An Interview with Richard Sipe

November 4, 2009 by Jamie Romo

1. Q. Jamie Romo: First of all, I want to thank you for being such a great support to me personally, and for so many survivors of clergy abuse.  You have been a lifesaver and guide to more people than I imagine you'll ever know.  Who have been your mentors or guides in important times in your life?

A. Richard Sipe: It is gratifying to know that my work and research has been of comfort and value to victims who have suffered so much as a result of abusive clergy. Trying to be a Christian is the foundation of all my efforts. Victims and survivors have inspired me to search ever more deeply for the facts, dynamics, and causes of abusive behavior of men and women in a culture that preaches protection and love. Jeanne Miller, the Chicago mother of an abused boy, was the first hero to push me in 1988 to make a concerted effort to understand and do something about clergy abuse.[1] Fr. Tom Doyle and lawyer Jeff Anderson are the steady lights that guide me through the dark tangles of legal obstacles and sociologist Anson Shupe helps me unravel the systemic machinations and malfeasance that church superiors perpetrate.[2] I am inspired by the brotherhood/sisterhood of those who seek to heal, protect, and prevent abuse of all children and vulnerable folk.

2.  Q.  I've always experienced you as integrated and grounded.  How do you explain the vilification and rejection that you've experienced around speaking up about clergy abuse?

A. I was trained in the 1960s to deal with the mental health problems of Catholic clergy. My intended study was not about abusive behavior, but how to help priests live healthy lives. That positive focus permitted me to teach in major seminaries even after I was dispensed from my clerical obligations. Abuse of minors was only one sexual behavior that emerged from the data I gathered over 25 years of study.[3] When my data from my ethnographic research was published in 1990 it made international headlines because it claimed that at any one time only fifty percent of U.S. priests were practicing celibacy. What was shocking then is taken for granted today. But the news riled the powers in the church with an age-old reaction—kill the messenger.

3. Q. I'm thinking you've had a few lives: a Benedictine monk, a married man, father, psychotherapist, professor, author, public advocate for abuse survivors and a nationally known expert in legal cases of minor abuse. In all these roles you have made an effort to promote understanding and promote healing for survivors, supporters, and clergy and end clergy abuse. What words do you have for others who hope to end abuse and promote healing?

A. I have tried to promote spiritual and mental health in all the different settings I have been and opportunities given me. The theme of my work and writing and the key to my efforts is to seek the truth and tell it. Father Thomas Keating asks the questions that keep Catholic people chained: “Are you so enamored with your religion that you have a naïve loyalty that cannot see the real faults that are present in a particular faith community? Do you sweep under the rug embarrassing situations and bow to the security or esteem needs of the community?”[4] The sex abuse crisis in the U.S. has come about, been fostered and flourished because everyone has failed to speak up. The silence of the clergy and bishops is at the root of the problem. Authorities have acted to “prevent scandal” and preserve the image of the church and clergy. This is the ongoing danger. There is wisdom in the saying: we are only as sick as our secrets. The Vatican is  renewing the push toward this mode of operation and thinking. Victims have been the heroes to expose their wounds. Good priests who have kept quiet and the bishops who cover up are villains. They continue to corrupt the church and fail as pastors because they lack real concern for victims and refuse to educate seminarians in sex and celibacy.

4. Q. What do you think are some of the most significant changes that give you hope around ending clergy abuse and promoting healing for all in the past 10 years?

A.  The most valuable development since 2000 has been the open exposure of the misbehavior of priests and religious. This has been one element that alerts not just Catholics but members of other religious groups to the potential sexual dangers posed by men and women in positions of power over young people. The church has contributed to the education about child abuse and the need for prevention of abuse and to provide education for protection for all children and the vulnerable. Unfortunately the efforts of the Catholic Church have been forced on them by the public out cry, victims’ testimony, and the legal system that calls bishops and religious superiors to account for their gross neglect, conspiracies to conceal crimes, and fraud to keep abuse secret. It is an ongoing fight to keep the church honest. Catholic laymen and women (Governor Frank Keating and Chief Justice Anne Burke) who have worked closely with church officials say that the bishops do not want to change, but only want “business as usual.” The encouraging thing is that people do not accept the word of bishops as true, necessary or important anymore. Over thirty percent of men and women brought up as Catholic no longer identify themselves as Catholic.[5] Twenty-five percent of priests ordained leave the priesthood prior to their twenty-fifth anniversaries. At first these things may seem contrary to encouraging. Not so. They are all indications that the church is maturing and being purified by the truth. This is all part of reform.

