On a winter afternoon in 2016, Michelle Raftis’s long search brought her to the steps of St. Michael’s Cathedral, the seat of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Toronto. She was nervous, and had carefully prepared what she would say to Cardinal Tom Collins.
She was done with secrets and lies.
Raftis is the daughter of a Catholic priest, a truth the 55-year-old had to hide most of her life. She wanted to know why the church she was raised in allowed a priest to abandon his child.
“I wanted a written apology from the church,” Raftis says.
In Canada and around the world, children of priests have emerged from the shadows to press the Vatican — and their local dioceses — to recognize they exist.
The Vatican appears to have no data on the number of clergy who break their vows of celibacy and father children. But with more than 400,000 Roman Catholic priests ministering to 1.1 billion Catholics, offspring are likely to be found across the globe, says Bill Kilgallon, who recently finished a three-year term as a leading member of Pope Francis’s Commission for the Protection of Minors.
In Canada alone, about 20 sons and daughters of priests have personally contacted Coping International, a recently formed online support group out of Ireland that is pushing the Roman Catholic Church and its priests to acknowledge parental responsibilities.
The Star spoke to four of these now adult children, and to a Quebec woman who sued a diocese over the priest who fathered her son.
The children all struggled with the guilt of a suffocating secret, the financial and emotional strains of being forsaken by their biological father, and the silence of priests focused on avoiding scandal.
The truth was further buried by mothers who didn’t tell their dioceses that a priest had fathered their child. During the 1960s and ’70s when these children were born, such an admission would have deeply shamed the women.
Raftis learned at 13 that her biological father was Rev. Charles Van Item, a family friend who died in 2015. Her mother warned her to never tell anyone.
“When he was alive, I didn’t want to embarrass him, which is funny to say because he walked away from his (parental) duties,” says Raftis, a Catholic grade school teacher who lives in Barrie, north of Toronto. “I didn’t want to embarrass my mother, either.”
Raftis bottled it up, and while still in her teens developed “a major ulcer.” Later, she would struggle with her mental health.
She confided in her future husband when they were dating, and he was supportive. But her attempt to tell her father-in-law reinforced the indictment she long expected from God-fearing society.
“What would you call the child of a priest?” she tentatively asked him. “The devil’s child,” he replied.
“That clamped me up, big time,” Raftis says.
On the March day Raftis walked into Collins’s basilica office for that scheduled meeting in 2016, the cardinal greeted her and her husband Ed warmly. They sat in high-backed chairs, a round coffee table separating Raftis and her husband from the cardinal and another priest.
She asked for written acknowledgement that Van Item was her father and an apology from the church for what she considers a breach of trust. Collins didn’t dispute Van Item’s paternity but declined her requests. He offered instead to pay for counselling.
In an interview, Collins said he first became aware of Raftis’s case when Coping International contacted him in August 2015, almost four months after Van Item died. He adds it’s the only case of a priest fathering a child he’s come across during 21 years as a bishop.
If a similar case comes up on his watch, Collins says his message to the priest would be unequivocal: “I would tell him: ‘leave the priesthood and become responsible for your child.’
“When you are the co-creator of another human person, who is a child of God, you have very strong and weighty responsibilities,” he adds.
Collins insists that the actions of priests like Van Item shouldn’t raise doubts about the vow of celibacy. “It says nothing about celibacy, any more than adultery says anything about marriage. What it says in both cases is about the frailty of the human person, and their need to repent and do what is right.”
He sees celibacy as a tradition that dates back to Jesus and St. Paul, one that “ennobles” those who commit to it. “Our sacred commitments, whatever they may be, make us more profoundly what God wants us to be, and they focus life in a glorious way,” he adds.
Catholic priests could happily marry until the 12th century, when ecumenical meetings known as the Lateran councils banned them from doing so. According to the Vatican’s secretary of state, Archbishop Pietro Parolin, the ban wasn’t strictly enforced until the Council of Trent in the 16th century.
Eastern rites within the Roman Catholic Church, such as the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, allow their priests to marry. And married Anglican priests who convert and become Roman Catholic priests can remain married. But celibacy remains a mandatory vow for seminarians entering the Roman Catholic priesthood, and a topic of heated debate as the number of priests declines worldwide.
