Sins Of The Father:
Why The Catholic Priest Got Married
By Caroline Overington
The Weekend Australian Magazine, August 2012
IT is tempting to start this story with: a truck driver, a police officer and a Catholic priest walk into a bar ...
Because that is what happened.
It was 11pm on a sweaty night in Manila. The bar was called Shinju No Mori - "Forest of the Pearls". The truck driver was Steve Christie of Cranebrook in Sydney's west; the police officer was the barrel-chested Ray King of the Liverpool Local Area Command; the priest was the trendily dressed and shaved-of-head Father Kevin Lee of the Padre Pio Catholic Church in Sydney's Glenmore Park.
The three men had been on a pilgrimage in the Philippines with seven
others from their church. They'd visited an orphanage, snorkelled
around the islands, and were generally having a good time. The bar was
directly below the hotel where they were staying. There were women out
the front known as "guest relations officers" - poor girls from the villages
who lend a bit of glamour to the joint and encourage Westerners to
drink and use the karaoke machine.
So the three men sat down and a couple of bar girls approached,
including a 25-year-old mother of two who told the group that her name
was Dimple; in fact, it was Josefina. Like the others, this slightly built
woman was from a poor village - her own mother had died when she
was just 16 and her job before moving to Manila was selling plastic
buckets in the streets.
By evening's end, Father Kevin would be in love with her. Before long, they'd be married. You can see how this is no joke, but a very serious matter: Catholic priests are not allowed to marry, especially if they intend to keep giving - and receiving - Communion. It's a terrible deception, one of the few things a priest can do that will certainly cost him his cassock. And so, when the story of Father Kevin's secret marriage was revealed in May, it caused a great scandal. There were headlines across the globe - "Australian Priest Confesses to Leading Secret Double Life!" screamed America's NBC - and a storm of controversy on Facebook. Father Kevin immediately lost his job and the house that came with it, which explains why he's now living in the spare room of a friend's place on one of those estates in Sydney's west that is so new, the sat-nav can't find it. "I'm working on a tell-all book," he says the first time we meet, over cups of tea at the kitchen table in that house, "and it's basically going to blow the whistle on the Catholic Church."
"I know all the secrets," he says. "When it comes to celibacy, a lot of priests are hypocrites. They've either got girlfriends or they're gay and some of them have paedophilic tendencies. And I should know. I was a Catholic priest for 20 years."
IT isn't entirely clear when the Catholic Church first decided that all of its priests should be celibate. The first Pope, Peter, was married and so were most of the Apostles but by the fifth century, St Augustine was saying that "the caresses of a woman" could drain a man of spirit and by the sixth, clerics found in bed with their wives were being ex-communicated.
A number of different reasons have been given for the change: some say that priests should follow in the example of Christ in being "married" to the Church; others say that married men cannot give themselves fully to the service of God's people.
There's an argument that the vow of celibacy is one of the factors making it difficult for the Catholic Church to attract men to the priesthood - just six priests were ordained in the Sydney Archdiocese in 2010 - and Father Kevin was no exception when it came to questioning his own capacity for self-control. "I was born to Irish Catholic parents who prayed every night that one of their sons would become a priest," he says (he's one of 11 children, of whom 10 survived to baptism). "But the idea that I'd have to stay celibate for the rest of my life ... I wasn't sure I could do it."
Mindful that only fools rush in, he decided to study for a Bachelor of Business instead. Upon graduation he got a job at IBM, moved into an apartment with friends in Sydney's Neutral Bay and was probably on track to have a career in IT when his mum urged him to make contact with his new parish priest. Father Richard Davey of Neutral Bay urged the young Kevin into community service with St Vincent de Paul, picking drunks up off the street, and visiting the poor and the mentally ill.
The work was rewarding, and Kevin's relationship with God strengthened - but his interest in girls was growing, too. "I was a bit of a slow starter, socially," he says. "Whenever there was a girl I was interested in, she wouldn't be interested in me. So I made a pact with God: if I didn't meet a girl within a year [this was 1985, when Kevin was 22], I'd take it as a sign." By 1986, he was in the seminary.
