Richard Sipe Tried to Warn Us – But No One Was Listening

Clerical sex abuse expert Richard Sipe died Aug. 8 — and finally, his warnings are being heeded

Richard Sipe speaks at a panel discussion on clerical sexual abuse on Jan. 4, 2013, in Pasadena, California.
Richard Sipe speaks at a panel discussion on clerical sexual abuse on Jan. 4, 2013, in Pasadena, California. (photo: Photo by Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images)

“Truth alone will honor what I've been or done.” That reflection is drawn from the poignant poem “At My Gravesite,” which was published in “Courage at Three AM,” a book of poetry by noted psychotherapist Richard Sipe. There is an eerie truth to the poem: Sipe's extensive research into the roots of clerical abuse, it seems, was not regarded seriously by the bishops and Vatican officials he tried to warn.

Sipe, a former Benedictine priest and a noted expert on the roots of the clergy sexual abuse crisis, died of multiple organ failure on Wednesday, Aug. 8, at his home in La Jolla, California. As the strains of Gregorian chant accompanied him on his journey into eternity, his wife Marianne, a former nun, kept vigil at his bedside.

Sipe's full name was Aquinas Walter Richard Sipe. His first name, Aquinas, was given to him when he became a Benedictine monk, and after he sought laicization 18 years later, he no longer used it. As a certified mental health counselor, Sipe specialized in the mental health problems of Catholic priests, including criminal sexual abuse. In the mid-1960s, he began an ethnographic study of the sexual behavior of supposed celibates; the report, which was released in 1990, claimed that more than half of the priests he studied had been or were currently involved in sexual relationships.

Sipe taught at major Catholic seminaries and colleges, lectured in medical schools, and served as a consultant and expert witness in numerous civil and criminal cases involving the sexual abuse of minors by Catholic priests. He believed, based on his research, that only half of American priests were practicing celibacy at any one time. He once calculated that 6 percent of priests are pedophiles. He published four books and numerous articles on the subject of priestly abuse; he provided critical background support to the Boston Globe journalists who broke the scandal in the Archdiocese of Boston in 2002, and his work was featured in a major film about the Church abuse crisis, “Spotlight.”


Sipe Reaches Out to Bishop McElroy

In July 2016, more than a decade after the clergy abuse crisis first broke in the United States, Richard Sipe wrote a long letter to Bishop Robert McElroy, bishop of San Diego. In it he referenced a personal meeting which had occurred in Bishop McElroy's office, and acknowledged that the bishop had indicated he wanted no further contact with Sipe, that he had no time in his schedule either now or “in the foreseeable future” for a personal meeting. “It was only after that,” Sipe claimed, “that I sent you a letter copied to my contacts in DC and Rome.”

Sipe expressed surprise and disappointment at the institutional resistance to his report. He spoke in detail of the consequences: “When men in authority – cardinals, bishops, rectors, abbots, confessors, professors  – are having or have had an unacknowledged-secret-active-sex-life under the guise of celibacy, an atmosphere of tolerance of behaviors within the system is made operative.”

Sipe went on to name several clergy who had, according to his reports, violated their vow of celibacy. He also cited Cardinal Mahony for failure to protect – and therefore, knowingly endangering – the children he was supposed to defend.

But one of the most serious charges leveled by Sipe was against Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, whose sexual advances had been reported by numerous seminarians and priests. Sipe reported that the victims of McCarrick's advances were reluctant to testify. “One priest,” he said, “was told by the chancery office, 'if you speak with the press we will crush you.'”

Sipe's letter, which is a follow-up to an earlier meeting, was dated July 28, 2016. However, a postscript indicates that the letter was hand-delivered on Aug. 30, 2016; so it would appear that once again, Sipe had received no response to his charges.


An Open Letter to Pope Benedict

But Richard Sipe's 2016 letter was not the first outreach to the hierarchy. Eight years earlier, he had written to the Holy Father himself.

Sipe had already established his reputation as an expert on clergy malfeasance when he published an open letter to Pope Benedict XVI in April 2008. The letter, as reported on numerous conservative websites, claims that the abuse crisis in the United States was systemic; as proof, he cited several examples from the Archdiocese of Washington, and from St. John's Abbey in Collegeville, Minnesota. Most importantly, he reported that a number of seminarians at St. Mary's Pontifical Seminary in Baltimore had come to him with concerns about the behavior of then-bishop of Metuchen Theodore McCarrick. “I know the names,” he wrote,

...of at least four priests who have had sexual encounters with Cardinal McCarrick. I have documents and letters that record the firsthand testimony and eyewitness accounts of McCarrick, then archbishop of Newark, New Jersey actually having sex with a priest, and at other times subjecting a priest to unwanted sexual advances.

He concluded, “Your Holiness, I submit this to you with urgent concern for our Church, especially for the young and our clergy.”

Is it possible that this cautionary letter was never really sent to Pope Benedict, but was rather created by malefactors who sought to damage the Catholic Church or the priesthood? A careful online search failed to turn up the original document, but Richard Sipe had reposted on his own website an article from CWNews dated April 21, 2008, titled “Church Critic 'Outs' American Cardinal.” That article quoted Sipe's open letter, confirming its legitimacy.


So Why Did Church Leaders Refuse to Act on Sipe's Charges?

Why would religious leaders willingly overlook the sexual sins of clergy in their dioceses? I can think of several possible reasons:

They didn't believe the accusations they were hearing, or they felt there was insufficient proof. Sipe may have seemed to them to be the bane of the bishops, an exasperating complainant who wouldn't take “no” for an answer.

They didn't care. Their myopic vision failed to take into account the wide-reaching effects of sexual sin, especially on the part of those who are entrusted with the good of souls. Perhaps the bishops' own sins clouded their judgment, but they missed the boat and failed to lead.

This is, in my estimation, the most likely cause: The bishops truly believed – wrongly, we now know – that by sweeping the scandals under the rug, they were acting in the best interests of the Church. However, in seeking to preserve the good reputation of the Church, they failed to protect the children entrusted to them, and failed to respect and safeguard the students, seminarians and priests who struggled against sexual aggression by those who should have been their spiritual leaders.


What's Next for the Church?

The year 2018 would appear to be a watershed year for the Catholic Church. The Catholic #MeToo movement has gained ground, emboldening victims of abuse to come forward and level their accusations without fear of reprisal. One member of the hierarchy, former Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, has resigned; others may follow. Finally scandalized beyond endurance, the Catholic faithful have risen up, demanding that miscreants among the clergy be held accountable, threatening to withhold their support. And sadly, one unfortunate side effect of the scandals may be that some, discouraged by the daily news, lose their faith and just walk away.

Richard Sipe has died; but finally, his warnings are being heeded. If he is able, from his perch in the hereafter, to look down upon the U.S. today, he may at long last see his research regarded as helpful, even integral to the long-term health of the Church. Truth will, indeed, honor what he has been and done.

Edward Reginald Frampton, “The Voyage of St. Brendan,” 1908, Chazen Museum of Art, Madison, Wisconsin.

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