Pope Francis’s predecessor, the now retired Benedict XVI, called celibacy for priests “a sign of full devotion” to the Lord and repeatedly insisted it was here to stay. Francis has been less categorical. He has raised the possibility of ordaining married men as priests. And before becoming pope, he described celibacy as a matter of tradition, rather than dogma. “It can change,” he added.
In the meantime, the Vatican has failed to recognize the children of priests, despite striking modern examples.
In 2012, Los Angeles Bishop Gabino Zavala resigned after acknowledging he was the father of two teenage children. In 2006, a Vatican investigation revealed that Mexican priest Marcial Maciel Degollado, founder of the Legionaires of Christ order, had fathered several children with two women and sexually abused seminarians. In 2001, the National Catholic Reporter published the contents of several reports by women’s religious orders, describing the sexual abuse of nuns by priests in some two dozen countries.
Pressure is mounting for the church to hold such priests accountable as parents.
In France, Anne-Marie Mariani founded in 2012 an organization called the Children of Silence, which supports the sons and daughter of priests. Her parents fell in love in Algeria in the 1950s, when her father was a priest and her mother a nun. She’s written three letters to Pope Francis calling on him to ease the emotional burden of children like her with a gesture of recognition.
“Children of priests are everywhere on Earth and there’s not one word for them from the Vatican,” says Mariani, 67, by phone from Paris. “We’re a reality that isn’t talked about. What are they afraid of?”
The efforts of these children are bearing fruit.
On Aug. 31 last year, the Irish Catholic Bishops’ Conference blazed a trail by issuing “principles of responsibility regarding priests who father children while in ministry.”
“The wellbeing of his child should be his first consideration,” the bishops state. “At a minimum, no priest should walk away from his responsibilities.”
The statement was a direct response to the efforts of Coping International, a self-help mental health resource founded by Irish psychotherapist Vincent Doyle, himself the child of an Irish priest. “If a priest can take care of his flock, he can take care of his child,” Doyle says. He adds that dioceses shouldn’t make that more difficult by forcing these fathers to quit the priesthood, thereby leaving them unemployed.
The Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops seems unwilling to follow Ireland’s lead. It told the Star it is “very concerned” about priests who break their vow of celibacy. But the consequences of sexually active priests are strictly matters for local diocese and religious orders, according to the conference’s media relations official, Deacon René Laprise.
The Vatican may decide the matter for them.
Last September, after lobbying by Doyle and an article on the issue in the Boston Globe, Vatican officials asked the Commission for the Protection of Minors to expand its mandate and develop church guidelines for the children of priests. Kilgallon personally informed Pope Francis in a subsequent meeting that the task had been given to a commission working group.
Kilgallon hopes the Vatican guidelines force a sharp change in the approach of local churches, which he describes as mirroring the way they historically dealt with priests who sexually abused children.
“The reluctance has been the feeling that if you admit things openly it can damage the reputation of the church, it can damage people’s faith in the church,” says Kilgallon, who until February was also director of the National Office for Professional Standards of the Catholic Church of New Zealand.
“What the (sex) abuse issue has shown is that the best way to protect the church is to protect the children, not the other way around,” he adds in a phone interview from his Auckland home.
In 2012, when Pope Francis was Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio of Buenos Aires, he was quoted in an interview as saying that a priest who fathers a child “has to leave the ministry and should take care of that child, even if he chooses not to marry that woman. For just as that child has the right to have a mother, he has a right to the face of a father.”
For as long as she can remember, Chiara Villar was told to live a lie.
Her biological father is Rev. Anthony Inneo, a Roman Catholic priest who is now 85. She grew up calling him “Popi”; he lovingly called her “bella.”
He would visit Villar and her mother regularly in their small Niagara Falls apartment. Her earliest memories are of his smell — Brut cologne mixed with cigarette smoke — his shiny black shoes and his white collar, which she would playfully pull out every chance she got.
In private, Inneo was a doting father; in public, a stranger. Villar was repeatedly told to keep his identity secret, but never told why.
“My mother and father never sat down with me and said, ‘This is why we have to lie — priests have to remain celibate. He broke a rule but we love you still,’” says Villar, now a 37-year-old mother of twins living in Burlington.
It made for an emotionally trying childhood. In junior kindergarten she stood frozen with fear in a circle as the teacher asked each child what their parents did for a living. She doesn’t remember her answer, just the pain of lying.
