyond civil court standards -- which base child support, in large part, on a parent's income -- because the laws don't account for a priest who took a vow of poverty.
"This is not a win-lose situation as far as I'm concerned," Picton said. "The order has an obligation to support this child, and just following the strict letter of the law has not been adequate."
Collopy said she and Uribe began a seven-month affair in 1991 when he agreed to serve Communion to a friend who was staying with Collopy while being treated for a brain tumor.
After learning that she was pregnant, Collopy tried various methods to get Uribe or his superiors to provide adequate child support.
In 1992, she sued the Archdiocese of Portland and the Redemptorists for $200,000, alleging that Uribe breached his fiduciary duty as someone who "performed pastoral duties for the archdiocese."
Under the direction of Portland's archbishop at the time, William J. Levada, church attorneys tried to get the suit dismissed in 1994 on several grounds. In a motion, they argued that the "birth of the plaintiff's child and the resultant expenses ... are the result of the plaintiff's own negligence" because she engaged in "unprotected intercourse."
Levada, now in his final month as the archbishop of San Francisco, was recently named head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, a Vatican position that makes him chief guardian of Roman Catholic doctrine worldwide. That position was previously held by Cardinal Joseph A. Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI.
Collopy also sought child support through the Oregon legal system. In 1994, the court ordered Uribe -- whom a paternity test proved was the father -- to pay $215 a month in child support.
The Redemptorists agreed to be responsible for the payments, in exchange for Collopy dropping a lawsuit against the order and the Archdiocese of Portland, and signing a confidentiality agreement. The court raised the monthly payments to $323 in 1998.
Collopy said she sought additional child support and health insurance for her son after losing her job last year.
Before taking Uribe to court, Collopy appealed to the Redemptorists to provide for her son, sending them copies of medical bills, school reports and doctors' and counseling reports to document her need.
In 2004, Father Richard Thibodeau, Picton's predecessor, offered a one-time payment of $3,876, an amount he termed "generous."
Collopy thought the check might represent a settlement and sent it back with a note saying that it wouldn't "put any sort of dent into the ongoing expenses required to raise/support" her son.
Picton said he hoped the Redemptorists and Collopy could find a mediator to determine the amount of child support the order should provide. He also said the order would pay for counseling for Collopy and her son if they wanted it.
Picton said that, if Collopy approved, he would encourage Uribe to become involved in his son's life. The order would be willing, he said, to arrange counseling for the priest and pay for father-son visits. Uribe's next assignment is in Chicago.
"As a priest, a man of God and someone who represents high values, we need to help him come to terms with being both a priest and a father," Picton said. "We're trying to figure out how can the order support him in doing that."
Uribe was in Mexico on a scheduled trip, Picton said, and unavailable for comment. Picton said he had not spoken to him about his decision.
Collopy said Picton's endorsement of a father-son relationship is a shift from past practices.
"Since 1993, the Redemptorists and their attorneys have adamantly told Arturo, 'Don't have anything to do with the boy,' " Collopy said. "If [Picton] is going to encourage it, that is awesome and more power to him. I hope it benefits my son. We'll see how it goes."
Advocates for women whose children were fathered by priests were also encouraged by the Redemptorists' shift.
"This is a big-time breakthrough," said Teres Ann Engelhardt, who through the Holy Innocents support group counsels women nationwide. "This could be the beginning of somebody trying to make a difference. But this really should have come from Arturo."