He was a 24-year-old seminarian from a blue-collar family. She was an idealistic 19-year-old psychology student. He wanted to teach. She wanted to be a missionary. They hung out at the Rathskeller, a now-defunct bar at Mount St. Mary’s College, to drink draft beer and eat soft pretzels.
When Theresa Engelhardt became pregnant with their son 15 years later, she ended her relationship with the Rev. Robert Dreisbach for the seventh — or was it the eighth? — and final time.
During the years that followed, the Diocese of Allentown in Pennsylvania offered her regular child-support payments, she said, in exchange for her silence and a promise that neither she nor her son, John, would contact Dreisbach.
Now 62, Engelhardt said she has a different perspective on her relationship with Dreisbach than she did as a love-struck student. Although she realizes that she was an adult who made her own decisions in the relationship, she says Dreisbach emotionally abused her by pressuring her to stay silent about their relationship to protect his career. And Engelhardt feels even more abused by the church, which she said treated her as unworthy when she became pregnant.
“The priest can keep going,” she said. “The woman has some explaining to do.”
Meanwhile, John Dreisbach, 28, has also struggled with the circumstances of his birth, and he blames the church for his estrangement from his father. “You’re called a father already,” he said. “It’s not that much of a stretch to add one more to your flock.”
The Diocese of Allentown declined to comment on its actions toward Theresa Engelhardt or the harm it may have caused her and her son. In an emailed statement, a diocesan spokesman said Robert Dreisbach’s behavior had “caused great pain for all those affected.” Several efforts to reach Dreisbach for an interview were unsuccessful.
As the church is once again embroiled in sexual abuse scandals, some women who years ago were romantically involved with priests and the children born of those relationships are reflecting anew on whether they also suffered abuses of power from the priests, the institutional church or both.
“That situation was definitely abusive, without any question,” said Pam Bond, 63, who gave birth in 1986 to the son of a Franciscan priest, whom she had gone to for counseling to try to save her marriage. The encounter led to a five-year relationship that she now considers nonconsensual because of the power differential in their relationship.
“I take accountability for my own errors,” said Bond, who lives in St. Louis now. “I should have been strong enough to not get myself into this situation, but I wasn’t at a strong place in my life.”
It’s unclear how many priests engage in sexual relationships with women or how often those partnerships result in children. Richard Sipe, who researched Catholic priests in the United States, estimated in 1990 that 40 percent of priests are practicing celibacy at any given time. Vincent Doyle of Coping International, an organization that supports children of priests, said 65,000 people use his website.
Canon law, the church’s legal system, is silent on the issue of priests becoming fathers. The Vatican confirmed a report by The New York Times in February that it has guidelines for how to proceed when a priest becomes a father, but the details remain unknown.
The church now deals more sensitively with priests who have children than it did before The Boston Globe’s investigation of clergy abuse in 2002 sparked dialogue about priestly celibacy, said Thomas Plante, a psychology professor at Santa Clara University who has studied clergy abuse. Dioceses now consult with attorneys, police and human resources professionals to address situations that arise.
“There is much more transparency, much more accountability, much more willingness for bishops and religious leaders to use the expertise that’s around them to help them figure this out and to do the right thing,” Plante said.
Priests who father children also appear slightly more apt to come forward than in the past, due to more awareness about the risks of social media exposure and lawsuits, Plante said. Some of them voluntarily leave the priesthood.
Other priests still try to keep their children and their relationships with the mothers a secret. As a result, these women can find themselves caught in a struggle between the desire to live freely and vows of celibacy that are not their own.
This is what Engelhardt said happened to her.
She met Dreisbach in 1975 while attending Mount St. Mary’s, a Catholic college — now a university — in Emmitsburg, Md. The two socialized in the same circles and ran into each other at campus sports games. He would sardonically call her “the prophet” in a nod to her fascination with philosophy. She said she invited him into her dorm room only once.
Their relationship endured after graduation, when Engelhardt returned home to Bethesda. Engelhardt eventually moved to eastern Pennsylvania, where Dreisbach was serving as a priest at Our Lady of Hungary Church in the Allentown diocese.
In 1989, Engelhardt was about to leave for nursing school in Rhode Island when she realized she was pregnant.