When asked to draw family trees, she’d leave one side blank. On Father’s Day, she’d dutifully make a card in class and give it to Inneo the first chance she got. If he took her to the park, or showed up at her birthday party, Villar was told to say he was her uncle or a family friend. In later years she’d sometimes say she was a love child.
“There was never a consistent story,” she says. “It was so confusing.” The questions raised in a young girl were profound: “Who is this man? Who am I?”
Villar says her mother, Maria Mercedes Douglas, provided few answers. Douglas only recently told her about the night in the early 1970s when she met a handsome Inneo in a Buffalo bar. He wasn’t wearing his collar and introduced himself as a social worker. They kept in touch and eventually became intimately involved.
Learning Inneo was a priest came as a shock to Douglas. But the single mother of a daughter from a previous relationship agreed to move into his Welland rectory. She kept house and played the piano during special church services.
By the late 1970s, Inneo had moved with Douglas and her daughter to a home he built in Acapulco, Mexico. In 1981, the family moved back north — Douglas to Buffalo, where she gave birth to Villar, and Inneo to a parish close by in the Diocese of St. Catharines. He was 47.
He soon set Douglas and her daughters up in the Niagara Falls apartment. Then, when Villar was 9, he moved the family to a large, isolated house he built on a 35-acre property surrounded by farmland. Inneo lived in the rectory of St. Ann’s church in Niagara Falls. Villar and her mother moved out of the house two years later, when Douglas met the man she would marry.
Every Friday, until Villar was 16, her mother dropped her off for supper with her dad. Villar would race through the front doors and glimpse her dad at the stove, usually making pasta with a cigarette in his mouth. She’d continue through dark corridors to the empty church, gazing with fascination and some fear at the statue of Jesus Christ on the cross.
“Hanging out at a rectory as a little girl is eerie,” she says.
She’d make her way upstairs to her father’s bedroom and bathroom, looking for clues about her mysterious Popi, whose parents and siblings she never got to meet. In a box in his closet she once found pictures — one of her mother and father in swimsuits, another of her dad with his brother and likely his parents at a 50th wedding anniversary. She took both.
“I was hoarding stuff about him to make sense of our relationship,” Villar says.
She didn’t become fully conscious about her dad being a priest, and his role in the church, until she was about 12, when priests began teaching religion classes at her Catholic school. The vow of celibacy she learned from boys laughing at how priests aren’t supposed to have sex.
She began to wonder if people knew her secret, if they whispered it behind her back. If she didn’t get a part in a school play, was it because the drama teacher knew?
“It destroyed my confidence,” she says.
Questions to her father became more pointed and visits to the rectory more tense. After one bad visit she went home, smashed a glass on the floor and used the pieces to cut herself. She was 13.
She did well in school, and even became prom queen. But emotional blows came frequently. In Grade 9, as hundreds of high school students gathered in the gym for mass, Villar looked up to the altar and realized, “Oh my God, my dad’s giving mass.” She sat mortified as boys made fun of her father’s Italian accent.
She rebelled. During visits she called her father a hypocrite, lied about being pregnant and planning an abortion, or blurted the most blasphemous thought that came to mind. One day she cracked open a box of communion wafers and began “munching on them as if they were chips.”
In January 2000, Douglas sued Inneo for money she claimed he owed her from their time in Acapulco. Superior Court in Welland denied her claim but sparked an agreement that resulted in Inneo paying his daughter $500 a month during her time in university, according to court documents examined by the Star.
Villar and her father stopped seeing each other for a couple of years, before resuming contact via hundreds of emails and, again, with visits.
“Especially in my 20s, my project was for him to turn (away) from the church and just be my dad,” Villar says. “There were pleas, there was crying.”
Inneo would say he couldn’t bear the damage it would do to his “reputation.” During one visit, Villar implored her father to introduce her to the Inneo side of her family. He wouldn’t hear of it.
“I am a public person with mission to accomplish,” Inneo told Villar in a 2010 email. “My reputation is extremely important and cannot be compromised. Please, I beg you, understand my position.
“You and (your husband) Jason are always welcome to my house. My house is your house. Chiara you know that popi loves you and nobody or anything will take you out of my heart.” Inneo signed it, “Love. Popi.”
Villar and her husband, Jason Mitrow, would eventually spend every Sunday having breakfast with Inneo at the rural home he built. She would often find him watching hours of video he shot of her as an infant.
