A. W. Richard Sipe truly invented the rigorous study of the clergy abuse of children: he created a disciplined method for thinking about the unthinkable. His groundbreaking books – A Secret World: Sexuality and the Search for Celibacy (1990) and Sex, Priests, and Power: Anatomy of a Crisis (1995) – made activism and change possible in the Catholic abuse crisis, and ultimately prepared the way for the #MeToo movement.
Sipe’s work anticipated the convergence that we’re witnessing now in the activism for victims’ rights and child safety. He always saw the molestation of children by Catholic clergy as part of a larger reality in Catholicism and beyond. Sipe’s approach to the abuse of children by Catholic clerics was an unusual one. Beginning as a Benedictine therapist-monk, he helped hundreds of priests and religious with their difficulties in religious life, especially the challenges of celibacy.
Because of those conversations, Sipe viewed the abuse of children by clergy through a wider lens than anyone else. Clergy abuse was better understood, he felt, within broader trends of clergy sexual misconduct, and by the same token, the Catholic system was brought into sharper focus if the clerical abuse of children was acknowledged to be a crisis basic to that system.
Richard Sipe was fundamentally a scholar of clerical culture and the clerical system. His work in the early 1990s created a paradigm for understanding that system and the reasons why the abuse of children by clerics has flourished within it. His books emerged from his therapy practice, and were in a sense anecdotal, yet the statistical conclusions he came to have been borne out by events.
His thinking on celibacy and the abuse crisis were informed by his happy marriage to psychiatrist Marianne Benkert, their parallel and mutual careers in therapy, especially with the victims of clergy abuse, and their experience of family life, raising their son Walter.
Recently the Cardinal McCarrick case has confirmed Richard Sipe’s warnings, going back decades, that McCarrick and many other prelates were harassing and abusing seminarians. Sipe had long emphasized the genealogy of clergy abuse. Rectors and staff at seminaries, he insisted, were often guilty of sexual misconduct with their students, who sometimes after ordination offended against young people. The same dynamic plays out in chanceries and the provincial houses of religious orders. Sipe worked to help seminaries teach celibacy as a mindful practice. But too often they remained places where abuse and harassment were countenanced and even encouraged.
“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.”
Do you understand this? Sipe is talking about the clerical sexual underground — homosexual and heterosexual — and how it is impossible to separate the sexual abuse of children and minors from the general sexual corruption among bishops and priests. One leads to the other. This is a conclusion that the mainstream media, for all the years I have been writing about this issue, has refused to consider — because, I believe, journalists do not want to look clearly at the widespread gay sexual networks.
Richard Sipe didn’t care. He told me back in 2002 that no gay man should enter the seminary at that time, not because he believed gay men could not make good priests, but because he believed that they would be targeted relentlessly by priests, other seminarians, and others trying to get them to submit to sex.
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”.
Priests or seminarians who speak up about a sexually active superior are threatened with the loss of everything—employment, status, etc. Those who report are greeted with disbelief or even derision if they know but were not personally involved. If they were a partner in the sexual activity and “come out” they become a pariah and labeled a traitor.
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.
Sipe adds at the end of his letter:
Enclosed you will find a list of bishops who have been found wanting in their duties to the people of God.
I hope that in his last will and testament, Richard Sipe has directed for this list to be independently vetted and made public.
You know how we now hear cardinals and bishops saying they had no idea that Cardinal McCarrick was a sex abuser? Richard Sipe made it public as recently as 2010, writing about the homosexual derring-do of Uncle Ted. Here Sipe quotes from documents that were part of the settlement with McCarrick’s accusers:
On another occasion McCarrick summoned the young man to drive him from the Newark Cathedral to New York City. He took him to dinner; and after, rather than returning to Newark as anticipated McCarrick went to a one-room apartment that housed one bed and a recliner chair. McCarrick said that he would take the chair, but after showering he turned off the lights and clad in his underwear he climbed into bed with his guest. Here is the account from the documents:
“He put his arms around me and wrapped his legs around mine. Then He started to tell me what a nice young man I was and what a good priest I would make someday. He also told me about the hard work and stress he was facing in his new role as Archbishop of Newark. He told me how everyone knows him and how powerful he was. The Archbishop kept saying, “Pray for your poor uncle.” All of a sudden, I felt paralyzed. I didn’t have my own car and there was nowhere to go. The Archbishop started to kiss me and move his hands and legs around me. I remained frozen, curled up like a ball. I felt his penis inside his underwear leaning against my buttocks as he was rubbing my legs up and down. His hands were moving up and down my chest and back, while tightening his legs around mine. I tried to scream but could not…I was paralyzed with fear. As he continued touching me, I felt more afraid. He even tried several times to force his hands under my shorts. He tried to roll me over so that he could get on top of me, but I resisted, I felt sick and disgusted and finally was able to jump out of bed. I went into the bathroom where I vomited several times and started to cry. After twenty minutes in the bathroom, the Archbishop told me to come back to bed. Instead I went to the recliner and pretended to fall asleep.”
