A.W. Richard Sipe, influential voice on clergy sex abuse, dies at 85 in La Jolla

He warned San Diego Bishop Robert McElroy about depth of the problem in 2016 letter

Richard Sipe in his San Diego home with a copy of his book “Celibacy in Crisis.” A former priest, he explored the roots of the abuse of minors by Catholic clerics. (Credit: Don Bartletti/Los Angeles Times, via Getty Images)

[Editor’s note: We have deleted the link to the Bishop Brom information in the Sipe letter. Jim Holman, one of the editors of California Catholic Daily: “I spent time in the 90s with Mark Brooks and Bishop Brom going over the charges against the bishop, especially the ones from Minnesota, and I did not find them credible.”]

A. W. Richard Sipe, a researcher, psychotherapist and former priest who spent his life studying the roots of sex abuse within the Roman Catholic Church, becoming one of the subject’s leading experts, died on Wednesday in the La Jolla neighborhood of San Diego. He was 85.

His wife, Marianne Benkert Sipe, said the cause was multiple organ failure.

Mr. Sipe’s research into celibacy and sexuality within the clergy helped establish a foundation for those studying, investigating and responding to the sexual abuse crisis of the 2000s. Along with describing how celibacy was lived, his work resulted in several striking estimates arrived at in the 1980s.

One was that fully 6 percent of all priests were sexual abusers of children and minors. Another was that at any given time, only 50 percent of priests were celibate — an estimate that the church said was overblown.

But Mr. Sipe’s most far-reaching conclusion was that those two phenomena were linked. Failures of celibacy among church leaders, he argued, even if they happened with adults, created a system of hypocrisy and secrecy in which the abuse of minors could take place.

That link is one that the church is still wrestling with, as suggested by recent disclosures that Cardinal Theodore E. McCarrick, who resigned in July, rose to the highest levels of the church despite warnings that he had been inappropriately touching adult seminarians.

“Sooner or later it will become broadly obvious that there is a systemic connection between the sexual activity by, among and between clerics in positions of authority and control, and the abuse of children,” Mr. Sipe wrote in a letter to Bishop Robert W. McElroy of San Diego in 2016.

“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.”

In 1986, Mr. Sipe presented his findings to the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, but nothing was done. So Mr. Sipe began working on the problem in other ways, becoming active in the early days of clergy-victim advocacy, writing books, consulting or testifying in some 250 trials on clergy abuse as an expert witness, and never backing down from his initial assertions.

In 1959 he was ordained a priest. But it was not long before he realized to his shock that just below the surface of the church lay secrets that its hierarchy protected.

In his first posting, to Cold Spring, Minn., to work as a high school counselor, he heard in the confessional about priests who were sexually involved with other priests, priests who had girlfriends, and even priests who were involved with minors, he said in an interview in 2008 for a documentary film, “Sipe: Sex, Lies, and the Priesthood,” which is to be released this year.

He also learned that his predecessor had abused girls. Yet these men remained in good standing with the church, he said.

“So I asked myself, What is this celibacy, and how is it practiced by those people who claim to be celibate?” he said in the interview, giving voice to the research question that would animate his career.

In 1967, he became the director of family services at the Seton Psychiatric Institute in Baltimore, a treatment center where bishops sent problem priests. As he got to know the troubled men, he said, some revealed that they had been abused by clergymen themselves. He also heard stories about how church leaders had been dismissive of reports of abuse.

He began formally collecting data, seeking patterns. Leaving the priesthood in 1970, he married Marianne Benkert, a former nun who was doing her residency in psychiatry at the institute. In addition to her, Mr. Sipe is survived by a son, Walter, who is also a psychiatrist, and six siblings, Thomas, John, Bernadette, Michael, Elizabeth and Rosie.

With Dr. Benkert Sipe’s help, Mr. Sipe published his research in 1990 in a landmark ethnographic study of celibacy and abuse within the Catholic Church.

The book, “A Secret World: Sexuality and the Search for Celibacy,” drew on case files and 25 years of interviews with hundreds of sexually active priests and victims of clergy sex abuse.