“I’m seeing this video footage of this man who seems like a really amazing dad to this baby,” Villar says of the first time she saw the films. “What happened?”
She surreptitiously digitized one of the films and keeps it as a prized possession.
A warm relationship developed during the Sunday visits, but the pain of not being acknowledged openly by her father didn’t subside. And by 2012, Inneo was experiencing memory loss.
“By his bedside he always had a big picture of me,” Villar says. “Our last visit I said to him, ‘Hey Popi, who’s that pretty girl there?’ He said to me, ‘Oh, she’s really special to me. Her name is Chiara and her mom wanted to abort her. And I told her mom not to and she’s been close to me ever since.’ ”
The last time she saw him, in November 2015, Inneo was in a nursing home. She showed him pictures of his two granddaughters and told him she loved him. “He did not recognize me one bit,” she says.
“I love this man, yet I am so deeply hurt by the secrecy that comes with growing up as a daughter of a Roman Catholic priest,” Villar says.
Margaret Jong, vice-chancellor of the Diocese of St. Catharines, said the diocese is “not aware of any priests in ministry at present who have children.” Referring specifically to Inneo and Villar, Jong added: “Due to the historic nature of the troubling case … there is no additional credible information that we can provide relating to that specific case.”
Writing on behalf of Bishop Gerard Paul Bergie, Jong said the diocese does not have a policy about priests who father children.
“If the bishop learned that a priest had fathered a child, he would want to ensure that the priest take responsibility for his child,” Jong said. “Of course, parental obligations would take precedence over responsibilities to the church. In most cases, if a priest wanted to pursue a relationship and have a family, he would voluntarily leave ministry, rather than leaving it to his bishop to make the decision to remove him from ministry.”
A Polish bishop, acting on an anonymous villager’s letter, sent investigators to Regina Kowalska’s home. The bishop’s inquisitors confronted the frightened woman: was the local Roman Catholic priest the father of her two young sons?
Kowalska placed her right hand on a crucifix. She swore he was not.
She lied to protect the priest who begged her not to tell the truth.
“My mum was so conflicted,” says her younger son, Janusz Kowalski, now 54 and living in Vancouver.
“I couldn’t imagine that moment . . . In her mind, the church was her life and here she is, lying on the cross.”
She did that, says her son, because the priest she loved promised to take care of her and their children. That pledge, like his mother’s heart, would be broken.
Regina Kowalska was the youngest of 12 siblings in Samborowo, a farming community in northern Poland. She’d dreamed of becoming a nun and often volunteered at the church. There, the teenager caught the eye of Rev. Boleslaw Petlicki, more than 20 years her senior.
Their illicit romance required subterfuge. Petlicki would sneak from the rectory, quietly put a ladder to the girl’s second-floor window to steal a kiss — or more. The villagers clued in when the teen’s belly grew.
“The whole village turned against her because (they thought) how dare this young ‘bitch’ seduce our priest?” says Kowalski, noting his mother was only 19 when she gave birth.
Jozef Kowalski was born first in October of 1962. Janusz, also fathered by Petlicki, arrived 14 months later. (The boys’ surnames are the masculine version of their mother’s — Kowalski.)
Janusz Kowalski says it’s difficult for Canadians to imagine the shame and humiliation his mother endured.
Regina’s own family was angry with her. When she was pregnant with Janusz, her mother pressured her to abort her grandchild.
“Imagine abortion in Catholic Poland in the ’60s. This is a big no-no,” says Kowalski.
“But the reason was ‘it looks bad on the priest.’ This resonates in my mum’s life (where) the church was more important than family.”
Kowalska provided for her boys — she was a professional cook — but she also spun lies to safeguard Petlicki’s reputation. In their early years, she told her sons their fictitious father died in a bus crash and that Petlicki was their uncle.
When Kowalski was 6, the priest bought his mother a two-bedroom home far from their village. Petlicki told Regina that he’d ask for a transfer to work closer to the family. It never happened. He’d visit every few months, with most stays ending in arguments. There were rumours of another woman and another child. The priest came less often over the years, and the pair broke up.
Kowalski was disappointed to learn at 13 that Petlicki was his biological father. He wasn’t fond of the man who “destroyed my mum’s life” and “abused his post” by having an affair. Still, he has come to better understand his mother’s devotion to Petlicki, who died in 2006, as “having that religious experience of being close to a priest.”