"During my first year, I used to ask all the other priests, 'How do you manage the celibacy?'" he says, "and they would say things like, 'You have to exercise or pray.'?" [Father Kevin has been lifting weights for two decades.] To this day, he remembers the advice he received from a fifth-year seminarian, who told him: "Don't say, 'I am going to be celibate for the rest of my life'; just say, 'I am going to be celibate today.'?"
At the same time, he developed a strong suspicion that other seminarians - and indeed other priests -were not actually celibate. "It was a farce!" he says, laughing, "There were priests who had 'housekeepers' but everyone knew they were really their girlfriends. There were gay men, running around after each other. It was pretty blatant, although they don't let everyone know that until you are part of the family."
Why didn't he immediately leave? "Why should I leave?" he says, pushing his solid chest forward. "I wasn't the one who was acting like a hypocrite."
After being ordained in 1992, Father Kevin was sent to St Patrick's Cathedral at Parramatta, in Sydney's west, where he set about challenging some of the stereotypes associated with the priesthood. Sonia Lewis, who has known him since she was a 12-year-old pupil at the local Catholic school and who is now married to rugby league star Luke Lewis, says: "Kevin was always really different - really fun. Everybody loved him." He encouraged people to call him Kevin; his sermons were often full of jokes ("What's a pew? A medieval torture device still found in Catholic churches.")
"He'd come to the footy, and Luke's mum would say, 'Where's that priest friend of yours?'?" Sonia says, "and I'd say, 'Over there' and nobody would recognise him because he'd have his beanie on, cheering like everyone else. And he built the congregation up: people would come to church for a baptism or a wedding and he'd have the magic touch to keep them coming back."
Father Kevin had a knack for getting in strife with the Church hierarchy, though, such as when he entered an FM radio competition called "Escape from Pentridge" in 2001 that required him to share a cell for three weeks with a prostitute. But for the most part, it was onward and upward, through Merrylands, Blacktown, Baulkham Hills, until he finally ended up in Glenmore Park in Sydney's west, which was then a parish without a church.
"Without Father Kevin there would be no Catholic Church [building] in Glenmore Park," says his friend, the police officer Ray King. "We were having Mass in people's homes, and in demountable buildings on the school grounds. Kevin was out there, raising money so we could have a proper building." The Padre Pio church, a structure of sandstone and granite with a towering figure of Christ, was consecrated on Valentine's Day, 2010. Father Kevin was soon appointed a chaplain for the NSW police, too.
But for all his popularity and success, Father Kevin was struggling. "The longer I was in the priesthood, the more I came to loathe it," he says, his hands resting gently on the now-empty teacup. "I would meet priests who were fat and lazy, who didn't want to get up in the night to help, or would say things like, 'I got $400 for doing a baptism!'
"But the worst thing was the hypocrisy: so many of them were obviously living these double lives. And I was always meeting people who knew people who had been abused by a Catholic priest. It got to the point where I knew I wouldn't be able to stay much longer." The seminal moment came in 2004 when Father Kevin went to visit his old, retired parish priest, Father Richard Davey, at the Little Sisters of the Poor nursing home at Randwick. "He was frail and bent, sitting in a wheelchair," he says. "But he perked up when he saw me, saying, 'Yay, my first visitor for the week!' I said, 'But surely you get a lot of visitors, Father?' Because he had been a priest for 50 years, baptised thousands of babies, married hundreds of couples ... but nobody came to see him. And it was right at that moment that I thought, 'I don't want to be a priest any more.' The corruption was one thing, but also, I don't want to be lonely when I'm old. And from about that point, I stopped praying to God to help me with celibacy and started praying for Him to send me a life partner."
GOING on holiday with one's own Catholic priest wouldn't be everyone's idea of fun, but the way Ray King tells it, travelling with Father Kevin is anything but boring. "I actually had to remind myself sometimes that Kevin was a priest," he says of the fateful trip the two men made to Manila with eight other pilgrims from their church in 2009. "He doesn't wear the collar, he just feels more comfortable in shorts. He loves a glass of wine. Everyone just calls him Kevin.