Mr. Sipe had naïvely assumed that his study would be welcomed by bishops, Dr. Benkert Sipe said. Instead, he was blackballed in some dioceses.

Full story at The New York Times.

The following is an excerpt of a letter from A.W. Richard Sipe to Bishop Robert McElroy of San Diego, written in 2016:

Bishop McElroy:

I received your note postmarked July 19. I It was clear to me during our last meeting in your office, although cordial, that you had no interest in any further personal contact.

Bishop Robert McElroy of San Diego (CNS/Dennis Sadowski)

It was only after that I sent you a letter copied to my contacts in DC and Rome. The new Nuncio, Archbishop Pierre, told my colleague he is interested in the care of and reaction to victims of clergy assault: and I am assured that the Papal Commission for the Prevention of Abuse is also dedicated to this aspect of the crisis.

I will as I was asked, put my observations in the form of a report. Your office made it clear that you have no time in your schedule either now or “in the foreseeable future” to have the meeting that they suggested.

Institutional resistance is understandable, if surprising to me.

Sexual violation within the RC clergy is systemic. I say that on the basis of observation and scientific conclusion. And I say that with empathy and concern.

It is credibly established that thirty percent (30%) of U.S. bishops have a homosexual orientation. This is not a condemnation nor an allegation of malfeasance. The list of homosexual Popes and saints is long and illustrious.

A serious conflict arises when bishops who have had or are having sexually active lives with men or women defend their behavior with denial, cover up, and public pronouncements against those same behaviors in others.

Their own behavior threatens scandal of exposure when they try to curtail or discipline other clerics about their behavior even when it is criminal as in the case with rape and abuse of minors, rape, or power plays against the vulnerable.

[Editor’s note: In his letter, Sipe listed 10 bishops, priests, and cardinals who were guilty of abuse or misconduct: Cardinal McCarrick (D.C.), Bishop Brom (San Diego), and Cardinal Mahony (Los Angeles) were 3 of them]

Cardinal Theodore McCarrick has been reported by numerous seminarians and priests of sexual advances and activity. A settlement with one priest was effected by Stephen Rubino, Esq. In that record the operation of McCarrick in sexual activity with three priests is described. Correspondence from “Uncle Ted” as he asked to be called, is included. One of the principals is now a lawyer who left the priesthood, two men remain in the priesthood, but refuse to speak publicly despite the fact that the settlement document is open. One priest was told by the chancery office, “if you speak with the press we will crush you”.

I have interviewed twelve seminarians and priests who attest to propositions, harassment, or sex with McCarrick, who has stated, “I do not like to sleep alone”. One priest incardinated in McCarrick’s Archdiocese of Newark was taken to bed for sex and was told, “this is how priests do it in the U.S.”. None so far has found the ability to speak openly at the risk of reputation and retaliation. The system protects its impenetrability with intimidation, secrecy and threat. Clergy and laity are complicit.

Bishop Robert H. Brom: I have talked with the man who made allegations of misconduct against Brom and with whom he made a $120,000 settlement. The history is well recorded by several responsible reporters. Significant here is the operation of the National Conference of Bishops who in their 2002 Dallas Charter made provision for “zero tolerance” of clergy abusing minors but neglected to address violations by bishops. Instead they appointed Brom, when allegations were known, to make “Fraternal Correction” to other bishops accused. This type of operation is typical of the pattern of cover up from the top of the institution. (Reflected in the destruction of documents by the Papal Nuncio in the Neinstedt case. Cf. Documentation provided by the Ramsey County District Attorney)

Cardinal Roger Mahony. I have served as an expert witness in a sufficient number of abuse cases in the LA Archdiocese to conclude it is not outlandish to ask if Cardinal Roger Mahony of Los Angeles is a criminal for “knowingly endangering the children he was supposed to defend.” There is ample evidence already in the public forum that Mahony has known of priests who abused minors, reassigned them and allowed them to minister only to abuse other minors. He has not informed parishioners or even parish staffs, that the priests he was assigning had a record of abuse.