“In Poland, in that time and it still continues, having a priest in the family is like a huge blessing,” he says.
A second priest came into Regina’s life, one closer to her age. He’d visit, enjoy her superb cooking and spend time with her sons. It made her happy.
But the priest’s frequent calls were actually to see Kowalski, who is gay. Kowalski said one day he had a “blow-up” with his mother and told her of their close relationship. He was about 17 and expected his mother to explode. Instead, she asked that nothing “physical” occur with the priest because “we have to save him for the church.” Kowalski did not inform his mother that he and the priest were intimate.
When Kowalski later ended things, his mother was upset because the priest stopped visiting.
“Again, church was more important for her than family itself,” Kowalski says. He adds her piety came at a personal cost.
“I would see some of those very soft moments when she would completely burst into tears to a Polish song when the words would go, ‘I know very well what being lonely means,’ ” he says.
“She did suffer from not having support, not having a loving person beside her, not having a ‘normal’ life.”
At 53, Regina Kowalska married for the first time after reconnecting with an old friend. Janusz, who’d immigrated to Canada in 1989, was her best man. In a decision that surprised her son, she and her husband moved back to Samborowo.
Kowalska died in January, at 74. Janusz Kowalski flew to the community that once shunned his mother. On short notice, about 100 mourners attended her funeral, which he says would have pleased her.
The Kowalski brothers sorted through their mother’s belongings and came across a trove of faded letters between her and Petlicki. They were sent when their parents still lived in the village, when a future together seemed possible.
The world as Susan Zopf knew it began collapsing one day after school in Edmonton, when her older sister taunted the 12-year-old:
“Guess what? Your father’s a priest.”
Zopf’s mother confirmed it. She had an affair with the family’s parish priest, Rev. Albert Andreatta, while he counselled her and husband Alfred through a troubled patch in their marriage.
The young girl absorbed the news: Alfred Zopf, whom she thought was her dad, died when she was 8. Now Zopf had a new dad. A secret one. She was shattered.
“This is my experience of having a father, then not having a father, then finding out he wasn’t my father, then finding out all the lies from the moment I was born,” says Zopf, now 43 and a single mother of three young children living in Camrose, Alta.
Andreatta’s paternity was safeguarded by her mother, who feared being shunned by their close, pious Catholic community.
Zopf says she’s telling her story now because she’s tired of the lies spread to protect others, including the church — without recognition of the crushing impact on her.
“This is about me and my relationship with my spirituality, the church, the spiritual abuse and all the other abuse that comes from it,” she says, noting she no longer attends mass.
Zopf met Andreatta once at her mother’s insistence, shortly after she learned the truth. She, her mother and a trusted school friend drove to Surrey, B.C., where Andreatta was pastor at a local parish. Zopf recalls she was “mortified” at having to sit in a restaurant beside the old priest who’d been in his 50s — her mother, about 28 — when Zopf was conceived.
She doesn’t remember much of the conversation, other than he shared medical history details, but was certain “he knew that he was my father.” The two never connected again.
Zopf’s mother declined to be interviewed for this story. Her daughter asked that her mother’s first name not be used.
The Andreatta revelation sparked Zopf’s anger during her teenaged years. She felt like an “unwanted child.”
She learned that Alfred Zopf had a vasectomy years before her 1975 birth; he knew Andreatta fathered the baby girl. (The Zopfs divorced two years before Alfred’s death.) Susan says Alfred was “not a mean-spirited man” but he didn’t bond with her because “I was just that constant reminder” of betrayal.
After Alfred Zopf died, Andreatta never offered the family support. Not a single Christmas card was sent, recalls Susan.
“As a human being, he should have stepped up,” she says of the priest. “As a man of God, he should have stepped up. Shame on him. Shame on the church.”
Andreatta, an American who died in 1989, belonged to the Salesians of Don Bosco, a religious order with a chapter in San Francisco. In May 2016, Coping International, through its founder Doyle, contacted the Salesians on Zopf’s behalf to discover more about Andreatta. In response, the order’s “health adviser” phoned Zopf to discuss her case — then referred her back to the Salesians. Zopf was not contacted by the chapter’s superior, Rev. Ted Montemayor, until this March.
In a phone interview, Montemayor says there’s no record of Andreatta reporting he had a child. However, he says he’s sympathetic to Zopf’s situation.