"But anyone who doubts his connection to God is in for a shock. I say this as a person who goes to Mass pretty much every Sunday. He wants to go every day! He literally cannot go a day without going to Mass. His relationship with God is very strong."
The night that Father Kevin met Josefina at the bar remains reasonably clear in Ray King's mind, despite the fact that all concerned - except the bar girls - consumed a fair few drinks. "We were staying in this hotel and the karaoke bar was right underneath," King says, "and I've heard people saying, 'What was a priest doing in a karaoke bar?' - nudge nudge, wink wink - but you've got to know Kevin to understand. He's mad for karaoke. He just loves it. Like when he was building the church, he'd have karaoke nights once a month to raise money. He'd get 40 people along and he'd hog the microphone all night. So we walked in and there were girls there and I was a bit unsure about it but Kev says, 'No, no, we have to let them [get our drinks] because these are poor people and if we don't let them do this, they'll lose their jobs.'
"So the girls were getting the drinks and Kev gets up and grabs the microphone and pretty soon he's taken over the whole place." Before long, Josefina was up there singing with him. Father Kevin remembers the night in much the same way - and recalls the song he chose to sing with Josefina. "It was George Michael's Careless Whisper," he says, the chorus for which is quite famous: Never gonna dance again ... Guilty feet have got no rhythm ...
"I know," he says, nodding and smiling. "It takes on a whole new relevance now." Father Kevin says he fell in love "from the first moment I laid eyes" on Josefina, and "she tells me that she felt the same, although I find that a bit hard to believe because I don't think I'm that good looking. But maybe I did have a good physique for 45."
When the bar closed at 2am, he followed Josefina and the other girls down the street and paid ("with my money", says Ray King) for them to have a meal. He met Josefina again the next morning, and stayed with her all day. But he didn't tell her that he was a priest. "I didn't exactly lie," he says, "but I sort of let her believe that I was a police officer, like Ray was a police officer." The relationship, although not yet physical, moved quickly, with Father Kevin urging Josefina to quit her job at the bar. She objected, saying she had two children to support. He promised to start sending her money from Sydney. "And when I got back to Sydney we were like teenagers, Skyping and sending all these emails," he says.
Father Kevin did consider the possibility that this pretty young woman, 20 years his junior, poor, uneducated, with only a little English, might have been taking him for a ride - which perhaps explains why he soon found himself adopting Ronald Reagan's old strategy for forging new relationships with foreign powers: "Trust, but verify."
"I flew to the Philippines and didn't tell her I was coming," Father Kevin says. "I sent a friend into the bar to ask for her. He came out and said, 'Her name isn't on the wall, and when I asked for her they said she hasn't been here for a long time.'"
Father Kevin was so happy he practically skipped down the street. He called Josefina "and we met up that night and went out for dinner and I told her how I felt and she told me she felt the same. And that's when I said, 'But I am a priest, and that complicates things' and she said, 'I fell in love with a man, not a priest.'" He kissed her and it sent a charge through him unlike anything he'd ever felt before.
There are some people who would exercise some discretion about what happened next but Father Kevin is like a kid in a candy store. "I was a virgin until then," he says. "She was my first. And afterwards, it was like the world looked brighter, and I felt lighter."
He stayed with Josefina for several days before returning to Sydney, where friends were growing concerned. Ray King says, "Kev's a priest so he tends to see the good in everyone. I'm a police officer, so I tend to be suspicious of everyone. I said, 'Kev, mate, what are you doing?' And he said, 'I can't help it. I've fallen in love with her and I can't stay away.'
"I said, 'Do you really trust his woman?' and he told me, 'I've been so lonely, Ray. I don't want to grow old and be alone.' I said, 'Well, if you do this, Kev, you can't stay a priest anymore, you've got to move on.'"
