W. Richard Sipe, was 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.
Walter Richard Sipe was born on Dec. 11, 1932, in Robbinsdale, Minn, as the fourth of 10 children of Walter C. Sipe, who owned several gas stations, and Elizabeth (Altendorf) Sipe, a homemaker.
His family were observant Catholics, and from an early age he was entranced by the church. He attended a high school and a college run by Benedictine monks at St. John’s Abbey in nearby Collegeville and became a monk himself. In 1959 he was ordained a priest. (He added the name Aquinas, after the theologian St. Thomas Aquinas, when he became a brother and then used the initial A. in his name.) Richard died peacefully at his home in La Jolla, CA surrounded by family and friends on Aug 8, 2018.
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.
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, Dr. Benkert Sipe said. 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.
As a consequence of his research Richard became a staunch defender of the LGBTQ community. He was careful to point out that the sexual abuse crisis in the Church is not a Gay issue. He would dismiss attempts to use the LGBTQ community as a scapegoat. At the invitation of Patrick McArron, then national president of DignityUSA, Richard was the keynote speaker at their 2003 National Conference in Las Vegas. Dignity is the oldest and largest LGBTQ Catholic organization. Richard’s speech garnered a lot of publicity, as one might guess, and a standing ovation. Richard wrote several articles on the subject of homosexuality in the Catholic Church. “He had such an effect on so many different people in that he was a truth teller, and when people found him, they found a sense of being,” said Paul Livingston, a clergy abuse victim and friend. “He is irreplaceable.”
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.
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.
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. “When he wasn’t listened to, and wasn’t believed, it was really hurtful to him, because he cared about the church,” she said.
But there were also triumphs. One was the investigation into clergy sex abuse by The Boston Globe in 2002. It exposed widespread abuse and a cover-up in the Archdiocese of Boston and spawned a nationwide reckoning. Mr. Sipe’s finding that the problem was systemic guided the Globe’s Spotlight investigative team of reporters, whose work was portrayed in the Academy Award-winning 2015 film Spotlight.
In the movie, the reporters listen to Mr. Sipe, played by Richard Jenkins, as he explains by speaker phone his finding that 6 percent of priests abuse minors. The reporters quickly calculate that that would mean 90 priests in Boston. “Is that possible?” one reporter asks. “Yes, that would certainly be in line with my findings,” the Sipe character says.
Since then more studies have come out showing that the 6 percent estimate may be conservative. In 2017, an investigation by the Australian Royal Commission found that 7 percent of priests in the Australian Catholic Church had been accused of sexually abusing children from 1950 to 2010. A study commissioned by the American bishops in 2004 put the percentage at 4 percent.
“He lived long enough to see many of his predictions come true,” said Phil Saviano, a clergy-abuse activist and friend. Still, accountability for bishops continued to elude Mr. Sipe, frustrating him. “I defy you to find where the system has changed,” he said in 2008. “Bishops are not accountable, they can — and do — do what they want.”
In recent weeks, a wider swath of the church appeared to be coming around to accepting that statement. Mr. Sipe had been warning on his website about the sexual activities of Cardinal McCarrick since 2008. After a substantiated report of abuse was revealed in June, followed by more allegations, some of the nation’s leading bishops began calling for reforms in how allegations against bishops are investigated.
Though Mr. Sipe had devoted his life to understanding the issues of celibacy and abuse, the deeper question of why the problem could persist unaddressed for so long still eluded him, said the Rev. Tom Doyle, a friend and longtime advocate for abuse victims.
(This biographical statement written by Patrick T. McArron with portions taken from a New York Times obituary.)
Biography Date: November 2018
“W. Richard Sipe | Profile”, LGBTQ Religious Archives Network, accessed September 24, 2023, https://lgbtqreligiousarchives.org/profiles/richard-sipe.