Mahony, who has a Masters in Social Work, did not report known priest abusers to social services even though he was obligated to do so by civil law and by reason of the profession’s Code of Ethics. All of this vast evidence is recorded in countless depositions on record from litigations of abuse cases and from Mahony’s own testimony under oath. Depositions by Bishop Curry and Judge Byrne are illustrative of how priests were assigned and the oversight board operated.

I received reports from two men about Mahony’s sexual life and orientation; one a former (St. John, Camarillo) seminarian who was dying of HIV related complications; the other a long time LA church employee. The men were credible reporters unwilling to go public or draw on corroboration.

I have served as an expert on a number of cases of confirmed sexual abuse by priests of the LA Archdiocese from 2002 onward. Several are remarkable: (i.e. the case of Lopez y Lopez and the controversy between Mahony and the Cardinal of Mexico City. One of the principals in the latter had to be lying.)

Judge Jim Byrne, touted by the cardinal as a poster boy for the integrity of the sexual abuse review board, said in deposition that in all the years he served on the Board he “never thought” of helping the victims. Lawyer Larry Drivon, who has litigated many California cases of clergy abuse stated that there was sufficient evidence to charge Mahony with perjury after letters he signed when he was bishop of Stockton, were produced in his 2004 deposition and showed—black on white—that he had clear knowledge of events that he denied under oath in deposition and on the witness stand in the 1998 trial of Fr. Oliver O’Grady.

I attended the Nov. 2004 deposition of Mahony and know the history of the O’Grady trial. I saw Mahony’s signed letters. As a layperson I witnessed the cardinal lying. His lawyer claimed, as did the cardinal that “he forgot.” (in 2 depositions and on the witness stand)

Three Los Angeles Grand Juries have been impaneled over nine years to determine the real picture of abusing priests in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles. Their problem is not the lack of evidence, but the monumental legal impediments and roadblocks the cardinal has sponsored to obstruct the investigation and the release of documents needed to pinpoint facts of the cardinal’s knowledge and involvement in complicity and obstruction. California law does not allow Grand Jury reports to be made public unless indictments result.

Mahony claimed that communications between him and his priests have a special privilege, not unlike that of confessional secrets. His claim was included as the central argument advanced by his attorneys for refusing to disclose files ordered by the courts. His arguments were rejected by the appeal court, the California Supreme Court. Not deterred, he had his lawyers even try to have the case reversed by the United States Supreme Court. The highest court in the land could not swallow his theory. His obstructionism seems unbounded. He claimed that he was a member of the therapeutic team treating priest abusers and therefore documents involving him enjoyed a privilege of medical confidentiality. In actuality he was never a member of any therapeutic teams for several reasons; not the least of which is the fact that he is not qualified.

It has not yet been revealed how many millions the cardinal spent in pursuing facetious claims. He has employed for his defense not merely several lawyers but several law firms as well as Sitrick and Company, a public relation firm used by Enron, the Tobacco industry and the Keating Savings and Loan scandal of the 1980’s. Fortune magazine called the company’s founder “one of the most accomplished practitioners of the dark arts of public relations”. The Financial Times called him, “The spin doctor’s spin doctor.” Should any Catholic entity much less an archdiocese take any pride in resorting to the services of such an organization?

Truth and transparency seem secondary if important at all. These and myriad other stories are to be told from documents and records. These records show Mahony’s, and other bishops pattern and practice that reflect institutional defenses of its ministers’ sexual behaviors.

My appeal to you has been for pastoral attention to victims of abuse and the long term consequences of that violation. This includes the effects of suicidal attempts.

Only a bishop can minister to these wounds.

Enclosed you will find a list of bishops who have been found wanting in their duties to the people of God.

Respectfully

A.W.Richard Sipe

August 30, 2016

(Hand Delivered)

Full text of letter at AWRSipe.com.