King's advice, unbidden, also went unheeded: on February 4, 2011, in a small ceremony in Manila, Father Kevin married Josefina. Some days later, he returned to Sydney - but instead of immediately booking an appointment with Bishop Anthony Fisher of Parramatta, he simply resumed his duties as a Catholic priest. "I didn't want to just say, 'I've fallen in love and I'm leaving.' I wanted to make a big splash." For some years he had been keeping notes on his computer about his fellow priests, including his suspicion that some were sexually active, and those notes were starting to read like a book that he wanted to get published. He was also toying with the idea of becoming a Liberal candidate for the Federal parliament, and met with the Opposition Leader, fellow Catholic Tony Abbott, to see what he thought of the idea (the discussion hasn't progressed).
"Mostly I wanted to get the full story of corruption in the Catholic Church out there," Father Kevin says, "and I thought, maybe this is divine intervention: God has given me a relationship, and now I can prove how easy it is to live a double life." He began casting around for contacts in the media. A friend of a friend introduced him to a 7News reporter, Mike Duffy. "I thought he was going to do a big story on corruption in the Catholic church," Father Kevin says. "So I was waiting for that. It was frustrating because Josefina was back in the Philippines and I was telling her that I needed to get this story out before we could live together, so finally I rang up Mike and I said, 'When are you going to do this story?' and Mike said they needed to find people willing to go on camera. And I said, 'Well, you'd better hurry, because I'm about to walk away.'"
Father Kevin told him he'd fallen in love and had been married for a year and says Duffy responded with: 'I'll be there in half an hour.'?" (Duffy disputes this version of events, saying: "We were, and still are, interested in what Kevin has to say about paedophilia and if you suggest otherwise, I'm going to write a letter to your editor.")
News of Father Kevin's duplicity exploded on to 7News on May 1 and spread quickly around the globe. Father Kevin says many in his congregation were supportive, "because, like most normal people, they think it's ridiculous that a priest can't get married". The reaction on Facebook and other websites was decidedly mixed, with some people describing clerical celibacy as ridiculous, and others, including some of his parishioners, expressing their dismay at Father Kevin's deception. Writer Bernard Toutounji, who holds a Master of Theology, opined on The Punch website: "The woman who chooses to get involved with a priest ought to be careful, for if he takes his vows to the Church so lightly, why would he be more faithful when it comes to making vows in marriage?"
The Church acted swiftly. Bishop Anthony Fisher asked Father Chris D'Souza of the neighbouring parish of Penrith to go to Glenmore Park to support the "traumatised" congregation. Father Chris, who has known Father Kevin for 20 years, arrived at 8am with a statement on Catholic Diocese of Parramatta letterhead. It said, "As Father Kevin is aware, by his actions he can no longer operate as a priest." Father Chris says parishioners were in tears. "I've been a priest for nearly 30 years and it really felt like I was consoling people who had lost a family member. It was such a shock to them, to find out that their priest had been lying to them for a year. They really liked him, so they couldn't understand it. Sure, I can't say I didn't come across one or two who didn't say, 'Well, so what?' but for the most part they were dumbfounded."
Father Chris says that if Father Kevin wanted to make a point about the difficulties of celibacy he'd happily have had the debate. "Celibacy is one of the rules," he says, "and I've promised to abide by those rules - and to break that promise, I guess, would be a betrayal of my priesthood." He was also deeply upset about Father Kevin's claim that he was demonstrating how easy it is for priests to have a "double life".
"I do not know of any other Catholic priests who are secretly married," Father Chris says, "and when Kevin says he has tried to report allegations of abuse to the bishops but no action was ever taken ... he was police chaplain. Wouldn't he know where to go?"
Bishop Anthony Fisher says Father Kevin has indeed brought allegations of abuse to him over the years but many of the claims were vague in their details, had already been investigated, or else could not be substantiated. "While I do not deny that mistakes have been made in the past, sometimes terrible mistakes, to say that the Church does not act upon abuse is very unfair," the bishop said in a statement to this magazine. "If presented with credible evidence I would always act."
Father Kevin says the ABC's Four Corners program got in touch with him after news of his marriage broke and he let them read the information he'd collected for his book, which he'd called Unelected Silence.
