Tess Engelhardt first met seminarian student Robert Dreisbach when she was a sophomore in college. They started dating one year later and, shortly after, Dreisbach became an ordained Roman Catholic priest in Allentown, Pennsylvania.
But that didn’t end their relationship.
In fact, the two remained intimate for 15 years until Engelhardt became pregnant with a son. Their was never made public until now.
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“He’d come over once or twice in a week, watch TV, have sex, be romantic,” Engelhardt said. “We would do things in the house, but didn’t go out publicly.”
Engelhardt’s revelation comes more than one year after a Pennsylvania grand jury report unveiled hundreds of instances of sexual abuse within the Roman Catholic Church. Lurid details revealed throughout more than 1,300 pages included rape, abortions, confessions and cover-ups. It took the grand jury more than two years to fully investigate the claims contained in the sometimes explicit report.
Despite the report and subsequent fall out, including payments to victims of sex abuse, Engelhardt always hoped her relationship with Dreisbach would work out.
“I just felt if I had Christ as my center point, if I had good intentions and he had good intentions, we could see where it panned out,” she said.
About six months into her pregnancy, Engelhardt confided in a close friend who was also a local monsignor. He urged her to attend a meeting with bishops and other church leaders in Allentown.
Engelhardt hoped she would find support and comfort, but instead she was given an ultimatum: adopt the baby to another family, sign a confidentiality agreement and receive financial assistance for her silence. She could never have contact with her son or lover again.
“He told me I was being selfish for wanting to raise my child,” Engelhardt said of the bishop at the time.
Dreisbach was removed from ministry 26 years ago after the church learned about his son, according to the Diocese of Allentown. The process of defrocking Dreisbach, which requires approval from the Vatican in Rome, is still pending.
“The actions of Robert Dreisbach in the 1980s and 1990s have caused great pain for all those affected. We pray for everyone who has suffered as the result of this situation,” the Diocese of Allentown said in a statement. “We pray for everyone who has suffered as the result of this situation.”
Robert Dreisbach still lives in Pennsylvania and, through his son, declined to comment.
Despite the consensual nature of Engelhardt’s relationship with Dreisbach, she frequently referred to those days as “hell.” She didn’t reveal to her son the true identity of his father until he was 8 years old.
John Dreisbach, now 28, still remembers questioning his life as a result of his parents’ relationship. He often felt like a problem the church needed to resolve, he said.
“I know that there were many times that I’d lay awake at night as a kid thinking to myself ‘Should I even be here?’” he said. “It was hard. Currently I’m dealing with a lot of depression, been diagnosed. I was diagnosed with depression and having to deal with those questions in my mind at that age certainly didn’t help.”
Lingering trauma is just one of the many repercussions from the clergy sex abuse scandal. Vincent Doyle, a psychotherapist from Ireland and the son of a priest, started a support group for victims like himself and John Dreisbach. His group, Coping International, has cases from more than 175 countries. He estimates there are at least 10,000 children of clergy across the globe.
“The presence of secrecy in the domestic environment of a child will absolutely and categorically destroy that child,” he said.