“The minute you’re a priest and you’re in a position of counselling or spiritual direction or whatever it is, obviously there is some power involved,” says Montemayor.
“So to that extent, if there’s hurt — and obviously the daughter is going through a lot or has gone through a lot — then for that hurt, for that wound, we are sorry that that has happened.”
Montemayor says Zopf’s experience has prompted his order to establish guidelines about parental responsibilities for priests. Zopf says Catholic dioceses and religious orders need to go beyond offering apologies and free counselling and take strong action to provide for mothers and their children. She wants priests who become fathers to be made to fulfil their parental responsibilities, whether they remain priests or not.
“This is a major human rights violation,” says Zopf. “Women are just left and abandoned with a baby.”
In 1966, France Bédard gave birth to a son fathered by the local parish priest. She was 18, and reluctantly gave him up for adoption.
She had started working a year earlier as a live-in maid in the presbytery of a parish in St-Marc-des-Carrières, a village 50 kilometres west of Quebec City. One night, Rev. Armand Therrien pulled her into his room.
“I said, ‘No, no, no,’ ” Bédard, 70, says in a phone interview from her home in Longueuil, near Montreal.
“He put his hand over my mouth so I couldn’t scream. He said if you scream the (other) priest will hear. I immediately felt guilty. I told him, ‘I’m a virgin, I’ve never known a man.’ He said, ‘Tonight you’ll find out what a man is.’ ”
Traumatized and ashamed, Bédard knew she’d get no comfort from what she describes as an abusive, dysfunctional and church-fearing family. The Quiet Revolution that would shake off the dominance of the Catholic Church in Quebec society had yet to leave its mark. She kept her sexual assault a secret and continued working at the presbytery.
Bédard says Therrien, who died in 2008, preyed on her vulnerability and lack of family support to eventually seduce her into an intimate relationship. She became pregnant, and rejected Therrien’s suggestion of an abortion.
She would see her son again 30 years after the adoption, after a determined search. His life had been difficult, troubled by alcohol and drug abuse.
By then Bédard was married with three children. In 2005, she approached the Archdiocese of Quebec and requested damages. When it refused, she went to police, and Therrien was charged with rape and gross indecency. A court-ordered DNA test proved he was the father of Bédard’s son.
Therrien died days before his trial. Bédard then sued the archdiocese and Therrien’s estate for $200,000 in damages. In the widely publicized Quebec City trial, the archdiocese’s lawyer accused Bédard of lying about the rape, insisting the child was the result of a consensual love affair.
In 2012, Quebec Superior Court Justice Édouard Martin noted in his ruling that “no one can remain insensitive to the distress (Bédard) lived through. The moral wound remains painful.
“The reverend Therrien seduced the claimant. The pregnancy, the birth of the baby and the forced consent to adoption followed. The claimant suffered a grave injustice, regardless of how the first sexual relation occurred. She had a clear right to reparation of the damage.”
Yet Martin ruled against Bédard, saying the three-year statute of limitations for civil suits in such cases had expired. The Court of Appeal arrived at the same decision in 2014.
Bédard doesn’t see the rulings as a defeat. Her case encouraged others who were sexually abused by priests to come forward. In 2008, she co-founded what is now called the Committee for Victims of Priests.
Partly due to her case, Quebec changed the statute of limitations for civil suits in sexual assaults to 30 years. Quebec’s Liberal government is now under pressure to remove all time limits in such cases.
“In my heart, I won,” she says.
The pipe-smoking priest with the heavy Dutch accent stood at the hospital window, cradling his newborn daughter, Michelle, in his arms.
Rev. Charles Van Item struggled with a decision. Joanne Johnston, his lover — and the wife of Van Item’s good friend — made it for him.
“My mum said he offered to leave the priesthood, take her, me, my two older sisters, and run away,” says Michelle Raftis, Van Item’s daughter. “My mother turned him down. She knew he wasn’t in love with her.
“I think he was very happy my mother said no,” the Barrie schoolteacher continued. “I think that was the last thing he wanted.”
Joanne’s husband, Gerard, knew of the affair. He also knew the baby wasn’t his but stayed in the rocky marriage. He allowed Van Item to continue his regular visits to the Johnston’s rambling Pickering home after the baby was born.
