Talk Today
12/15/2003 - Updated 11:01 AM ET

Catholic priest scandal: A.W. Richard Sipe

Monday, March 11, 2003   1 p.m. ET

Why would the Catholic Church engage in a coverup of the sexual misconduct of some of its clergy? What steps should the Church take to regain the trust of believers? Ask today's guest, A.W. Richard Sipe.

A.W. Richard Sipe is a psychotherapist and former Benedictine monk and priest married to a former Maryknoll nun. For more than 30 years, he has been engaged in research on the institution and practice of priestly celibacy. He is the author of Sex, Priests, and Power: Anatomy of a Crisis.

Lawrenceville, GA : Do Archbishops and Bishops located in the U.S. have a different viewpoint on reporting cases of sexual abuse by clergy men to athorities than the Vatican in Rome? Is Rome more protective of these accused clergyman and if so why?

A.W. Richard Sipe: My understanding is that Rome is very protective of reports of sexual abuse by priests. At the same time, bishops in the United States are also extremely protective.

La Valle, Wi : Would a married priesthood prevent most of the abuse?

A.W. Richard Sipe: Married priesthood in itself would probably not in itself prevent this abuse; however, it would be a monumental shift toward a solution to all the sexual problems in the Catholic priesthood.

The whole male structure of the Catholic priesthood is homosocial. All authority is reserved to men; all the reverential places in powere are held by men. The exclusion of women is detrimental to the structure of the priesthood.

Marceline, Mo. : Why would Bishops send these alleged offenders to another parish in a small town and not consider that people in small communities have to also try to explain and live this down. Where is the compassion!!!!!!

A.W. Richard Sipe: The primary rule that the bishops have operated under is to avoid scandal. They will do almost anything to keep things secret. The mode of operations of the Church has been one of secrecy in order to maintain control.

The Church operates on its secret knowledge of sexuality. After all, who do people talk to about their problems? Who do they confide their sexual problems to? The Church has this fund of knowledge about the sexuality of its members. It just assumes that since sex is so common, that a transgression by a priest will be absorbed, or that forgiveness rather than reformation is the order of the day.

The Church tends to exonerate its own and blame the victim, even if the victim is only seven years old. Some priests and bishops have said "well, they know right from wrong. If they didn't want to do it, they shouldn't have done it".

Comment from A.W. Richard Sipe: It is incredible that the Church has taken the stance it has. It has taken a monumental exposure, not only in the number of priests, but also of the system that tolerates and supports them.

Harrison Township, MI : Why - since I have personal knowledge of sexual abuse dating back to the late 1940s and early 1950s - has it taken the church so long to acknowlege this and deal with it appropriately? In my case, it was to send the priest to another parish (fresh blood). It still evidently is.

A.W. Richard Sipe: It is only the court system and the media that have forced the Church to take more reasonable action. There is a very siginificant lack of moral leadership within the Church to face up to this problem, because they're afraid of what it will uncover of higher-ups in the Church.

Reading, Pa : Knowing that it is morally wrong, doesn't the church feel that they are direct conflict with teaching God's word and engaging in a coverup?

A.W. Richard Sipe: The Church feels that it is responding to a higher moral justification in avoiding scandal and in preserving the system of the Church AND in covering up other things that they know about, but do now want to be revealed. They don't want their bishops or cardinals exposed for their sexual behavior.

Owosso, Michigan : I have read that the Cathoilic Church has paid over $1,000,000,000 to settle claims of sexual abuse against preists since 1980. Is this figure true, and if so, why hasn't the chuch been more proactive to stem these enormous costs.

A.W. Richard Sipe: The Church has done everything it could to stem the financial costs of sexual abuse cases, but the money that has to be paid out in compensation in accord with jury judgements. The money that is paid silently to keep quiet abuse cases, added to the money insurance companies have had to pay, and the cost of money for the treatment of victims, (which is minimal compared to the money spent on priests' rehabilitiation. That usually involves 7-11 months of inpatient treatment at $350 a day), plus legal fees, will bring you to a figure close to or exceeding $ one billion.

The Church tried to stem the costs, but it's really out of their hands. They've tried to cut corners in terms of giving very small compensation to victims.

Bay City, Mi : Now that you are married former priest how would you look at the Catholic Church's interpitation of 1 Corinthians 7th chapter, and celibacy

A.W. Richard Sipe: I'd say that the ordinary state of life is marriage. St. Paul chose to be unmarried and celibate in order to carry on his mission.

Fort Smith, Arkansas : Do you believe the celibacy issue regarding clergy draws the least emotionally healthy of adults toward the priesthood/sisterhood? Do you feel knowledge you may never engage in an intimate adult relationship creates the atmosphere we currently have in the Catholic church, along with the autocratic power all priests enjoy over monies and parishoners of their churches?

A.W. Richard Sipe: I think that there is a good deal of truth in what your question implies, that the system of celibacy attracts a certain number of immature people. I also think that the celibate discipline does allow the Church to protect its financial strength.

fargo nd : celibacy should be a natural outgrowth of an individuals spirituality if that is what they you think the catholic church will ever change the mandatory requirement for celibacy, and do you think it will survive if it doesn't?

A.W. Richard Sipe: I think in the normal evolutionary process of religion that the discipline of celibacy will change. I think it's part of its current, very deep crisis today.

A.W. Richard Sipe: Currently there is no debate about celibacy allowed by the Vatican.

Mechanicsburg, PA : In their long term complicity in the molestation events,I am of the opinion that the church hierarchy (Bishops) should be charged as co-conspirators in an ongoing criminal activity. Their knowledge and involvement escedes that of "confessional" information they may have received, for example, in the course of their priestly duties. Your opinion ?

A.W. Richard Sipe: You're not alone in your judgement of this, and I know lawyers are currently considering this approach.

Bel Air, Maryland : There are certainly problems the Church needs to address, but there are many good things happening within the Church. Are you still afilliated with the Church? God bless, Rick

A.W. Richard Sipe: I am still affiliated with the Church, and hope the good will continue and increase.

Dillon Beach, CA : Why the wall of silence? Even priests who left did not speak out about pedophiles!

A.W. Richard Sipe: The Church is a very powerful and frightening organization. It is very hard to be a whistleblower.

Comment from A.W. Richard Sipe: Believe me, I know.

boston, MA : Please comment on the column in today's Boston Herald, Joe Fitzgerald states that the true problem is homosexuality in the priesthood and not pedophilia.

A.W. Richard Sipe: I don't believe that, because they're too entirely different things. Just as many homosexually oriented priests are as faithful as heterosexually oriented priests.

Fallston, Maryland : All the talk seems to be about priests abusing male children--have there been any cases of prients abusing female children? Thanks.

A.W. Richard Sipe: Certainly. There have been a great number of priests abusing girls and women. Unfortunately, it hasn't gotten the kind of publicity it deserves.

Washington DC : When did the church start requiring Priests to be celibate and for what reason?

A.W. Richard Sipe: The universal requirement for priests to be celibate was in 1139, and the reason was power and control of Church finances.

Cleveland, OH : How about women entering the priesthood? Is that along with married priests, every likely to be seen in the American Catholic Church in our lifetime?

A.W. Richard Sipe: Not likely in our lifetime, but I think it's in the future.

New Haven, CT : Is the real reason the church is so secretive about making settlements because they are afraid to reveal financial assets in an open proceeding?

A.W. Richard Sipe: Yes.

Comment from A.W. Richard Sipe: Money is very important, even in the Church.

Comment from Host: Thanks to Richard Sipe and to everyone who participated.