When Engelhardt told Dreisbach about her pregnancy, she said he asked whether she was sure the child was his and told her she could have an abortion or relinquish the child for adoption. She said she refused.
“He was quite upset and had said that he would offer to send me money every once in awhile, but he didn’t want to leave the priesthood,” Engelhardt said. “And I didn’t want someone to marry me that I didn’t feel was vested in me and the life of our child.”
Engelhardt had kept her relationship with Dreisbach quiet for more than a decade by the time she revealed the news of her pregnancy to the Allentown diocese.
She recalled that then-Bishop Thomas Welsh, who died in 2009, told her she was a sinner who was bringing shame to her family and that the child deserved to be raised by a husband and wife. He offered to help her move out of the area, she said. She asked the diocese to provide her with a psychologist or a social worker to help her figure out what to do, she said, but the diocese declined. She was asked to sign a confidentiality agreement.
“For me,” she said, “it was more of a psychological trauma — what I had to deal with with the church.”
Her story became public when instead of signing the agreement with the diocese, Engelhardt sued for, and later won, child support in state court.
Soon after she spoke to a newspaper at the end of the court battle in 1993, she said, her parish priest told her she could no longer serve as a Eucharistic minister because the publicity was a distraction. The diocesan spokesman said the pastor remembered leaving the final decision to Engelhardt.
Welsh removed Dreisbach from ministry after Engelhardt spoke publicly, the diocese said, and began the process to defrock Dreisbach. Only the Vatican can remove a priest’s clerical status, and the diocese said that action is pending.
Since Dreisbach left priestly ministry, Engelhardt said, he has worked as a migrant laborer, a bartender and a prison guard. He is retired and married to another woman.
Engelhardt, who went on to get a nursing degree at Cedar Crest College in Allentown, said she initially viewed herself as a foolish college student who got in over her head. But as an advocate for domestic violence victims in her 20s, she said, she felt an uneasy kinship with the women she served. Her discomfort grew when she found herself also identifying with the abused women she worked with in Pennsylvania years later.
Her son is now a father himself. John Dreisbach lives near Buffalo, with his wife, their 6-year-old son and their 4-year-old daughter. He said he has fought depression throughout his life, a fact that he attributes in part to his complicated relationship with his father.
“One of the big things that I had to go through with therapy was my rationale that if I hadn’t been born, my mom wouldn’t have had to get wrapped up with the church as an issue and my dad would have been able to keep being a priest,” John Dreisbach said.
John’s earliest memory of his father is going out for ice cream together when he was 4 or 5 years old. He said he did not know his father was a priest until the fifth grade, when Engelhardt told him while they drove to the Lutheran church where she had started to worship.
John and Robert Dreisbach saw each other on and off over the years but now communicate infrequently. John said he feels that the church’s sexual abuse crisis and its handling of priests having children are two sides of the same coin. The church has reacted to both problems by trying to preserve its power, rather than consider the needs of parishioners, he said.
Facing a choice
Like Engelhardt, other women who became involved with priests said they felt their lives had been hijacked as they waited to see whether the priests would choose the relationship or their vocation.
Alexandra Roberts had a 10-year romantic relationship with a Jesuit priest who died this year. They met while he was working as a theater professor at a nearby college, she said. She had no affiliation with the school.
Although the pair did not have a child, Roberts said she felt abused by the priest’s indecision about whether he would leave the priesthood to marry her and by the church’s requirement that priests remain celibate.
“They’re willing to put up with this situation where the men finally give in to their very human needs,” said Roberts, who is now 66 and lives in San Jose, Calif.
Cait Finnegan Grenier, a longtime advocate for women who become involved with priests, said whether a relationship between a priest and a woman is abusive depends on how it begins. A partnership that arises from a situation with a power differential, like a counseling relationship, is exploitative, Grenier said, while friends falling in love is not.
The priests in those cases should seek to be laicized, or removed from ordained ministry, to be with their partners, Grenier said.
Her own husband, who was a Catholic priest and is now deceased, sought and received laicization to marry her when they realized they were in love.
For those who never get that relief, like Engelhardt and her son, the emotional pain they said the church caused them can reverberate for decades.
“It made me feel as a teenager, and still makes me feel as an adult, that I just didn’t matter at all to them,” John Dreisbach said. “I was a cancer that needed to be treated.”