BY JOANNA MOORHEAD
A SUPPORT GROUP set up by women involved with Catholic priests is pressing for recognition from the Catholic hierarchy.
The group, Seven Eleven, has been set up by women who claim to be having, or have had, close relationships with priests. They say their existence is being ignored and denied by the hierarchy, and want to see a more open debate within the Church on the issues raised by their relationships.
Secret relationships between Catholic priests and women are much more common than is generally believed, a group spokeswoman claims. "It's impossible to know exactly how many women there are out there like us, but we believe it could be hundreds," she said.
Clare Jenkins, a journalist whose programme about priests affairs will be broadcast on BBC Radio Four this Sunday, says she has been in touch with more than 50 such women in recent months.
Seven Eleven, so called because its first meeting was held on 7 November, 1992, is one of at least two such groups in Britain another, De Novo, is based in the Midlands. Other countries the US, Germany, France and Holland have well established networks for priests' girlfriends.
Last year a delegation from a French group tried to peti
tion the Pope on the issues raised by their relationships.
In Britain individual women are known to have discussed their relationships with bishops.
Alex Walker, who resigned his priesthood in 1989 to marry, told the Catholic Herald that "until now, the only way these relationships have been dealt with has been through the media and that has not always been the best possible way."
Priests' financial responsibilities towards the women whose children they have fathered emerges as an important consideration for the Church, claimed Alex Walker. "In view of the Child Support Act," said Mr
Walker, who works for the Lancashire County Council in Welfare Rights, "priests can only avoid financial responsibility for their children if they go abroad witness Bishop Casey."
One spokeswoman for Seven Eleven agreed that better financial provision for women who have children by priests, and continuing contact between priests and their children, were among the demands that the group would like to formally make to the hierarchy.
Seven Eleven claim the secrecy involved in their relationships makes it difficult for them to contact women in similar positions to their own.
"Until now the emphasis has always been on the priest's point of view, but we'd like our own role acknowledged," said the spokeswoman. "Priests who have affairs are given expensive counselling and help, while we get nothing at the very least, we'd like to see Church funding for counselling services for the women in these situations," the spokeswoman said.
One Seven Eleven member who says she has been involved with a priest for more than 20 years said her partner and many others felt scared and threatened by the formation of support groups. "We feel, though, that we've had enough," she said. "We're tired of being blamed for these relationships when it's often the priests who make the first moves.
"The training priests get in seminaries doesn't alert them at all to the risks of hurting women or of using them. Many priests are quite naive about how a friendship is developing.
"Where long term relationships develop they can be enormously humanising and enhancing for the priests concerned, although the secrecy is hard to bear for the women."