In a letter dated four days after this incident McCarrick wrote a note signed “Uncle Ted” that said in part: “I just wanted to say thanks for coming on Friday evening. I really enjoyed our visit. You’re a great kid and I know the Lord will continue to bless you…Your uncle has great spots to take you to!!!”
It may be the case that Catholic bishops don’t read Richard Sipe’s blog, and so remained legitimately ignorant of this situation. But when you have the foremost social researcher figure in the area of clerical celibacy and priest sexual abuse publishing evidence from a court settlement with McCarrick’s victim, it’s hard to believe that this information wouldn’t be passed through the episcopal grapevine.
Sipe lived long enough to see his work bear fruition, though not in the ways he would have liked. He saw McCarrick face a kind of justice, which had to have been gratifying. I wonder what he would have thought of a blog like @Sacerdos, a new one launched by an anonymous Catholic priest (whose name I know) fed up with sexual corruption in the priesthood, and determined to speak out about it. Excerpts:
Notice how the bishops are presenting themselves as the “victims?” They are “horrified,” “shocked,” “hurt,” “angry” and some admit to have been “naive” or to have “misplaced” their trust in some of their brother bishops. (One bishop even confessed that this crisis has caused him to believe in the devil!) In formulating their statements it would seem that every bishop consults his thesaurus looking for that one word to use that will make him sound more hurt and more angry than the other bishops. I think it is safe to say that we do not care about their feelings. An opportunity to correct what is ailing the Church was given to them back in 2002 when the scandal first broke. An extensive independent study was prepared by the John Jay Institute clearly identifying the problem, but the bishops did not like the findings of the report and so they archived it and forgot about it.
Just like they archived the Doyle-Mouton Report in 1985, which proved prophetic about the scandal and what it would cost the Catholic Church if the bishops didn’t solve the problem. For 33 years, the US Catholic bishops have known what they’re dealing with … and didn’t deal with it.
It has been known, and known for a long time, that the Church has a very clear and persistent problem with predatory homosexuals in the ranks of the hierarchy. And it is not by accident. As a seminarian in the 1990s I recall many, many resources that were brought to bear upon young men preparing for the priesthood that were intended to weaken their resolve to live a chaste, celibate life in perfect continence as did Jesus Christ. Such resources were, in my particular case, “psychology” classes (in quotes because it was a label used to disguise the nature and content of the course) that centered on human sexuality that had nothing to do with psychology and more about how to actually have sex with instructions and graphics (the current edition of the text book we had to buy, yes buy, is HERE), days of recollection offered by the notorious nun/priest team of Sr. Fran Ferderer and Fr. John Heagle, and the openly homosexual “staff” psychologist who counseled seminarians and helped them work through their “issues.” I could go on and on.
In the two seminaries that I attended, visibly openly homosexual sub-cultures were tolerated and permitted to flourish. If a homosexual seminarian misbehaved by advancing in an unwelcome manner against another seminarian the victim was the one who was usually punished. In rare cases certain homosexual men were dismissed from the seminary but I know of at least two who were quickly picked up by religious communities in other states. I mention that I know of at least two who were “shuffled” because one of them was the upperclassman who assaulted me during my second year of theology just a month or so before I made my candidacy for the priesthood. I could go on and on with anecdotes and they are endless.
In my first year as a newly ordained priest I had come to find out that my pastor was enlisting the services of a local male hustler when it was presumed that I was absent from the rectory. On one occasion I was at home and I overheard my pastor tell the hustler that he had another priest client that he might want to contact. After a couple months of fear and disgust I finally mustered the courage to tell my bishop who very casually responded to the news with “he knew” and that it was his understanding that the men in question were over 18 years of age. Well, as it turns out my pastor began enlisting the services of this one particular hustler when he was around 16 years of age and when he found out that suing the Church was more profitable than servicing its priests that is exactly what he did. My pastor was suddenly granted a sabbatical and the bishop told me to keep my mouth shut and that I never saw nor heard anything. (This is one of the reasons why I left the diocese of my ordination to incardinate in other. The bishop in question died earlier this year.)
The point that I am trying to make in all of this is that what we have on our hands is a systemic problem that is tearing at the Church at every level and nearly in every place (except it seems in Africa). And if that were not enough, otherwise good men, bishops and priests, are paralyzed by fear and would rather keep their mouths shut and play along to get along under the rubric of “not doing further harm” to the Church than that which She is already miserably suffering. Every priest out there (and bishops too) have a lot that can be said but they are not saying it. It is akin to the highly dysfunctional family that would rather die a thousand deaths rather than give up their horrific secret. But why?