He later gave a copy to this magazine. The most serious allegation concerns an alleged cover-up by the Catholic Church of the sexual abuse of altar boys in Sydney's west in the 1980s by a priest known only as Father F. Four weeks after Father Kevin says he gave the ABC his manuscript, Four Corners broadcast a story on precisely that topic. Father Kevin happily takes credit for being one of the sources for the program, saying "the information I gave them provided the backbone for that report".
In the wake of the Four Corners report, NSW Police announced the formation of Strike Force Glenroe to investigate the Catholic Church's handling of the "Father F" matter, and in July the Church announced its own inquiry, to be chaired by former Federal Court judge Antony Whitlam QC.
Father Kevin's book also gives examples of other Catholic priests who ended up married, such as Dominic Arcamone, who'd been a priest in Parramatta in Sydney's west in the 1980s, and who is now married to his former housekeeper, Anita. The former Father Dominic now holds an important position in the Catholic welfare services in Sydney and he's quite jolly when asked whether his marriage proves anything about the so-called "double lives" of other priests. "Good golly, no," he says, "In my case, I fell in love, I left the priesthood and I got married. I'm still Catholic, and I still love the Church."
IT is 7pm on a cold night in Sydney's west and Father Kevin is standing near the kitchen table at his friend Mary Christie's house. The table has been covered with a cloth and there are two mismatched candles burning. There are 30 people here, most of them former parishioners from his old church; at least two are the parents of children abused by Catholic priests who heard about Father Kevin on the news. A minute's silence is observed before a tinny bell sounds to mark the magical moment when, Catholics believe, the wafer in Father Kevin's hands becomes the body of Christ. He breaks it in half, takes the Host upon his tongue and, having received Holy Communion, proceeds to give it to others.
What's going on here is highly irregular: Father Kevin hasn't been excommunicated but he's "irregular for sacraments", meaning he's lost his licence to do this kind of thing. He doesn't think God would mind, saying, "He didn't set up His Church as some sort of Latin-chanting, Pope-worshipping cult" - and others in the group, who mill about afterwards, heavy cupcakes balanced on their paper plates, nod in agreement.
Notable for her absence is Josefina. She's been married to Father Kevin for almost 18 months now, but has not yet applied for a spousal visa that would allow her to live in Australia - and in any case, she doesn't want to, preferring the five-bedroom house he's had built for her in the village of her birth. Father Kevin flew to see her after outing himself and, although he told me she'd be coming back with him, she didn't.
Standing on the porch outside the house where he's just given Mass, street lights bouncing off the white silk of his priestly stole (he's wearing it with jeans) he says, "We're Skyping every day. I think she feels a bit guilty. She says, 'Yes, yes, I will apply [for a spousal visa] but when I say, 'Have you applied?' she says, 'No, I didn't.'?"
He isn't worried because "she's quite sacrificial in her devotion to me". That being so, it isn't really possible to write this story without speaking to her, so he provides a number for their home in the Philippines. Josefina is expecting the call and her voice when she answers is soft, like a child. The conversation is difficult, perhaps because of the line and because her English isn't perfect. She says she didn't fall immediately in love with him, the way he fell in love with her, but she thought he was a "nice guy". She confirms that he didn't tell her on that first night that he was a priest, "but later on, he tell me".
How did she feel? "First feeling, disappoint," she says. "I said, 'This is not good, relations with a priest.'?" Josefina becomes a bit flustered at this point, so we continue the interview via email. "I was thinking it's not good to have communication with him so I'm trying to stop," she writes. "But I can't because I found something in myself that I fall in love with him."
When he asked her to marry him, "I was crying of happiness because that's my dream, to have a real man show me how much he love me."
Father Kevin says he knows some people think that they've behaved badly "and that I've basically made a fool of myself", but even if that were true - and only time will tell - aren't we all fools in love?
FOOTNOTE: Less than a year after this story was published, Father Kevin Lee drowned in wild seas during a typhoon in the Philippines. He had been living with his wife, Josefina, in her village, and they had just become parents to a baby girl called Michelle.