“He came for dinners and everything, he continued to do that,” says Raftis, who recalls Van Item’s presence and that Gerard Johnston didn’t balk. “How awkward would that have been? It went on for years until I found out.”
Gerard had met Van Item when both were students at a seminary in Toronto. Joanne was training to become a nun. Gerard and Joanne met at a social event, fell in love and walked away from their religious studies to get married.
Raftis, at 13, discovered the truth about her biological father from a family friend who blurted it out at a restaurant dinner with a small group. By then, the Johnstons had separated. (Both are now deceased).
She vividly remembers her mother’s warning to protect the priest: “You can’t tell anyone. You can never have a father-daughter relationship with him. You just have to go on your merry old way.”
“And I was like, ‘Holy s--t,’ ” Raftis says. “And I didn’t tell anybody.”
Van Item stopped visiting when he learned Raftis knew he was her father. She kept his secret and would think of him “at the weirdest times.”
“I’d be standing in the schoolyard looking around, saying ‘I wonder what they would think if they knew who my father was?’ ” she says. “That popped into my mind a lot. Still does, today.”
Raftis didn’t reconnect with Van Item until the first of her three children was born. She and Ed Raftis, her husband of 35 years, recall getting a large gift basket sent to her hospital room in Edmonton. Raftis didn’t realize at first it was from Van Item.
Raftis phoned the priest. She needed his medical history and realized she knew little about him: that he had been a Second World War PoW held in his native Holland, where he was tortured, for years. When in Canada, Van Item received regular shock therapy treatments, which Raftis believes were to relieve wartime trauma symptoms.
Van Item and Raftis began calling each other more often. But they weren’t always warm chats.
“One of the first conversations was (him saying) ‘I told my bishop,’ ” Raftis says, referring to Van Item telling her that he’d reported her birth to the Archdiocese of Toronto. She says it felt like a pre-emptive strike in case she asked him for money.
“It was almost like: don’t try to get anything out of me. My bishop knows,” she continues, adding “I didn’t ask him that, I wasn’t threatening him.”
The Raftis family moved back to Ontario in 1998, later settling in Barrie.
Van Item, by then, had built a home near Orangeville, where he was a pastor at St. Timothy’s Parish. He’d also worked at St. Clement’s in Toronto. Raftis visited him a few times in Orangeville. Once, she asked for money when Ed was self-employed and she was out of work: $250 a month for two years to cover benefit payments. Van Item obliged.
Raftis’s roiling feelings about her father persisted — guilt, frustration, anger, regret. At her husband’s urging, she wrote to the then head of the Archdiocese of Toronto, Cardinal Aloysius Ambrozic, in early 2002. She wanted help in improving their father-daughter relationship.
The cardinal did not respond, but Rev. Brian Clough, of the archdiocese’s marriage tribunal office, travelled to Barrie to meet her and her husband, according to correspondence examined by the Star.
After an investigation, Clough made clear to Raftis in a letter seen by the Star that Van Item was indeed her father. He added that Cardinal Ambrozic had “no objection” to Raftis’s desire for a closer “father/daughter relationship” with Van Item.
Still, Raftis’s visits to Orangeville were often strained. She says Van Item was “cold,” even around his grandchildren.
One visit made her realize a deeper relationship with her father was impossible. He told her, without being asked: “I’m not a family man, never have been, don’t want to be.”
“That really just shut me down,” says Raftis.
Curious to find others like her, she began searching online, typing the words “children of priests” with little success. That changed in 2015 when the website “Coping International” popped up. Raftis connected with founder Vincent Doyle.
Doyle encouraged her to seek a formal apology from the Archdiocese of Toronto. Cardinal Collins granted her a meeting, but the apology never came.
Raftis says the church should develop policies that ensure priests who father children live up to their financial and emotional responsibilities. She believes the church should also rethink the mandatory vow of celibacy.
“Is the vow that strong? Obviously not,” Raftis says. “So stop saying you gotta take this vow when it’s not actually happening … They’re breaking it because they’re human.”
As for her own father, a final slap. Van Item died without anyone informing Raftis. She’d understood the priest had a close friend who was supposed to alert the Raftis family if he was seriously ill or had died. A lifelong pipe smoker, he’d developed emphysema.
Raftis learned of his death when she saw Van Item’s obituary online.
“Yes, it upset me. It pissed me off,” she says.
“There was no closure but there was no beginning, either.”
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