With three small children and her marriage in trouble, Pat Bond attended a spirituality retreat for Roman Catholic women in Illinois 26 years ago in hopes of finding support and comfort.
What Bond found was a priest — a dynamic, handsome Franciscan friar in a brown robe — who was serving as the spiritual director for the retreat and agreed to begin counseling her on her marriage. One day, she said, as she was leaving the priest’s parlor, he pulled her aside for a passionate kiss.
Bond separated from her husband, and for the next five years she and the priest, the Rev. Henry Willenborg, carried on an intimate relationship, according to interviews and court documents. In public, they were both leaders in their Catholic community in Quincy, Ill. In private they functioned like a married couple, sharing a bed, meals, movie nights and vacations with the children.
Eventually they had a son, setting off a series of legal battles as Bond repeatedly petitioned the church for child support. The Franciscans acquiesced, with the stipulation that she sign a confidentiality agreement. It is now an agreement she is willing to break as both she and her child, Nathan Halbach, 22, are suffering from cancer.
With little to lose, they are eager to tell their stories: the mother, a once-faithful Catholic who says the church protected a philandering priest and treated her as a legal adversary, and the son, about what it was like to grow up knowing his absentee father was a priest.
“I’ve always called him Father Henry — never Father, never Dad,” said Nathan, at home between hospital visits. “I always felt he picked religion over me.”
The relationship between Bond and the priest is hardly unique. While the recent scandals involving the Roman Catholic Church have focused on the sexual abuse of children, experts say that priests who have violated sexual and emotional boundaries with adult women are far more common.
Clergy members of many faiths have crossed the line with women and had children out of wedlock. But the problem is particularly fraught for the Catholic Church, as Catholics in many countries are increasingly questioning the celibacy requirement for priests.
Bond’s case offers a rare look at how the church goes to great lengths to silence these women, to avoid large settlements and to keep the priests in active ministry. She has 23 years of documents, depositions, correspondence, receipts and photographs relating to her case, which she has kept in meticulous files.
Those files reveal that the church was tight-fisted with her as she tried to care for her son, particularly as his cancer treatments grew more costly. But they also show that Willenborg suffered virtually no punishment, continuing to serve in a variety of church posts.
The church entity Bond dealt with is the Order of Friars Minor, commonly known as the Franciscans, whose members were known as mendicants because they survived on handouts from the communities they served.