The Vatican has revealed that it maintains secret guidelines for priests who father children despite their vows of celibacy, according to a report in the New York Times.
One man, Vincent Doyle, whose father was a Catholic priest, told the paper he was shown the document when he traveled to Rome in search of justice for children of ministers.
When asked, the Vatican admitted that the secret rules existed: "I can confirm that these guidelines exist," Vatican spokesman Alessandro Gisotti told the New York Times. "It is an internal document."
Officially, Catholic priests are required to maintain a life of celibacy, refraining from any form of sexual activity. A growing tide of sexual abuse scandals involving priests around the world has shown these vows are often broken, although there are many examples of consensual sex by ministers.
Nevertheless the Catholic Church has refused to budge from its longstanding tradition.
Doyle founded a group called "Coping International" to bring together the children of priests. He told the New York Times the website already had 50,000 users in 175 countries.
Vatican spokesman Gisotti said the fundamental principle of the internal guidelines were the "protection of the child."He added that, under the secret rules, a priest who fathered children was requested to leave the priesthood and "assume his responsibilities as a parent by devoting himself exclusively to the child."
But Monsignor Andrea Ripa, under-secretary in the Congregation for the Clergy at the Vatican, told the paper the guidelines were more of a formality than an order.
The article comes just weeks after Pope Francis acknowledged for the first time the rape and sexual abuse of nuns by priests and bishops inside the Catholic Church.
"I believe that it may still be being done. It's not a thing that from the moment in which you realize it, it's over. The thing goes forward like this. We've been working on this for a long time," he said during a press conference on a flight back from the United Arab Emirates.
The Pope added that more should be done. "Do we have the will? Yes," he said.
On Thursday, senior Catholic bishops from around the world will meet in Rome for a four-day summit on the issue of clerical sexual abuse.