[story updated 8/15 to include editor’s note]

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  1. Anonymous says:

    The problem is gay priests. There are Catholics who want to deny that or ignore that or distract from that. Nevertheless, gay priests and bishops are the problem. The problem is gays and gayness in the priesthood. The problem isn’t that priests and bishops are gay but not chaste. The problem is they are gay. Period. Alone. Stop. Gayness is the problem. Will the Church finally please admit and accept that?

    • It truly is the nature of the male sodomite perversion to seek out unnatural intimacy with younger boys. Gays do not belong in the priesthood nor in any church ministry.

      • Anonymous says:

        Dear Robert J: I’m sure that there are gay catholic kids who google what is being said about gay catholics, and they might come upon a statement like yours. Instead saying untrue things, why not give an encouraging word that gay kids can leave chaste lives – or at least lives without predating on younger boys?

        • West coast says:

          Because that’s not the topic of this article. People need to know information like that presented by Robert J. He is so right – check out the North American Man/Boy Love Association (NAMBLA). Also, calling the abusers ‘gay Catholics’ is disingenuous – these people have effectively renounced the faith.

          • Anonymous says:

            Robert J is not right. Most gay people do not engage in these behaviors. The vast majority. Just as the vast majority of straight people don’t engage in those behaviors.

          • West coast says:

            Robert J did not say that “most” gay people engaged in these behaviors. But it’s pretty safe to say that it’s predominately gay people who engage in gay behaviors! (If it walks like a duck!) Since it’s established that 81% of the abuse has been male on male, it’s now time to disabuse the priesthood of homosexuals. Those with an opposing point of view on this just might be exposing themselves. (Pun intended!)

          • Anonymous says:

            Robert J said it is the NATURE of gay people. He was wrong to say that. It’s not true, and it’s not borne out by the data. 100% of men who rape women are men. It’s a circular argument that gets us nowhere, and doesn’t describe the 90+% of straight men who don’t rape.

      • Steve Seitz says:

        Robert J,
        Your use of the term “sodomite” reflects poorly on you and the Church. Please don’t use it. Also, I’ve never seen a study that homosexuals have a natural proclivity towards molesting children

        .

        • Anonymous says:

          This is a sodomite scandal. It would be accurate to refer the those who caused the scandal as SODOMITES!!!

          • Anonymous says:

            So were the men who attacked girls also sodomites? Are you making an excuse for them, anonymous?

          • Steve Seitz says:

            It’s also accurate to refer to you as a Romanist Papist, but such derision is neither holy nor appropriate

            Question: How many homosexuals will you repel from the Church with such crude language?

            How many people of the opposing view will you ever convince?

    • Albert Mariani says:

      Agreed, moreover, removal of Romans:1, 26-32 from the Lectonary, de-emphasizes the teachings of the evils and unnatural fisposition of same-sex attraction as it applies to both women and men. All that can be concluded is the influence of the “lavendar mafia” coupled with not wanting to offend.

      Please see the following which was obtained from the National Catholic Register:
      http://taylormarshall.com/2015/10/catholic-mass-lectionary-omits-anti-homosexual-verses-from-romans-1.html

    • Anonymous says:

      Obviously Mr. Sipe disagreed with you. I suspect he has more expertise in one of his pinkies than you and I do together.

      • Albert Mariani says:

        Anonymous,
        I was not opining on my own. There was merely a reference to an eminent authority, Dr. Taylor Marshall. Please read the analysis on the link provided before making a “knee jerk” comment.

        • Anonymous says:

          Albert, I wasn’t responding to you, but to the original Anonymous. It’s an easy mistake to make, it can be difficult to figure out the threads on CCD. My knee is not so easily jerked 🙂

  2. Steve Seitz says:

    It’s finally been confirmed! I’ve very strongly suspected for twenty years that Cardinal Mahoney is gay. I’ve kept this secret because I didn’t have credible evidence and I didn’t wish to give scandal. The Sipe letter confirms it.

    The big worry for me is that the same reasons why I thought that Cardinal Mahoney is gay are many of the same reasons why I suspect that Pope Francis is gay. If this is true, the gay subculture will be difficult to root out from the top. The only way it will happen is if the laity roots it out from the bottom. God help us!

