The Vatican has revealed that it maintains secret guidelines for priests who father children despite their vows of celibacy.
"I can confirm that guidelines exist; it is a document for internal use," Vatican spokesman Alessandro Gisotti said in a statement to CNN, adding that the document was not intended for publication.
The existence of Vatican guidelines for dealing with priests who father children was first reported by The New York Times.
One man, Vincent Doyle, whose father was a Catholic priest, told the paper he was shown the document when he traveled to Rome in search of justice for children of ministers.
Officially, Catholic priests are required to maintain a life of celibacy, refraining from any form of sexual activity. A growing tide of sexual abuse scandals involving priests around the world has shown these vows are often broken, although there are many examples of consensual sex by ministers.
Nevertheless, the Catholic Church has refused to budge from its longstanding tradition.
Doyle founded a group called Coping International to bring together the children of priests. He told The New York Times the website already had 50,000 users in 175 countries.
Vatican spokesman Gisotti told CNN that the fundamental principle of the internal guidelines were the "protection of the child."
He added that, under the secret rules, a priest who fathered children was requested to leave the priesthood and "assume his responsibility as a parent, dedicating himself exclusively to the child."
But Monsignor Andrea Ripa, undersecretary in the Congregation for the Clergy at the Vatican, told The New York Times that the guidelines were more of a formality than an order.
The report comes about two weeks after Pope Francis acknowledged for the first time the rape and sexual abuse of nuns by priests and bishops inside the Catholic Church.
"I believe that it may still be being done. It's not a thing that from the moment in which you realize it, it's over. The thing goes forward like this. We've been working on this for a long time," Francis said during a press conference on a flight back from the United Arab Emirates.
The Pope added that more should be done. "Do we have the will? Yes," he said.
On Thursday, senior Catholic bishops from around the world will meet in Rome for a four-day summit on the issue of clerical sexual abuse.