Because they fear that if they acknowledge the problem, everything will fall apart. And they’re not entirely wrong. A lot will fall apart — but what’s the alternative? Continuing to live the lie required by labella figura, the art of keeping up appearances? In the age of transparency, it’s going to come down sooner or later. And it must.
There’s another question here that is much harder to answer, and it’s found in the moving conclusion of the Times obit for Sipe. Father Tom Doyle is a legendary figure in this long saga, one as significant as Sipe. It was Father Doyle who warned me on the phone in the summer of 2001, after I interviewed him about the abuse scandal, that I should prepare myself to enter into a world darker than I could imagine. He was right. Here the Times places Doyle at his dying friend’s bedside, both of them still trying to penetrate the mystery of iniquity:
Finally, I wonder if now, in the wake of Sipe’s death and the unraveling of Ted McCarrick’s lies, the media will finally explore Sipe’s fundamental insight: that it it impossible to understand clerical sexual abuse of children apart from a general culture of secretive clerical sex networks? Here is an excerpt from a 2002 speech Sipe gave, in which he talked about the “sexual genealogy” of abusers in the Catholic clergy:
Why is the fight so furious? Why is the struggle to keep FACTS buried so vigorous? Important clues exist in the genealogy of abuse. I have bean able to trace victims of clergy and bishop abuse to the third generation.
Often, the history of clergy abusers reveals that the priest himself was abused – sometimes by a priest. The abuse may have occurred when the priest was a child, but not necessarily.
Sexual activity between an older priest and an adult seminarian or young priest sets up a pattern of institutional secrecy. When one of the parties rises to a position of power, his friends are in line also for recommendations and advancement.
The dynamic is not limited to homosexual liaisons. Priests and bishops who know about each other’s sexual affairs with women, too, are bound together by draconian links of sacred silence. A system of blackmail reaches into the highest corridors of the American hierarchy and the Vatican and thrives because of this network of sexual knowledge and relationships.
Secrecy flourishes, like mushrooms on a dank dung pile, even among good men in possession of the facts of the dynamic, but who cannot speak lest they violate the Scarlet Bond.
I have interviewed at length a man who was a sexual partner of Bishop James Rausch. This was particularly painful for me since Rausch and I were young priests together in Minnesota in the early 60s. He went on to get his social work degree and succeeded Bernardin as Secretary of the Bishops’ National Conference in DC. He became Bishop of Phoenix.
It is patently clear that he had an active sexual life. It did involve at least one minor. He was well acquainted with priests who were sexually active with minors (priests who had at least 30 minor victims each). He referred at least one of his own victims to these priests.
What was his sexual genealogy? What are the facts of his celibate/sexual development and practice? Did those who knew him know nothing of his life? Perhaps so! But he was in a spectacular power grid of bright men. He was Bernardin’s successor at the US Conference. Bishop Thomas Kelly at Louisville was his successor. Msgr. Daniel Hoye and Bishop Robert Lynch, among others, took over his job.
Let me be perfectly clear. I am not saying or implying in any way that these men were partners in “crime” with Jim Rausch. But I am saying that anyone who sets out to solve a mystery has to ask people who knew the principal, “What, if anything, did you know or observe about the alleged perpetrator?”
After all, the Church’s hardened resistance to dealing honestly with the problem of sexual abuse on their own has compelled the civil authorities to move in, ask the questions, investigate allegations. The Church in America has been its own worst enemy – creating mysteries and doubts, rather than clear answers that inspire confidence.
Even bishops innocent of sexual violations themselves, by their silence, concealment of facts and resistance to effective solutions, choose to be part of a genealogy of abuse and reinforce a culture of deceit.
Reporters who want to understand more completely the nature and extent of Theodore McCarrick’s corruption should look at who he promoted within the hierarchy, and with whom in the hierarchy he was most closely associated. Sipe has given us a framework for understanding how this works.
Why, for example, did the then-papal nuncio in Washington try to shut down the independent archdiocesan investigation of Archbishop John Nienstedt — an investigation that had sworn affidavits from people attesting to Nienstedt’s active gay sex life — and order evidence destroyed? See here for more. Why wouldn’t the papal nuncio want to know if the Archbishop of Minneapolis-St. Paul had a secret gay sex life, one that could have compromised the way he handled sexually corrupt priests in his diocese? Wouldn’t it be in the interest of the Church to know this, and to remove such a man from high ecclesial office? You would think so, wouldn’t you.