    • Anonymous says:

      It’s not confirmed (though it is hinted) that Mahoney might be gay. What makes him disgusting is not that he might be gay, but that he covered up for abusers.

      Pope Francis is not likely to be gay. But so what if he and/or Mahoney ARE gay? That’s totally not the point. https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/the-pope/9931368/Pope-Francis-Amalia-the-childhood-sweetheart-whose-snub-created-a-pope.html

      • Steve Seitz says:

        Anonymous,
        Being gay is the point. Reason: heterosexual men have a much lower tolerance for gay activity and reject the machinations of the gay subculture.

        In regard to Cardinal Mahoney, we don’t yet have absolute proof. But Dr. Sipe is a credible source, and he seemed to think that his two sources were credible. I also had determined this by looking at certain patterns between heterosexual and homosexual men.

        About the Pope, I appreciated the link. But please note that this occurred with a childhood friend at the age of 12. Bishop Juan Arzube once told me a similar story about himself. This was an hour or two before he made a pass at me.

  3. In my humble opinion, Sipe and others deserve our thanks for exposing the scandal which is the Bishops’ cover-up of clerical child sexual abuse, May he rest in peace.

  4. God has strange timing.

  5. Steve Seitz says:

    Bishop McElroy’s rebuffing of Dr. Sipe is telling and speaks volumes.

    I think it’s time for Bishop McElroy to once again become Mr. McElroy.

    If the Church leadership can’t do it, the laity can do it overnight by ceasing all financial support of both diocese and parish.

    By doing so, you will help the Church reclaim some of her credibility.

    • Bishop McElroy’s introduction to James Martin, S.J.’s book, “Building Bridges” says it all. Bishop McElroy is promoting the gay agenda, sexual heresy. Cardinal Cupich states “homosexual” behavior is a distraction. Perhaps he needs to be reminded of the billions paid out by the faithful in the pews for sexual behavior between men.
      FORTUNATELY, St. Patricks Seminary in Menlo Park has been cleaned up. It is now a place where real men can become SPIRITUAL FATHERS , protecting women, children and families!! Thank you Archbishop Cordileone and Fr. George Schultze, S.J.!!!

      • Rob in S.J. says:

        Notice that Bishop McGrath of San Jose withdrew all his diocese’s seminarians (not that there were than many) from St. Patrick’s in Menlo Park and sent them to Mundelein, under Cupich’s control. He took his seminarians out of a seminary that was only a thirty-minute drive from San Jose and sent them thousands of miles away to Chicago. Hm…. what’s going on with that? Not hard to figure out.

      • Steve Seitz says:

        Jeannie,
        I know that Mt. Angel has changed for the better under the oversight of Archbishops Vlazny and Sample. Nevertheless, I’m not sure if the gay subculture issue was addressed during the correction.

  6. Homosexuality has reached critical mass in the hierarchy of the church from the Vatican and particularly in the United States. There are enough men in power now to promote homosexuality without criticism, oversight, or correction from the pope, Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith, Congregation of Bishops, Congregation for the Clergy, the Congregation for Education etc. It took years for these men to get here, but they are now in charge. It is their moment, and they are taking advantage to promote their ideas to the church while they can. Unless this is your issue, there is no reason to promote it or defend it. Homosexuality is a disordered desire. Under no circumstances can it be approved. Catechism of the Catholic Church

  7. William Robert says:

    Thank God for Richard Sipe and Father Thom Doyle! These two men have helped many victims and revealed the longstanding truth about sexual abuse in the Church. The Church has a problem with its teachings on human sexuality – and needs to review and change its current teachings. Also, the laity needs to look at its role in all of this: accepting this sinful situation and the infidelity that exists in many marriages.

  8. I’m not surprised McElroy ignored his letter. Unfortunately the gay problem in the church has deep roots, long tentacles, rich and powerful allies, infiltration into most chanceries and seminaries and universities, and goes quite high up in the hierarchy. Stop giving money. I have.

