Girl's torment over Catholic priest dad whose church bosses tried to bully her mum into giving her away
Hannah Robinson never knew who her father was - until her mum dropped the bombshell and said the church had sworn her to secrecy
For most of her childhood, Hannah Robinson had no idea who her dad was.
The inquisitive schoolgirl kept asking her single mum questions about him, but all she was told was that he was a university lecturer.
It was only when she reached 12 that her mother revealed the bombshell truth – Hannah had been fathered by a Catholic priest.
And his church bosses had tried to bully her mum into hiding the explosive secret – with one even coldly suggesting Hannah should be put up for adoption.
Now, after nearly 30 years of failing to find acceptance and love from the man who fathered her, Hannah has received a groundbreaking apology from Britain’s most senior Catholic.
Yet her disgraced dad is still allowed to say Mass at a parish in the south of England.
For Hannah, 38, it is scant recompense for what she really wanted: a loving father.
And, instead, the married mum-of-three has been torn apart by her feelings over him. “Covering up the existence of your child and not being honest with your colleagues and congregation smacks of hypocrisy,” she says.
“How can you represent the Church as a priest and preach about love and family when your actions in your life show anything but that?
“I’m now in a place where I don’t wish my dad any harm. I believe he is a hard-working priest who serves his parishioners well.
"But the issue surrounding my paternity has affected me deeply.
“Like many women in similar positions, my mum was coerced and bullied into keeping my father’s identity a secret.
"I was left with this deep sense that I was a source of shame to my dad – but I didn’t ask to be born.”
Hannah’s Catholic mum met her dad at university in the 70s.
They started a relationship despite him training for the priesthood.
Hannah says: “My mum loved my dad and she insists he was considering leaving his seminary until she fell pregnant.
“He was aghast and arranged a meeting with a senior priest who was his mentor.
"This priest suggested my mum should go and live by the sea until I was born and then have me adopted.
"She was horrified and refused. The priest then told my mum if she wanted to bring me up, she’d have to keep the identity of my father a secret.
"I think my mum struggled with the concept of standing up for herself against such a powerful institution.”
Documents seen by the Sunday Mirror show her dad, ordained a month after Hannah’s birth in 1977, is listed on her birth certificate and that he paid regular maintenance.
But he also told her mum the child support money was dependent on him having a job – and he warned her he might be sacked if his secret was discovered.
So, for over a decade, she told Hannah her dad was a university lecturer, scared even to reveal his real name.
Hannah says: “I asked a lot of questions. Eventually she told me my dad was a priest.
"I attended a Catholic school and I have to admit it was very strange, but I wasn’t upset.
“I was simply determined to meet him, convinced he’d fall in love with me and we’d have a normal father-daughter relationship.”
Tragically, there was no chance of that.
“When I finally went to meet my dad, in my early teens, at the office of a Catholic mediator, I felt sick with nerves,” says Hannah.
“I expected it might be like something from a film. Naively, I thought we’d both burst into tears and run into each other’s arms.
"But he was very in control of his emotions. He didn’t hug or kiss me.
“There was no warmth or love. I remember feeling really overwhelmed by it all.
One thing I was desperate to ask was whether I had any brothers and sisters. He assured me I didn’t.
“At the end of the meeting, he told me we shouldn’t meet again for a few years. I was crushed.
"He still didn’t love me and that really hurt.”
It was several years before Hannah saw her dad again.
She says: “On our second meeting, I asked if I could meet some of his family as he’d told me I had two aunts.
"He told me no – because his sisters didn’t know I existed. He came from a very strict Catholic family.
"He said it would upset them if they knew he had a child. After that, I felt so worthless. At school, I’d burst into tears for no reason.
“I was given tablets to help me sleep. I had lovely friends, but I knew they could never understand what I was going through.”
When troubled Hannah left school, she threw herself into a party lifestyle and was seriously injured on holiday in Tenerife after a heavy night of drinking.
She fractured her skull in three places and suffered liver trauma after falling off a mountain ledge.
She says: “That was a wake-up call. I started to focus on the good things in life. I realised how lucky I’d been to have such a brave and supportive mum.”
Hannah now has letters her dad sent to her mother during her childhood.
They show little emotion, only discussing financial arrangements and signing off with “yours sincerely”.
But in one letter, written nearly 20 years after Hannah’s birth, he finally acknowledges how stressful the situation has been for his former girlfriend.
He wrote: “Things have been, I realise, acutely difficult for you and a big strain. You’ve been carrying on heroically.”
Sadly, Hannah’s story is not a one-off. It is estimated Catholic priests have fathered thousands of children worldwide.
Coping International, a support group for the secret offspring of these men, has had hundreds of thousands of inquiries since it was set up in 2014.
With the organisation’s help, Hannah has started to come terms with the circumstances of her birth and has written a memoir about her ordeal.
She also recently met the Archbishop of Westminster, Cardinal Vincent Nichols and, in an unprecedented move, he issued her with a written apology.
He wrote: “Your situation was certainly very difficult and distressing. One painful factor was that your mother was expected to keep silent about the identity of your father.
"This expectation is something with which you have grown up. I deeply regret this.”
Cardinal Nichols added that Hannah’s dad was unlikely to have been accepted into the priesthood if her existence had not been hidden from the local bishop.
Now she wants the Church to revoke its celibacy rules. She says: “It’s not natural for men to live without this kind of human contact and there is nothing in the Bible to suggest priests shouldn’t marry.
Perhaps if there wasn’t an expectation for my dad to be celibate we’d have had a rewarding relationship.”
Sadly Hannah, of Milton Keynes, Bucks, and her father have not met for over a decade. She does not call him dad. They have occasional contact by letter.
She is no longer a practising Catholic but considers herself spiritual.
She says: “I forgive my dad because I don’t think he ever set out to hurt or reject me. But there is a wider issue here which the Catholic Church needs to deal with.
“Cardinal Nichols was a lovely man and I feel he really listened to what I had to say. I hope his apology is a step in the right direction.
A Coping International spokesman said: “Cardinal Nichols’ sincere apology marks a turning point for children of Catholic priests across the UK. In this regard, Hannah is a pioneer.”
A Catholic Church spokesman said: “Every bishop in England and Wales is willing to meet anyone in their diocese in a similar situation.”
· Dying to be Free by Hannah Robinson, published by O-Books at £9.99, out now