    • Steve Seitz says:

      Linda,
      An excellent idea! It’s Important to support the Church, though, so I’ld send your money to a worthy parish in a worthy diocese.

  9. Anonymous says:

    I am sure the priests who prey on females are glad for everyone who thinks the sexual abuse of minors and adults in the Church is solely a gay problem.

  10. Linda Maria says:

    This leaves me so sickened and depressed! So many of our top Church leaders are criminals, who belong in jail! They are not Catholic– nor even Christian! They are CRIMINALS!! And CRIMINALS like McElroy, Mahoney, McCarrick, and many others– have been destroying our Church, and destroying our country– and destroying the world!– for too long!! With the blessings of the Vatican, and recent Popes! They are a serious MENACE to our communities, especially to our children, and our seminarians! Our present Church is so filthy– it needs to be burned to the ground by Almighty God– and a new, holy, ad true, authentic Church, to be raised up by God, to replace it!

  11. If you do a little research, you will find that Bishop Robbie’s mentor is/was Roger Mahony.. As the old saying goes “two peas in a pod”. Time for Bishop Robbie to resign.

  12. Peter Comaskey says:

    With all these painful scandals, I believe ( even thought the good suffer with the Bad ) that God is cleansing his Church of evil doers , How else would we know of them ? Also I feel that this is the time of the predictions of OUR LADY OF AKITA in which the Church will suffer greatly.

  13. Linda Maria says:

    Dr. Sipe stated, from his research– that fully 6% of all priests are deviant criminal molesters of children and minors– plus, that 50% of all priests (gay or heterosexual) at any given time, are not practicing celibacy. And a full 30% of the USCCB members– are gay! (not necessarily practicing gay sex, however)!! Worse– the Church evilly, deliberately ignores crimes committed by criminal priests– as Bishop McElroy and many others, have repeatedly demonstrated! Altogether— those in positions of authority and responsibility, are extremely negligent, in all aspects of Church governance. Catholic parishes, schools, seminaries, and institutions– are not trustworthy! So– what can we do, given these facts??

    • Anonymous says:

      If 30% of clergy are gay & 6% of clergy are molesters & 4/5ths molested boys then at least 85% of all gay clergy don’t molest. Sipe also says 50% of clergy aren’t celibate at any one time. Meaning even if gay clergy are all horsing around, at least 1 in 3 straight clergy are too. Sipe concluded from these stats – and from decades of confidential conversations – that it is the group-shame about not following the rules about celibacy, while proclaiming its virtues in public, that prevented a crackdown on sexual violators. The problem, in Sipe’s view, was the hypocrisy of a presbyterate that said one thing yet did another, whether gay or straight. Either get rid of celibacy or enforce it, for all clergy regardless of sexual orientation, if…

      • Anonymous says:

        It’s more like 50%-60% of clergy are homosexual.

        • Anonymous says:

          How do you know that 50-60 % number? Did you just make it up?

          • The real Anonymous says:

            why don’t you tell us where you got your numbers?

          • Anonymous says:

            If it is just 6%, they did a lot of widespread damage for such a small number. They must have been working overtime to molest as many same sex victims as they can. They must have molested any same sex person that was not nailed down!

  14. Dr Sipe was a mixed bag: The good that he did is undeniable, but there is more. Dr Sipe was also a priest who got a dispensation from his vows in 1970. He married a former nun, and they had one child. Dr Sipe called for optional priestly celibacy and for women priests. Although he identified as Catholic, he stopped attending weekly Mass and receiving the Sacraments. Nonetheless, what is true still is true, even if, one’s motive for speaking the truth be tainted. Dr Sipe might have been a tainted truth teller, but thank God for the truth that he told about sex abuse in the Church. If priests cannot keep their vow of celibacy, then they should request laicization like Dr Sipe did. May he rest in peace and may God have mercy on us all.

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COMMENTS POLICY: Comments are limited to 750 characters and will be truncated at 750. Comments should not contain offensive or libelous language. Please strive to be civil. All comments are subject to approval by our moderator and to editing as the moderator deems appropriate. Inclusion of your email address is optional.