5. Q.  The following global questions are complex: what do you think the work of survivors should be? The work of churchgoers (or people who wish to be survivor supporters)?  The work of clergy?

A.  There is a universal answer to all of these questions: tell the truth. Do not hide problems. Solve them. Protection of children is the work of the whole community. Safety is a necessary part of education, learning, and growing. Each of us has a part in building the “world” of safety around children. Each of us has different and special opportunities and duties to the community around us. Use our talents. Lead wherever possible; even if we can protect only one person and prevent only one abuser from access to children we save a life. Clergy need to be educated about sex and if the church requires celibacy they must educate men for that way of life. Ignorance is not innocent. It is dangerous.

6. Q.  How are you different now, compared to even a few years ago in your work with survivors, supporters, and clergy?

A. My experience with the survivors of sexual abuse by clergy has been a profound conversion experience. I now know better what honesty is—and hypocrisy. The message of the Gospel opens for me every day. It is not about power and prestige. It is not about ritual and blind obedience. The Gospel is about feeding, protecting, healing, and helping those who need us. Christ’s message is about people. It is unthinkable that one dedicated to any religion would take advantage of a child for his or her own gratification. Christ’s words are definitive: better that a millstone be tied around their necks. Many people still do not understand the lifelong harm that sex abuse inflicts on a person. There is nothing that destroys a youngster’s self-concept, self-confidence, self-determination, self-control and joy of life as much as abuse. Bishops over and over say, “They will get over it.” Such ignorance is inexcusable. As the records of abuse and cover-ups pile up and I share in the passion and pain of survivors I am more dedicated than ever to the task of education. My problem is that I am trying to teach those don’t want to listen things they don’t want to hear. It’s still my vocation.

7.  Q. Can you comment on the recent testimony that Cardinal Mahony knowingly allowed pedophile priests to operate in parishes?

A.  It is important that the cardinal can admit his actions, however, this behavior is not unique. Rather this is the typical behavior of bishops. We have court documents, Grand Jury Reports and the conclusions of the Review Board set up by the bishops; they have all come to the same conclusions—bishops have hidden the truth, covered up crime, even lied under oath to avoid scandal and preserve an “image.”

8.  Q. What sustains you or gives you new life as you do what you do?

A. My wife and son have been fully supportive of my work. Their understanding of me and what I do gives me courage. There are other friends—fellow workers, lawyers, survivors and journalists who are fighting hard for the protection of children and the prevention of abuse. I also belong to two small groups that focus on healthy living and spiritual growth.

 9. Q. If you had one wish that could be granted that you think would help all those impacted by clergy abuse, what would you wish for?

A.  The crisis is so real and profound it is difficult for me to “wish” about it. We do not want any child to go through abuse. The Catholic Church is still resistant to its part in fostering abusive clergy in an on-going process. The clerical culture has not changed; it breeds sexual hypocrisy and covers for the violations of its members. Those in charge of the church from the top down do not take the training and discipline of clergy seriously. Celibacy is not well observed. People are hurt. That is an ongoing process and I wish it would or could be changed. That can happen only when image and control take a back seat to integrity and service. I wish.

10.  Q.  You've commented that you've seen some transformation in me as a result of my involvement with SNAP and now as an independent consultant.  I have to say that your constant support and encouragement has been part of my re-construction. Thank you....

A.  There is no question that I have seen a great deal of growth and development in you personally and professionally during the years I have known you. If I have any part in that it is something for me to be thankful for. But you have done so many things to serve others, comfort survivors, help groups understand healing and promote prevention. Serving others is the path to growth. You are solidly on that path.


[1] Jeanne Miller, founder and Executive Director of The Linkup, a national network for victims of abuse by clergy, said that through her experience with 4,000 victims across the country she found that their first instinct is to turn to the church for consolation and resolution and that the motivation is to protect children and ensure that the abuse never happens again to anyone else. Her son was one of four boys abused by a priest during an outing in 1981. She heard of the incident from one of the parents, and initially she tried to disprove the allegations. A defensive archdiocesan personnel board and priest threatened to sue her and “rough up” her child.

[2]  Spoils of the Kingdom, University of Illinois, 2007.

[3] A Secret World, published in 1990 estimated that between 1960 and 85 six percent (6%) of priests abused minors. The John-Jay College of Criminal Justice Report published in 2004 claimed that from the files of bishops six and one-half percent (6 ½ %) of priests ordained between 1960 and 84 were reported for abuse.

[4] Thomas Keating, The Human Condition: Contemplation and Transformation. 1997

Harvard University, Harold M. Wit Lecture Series.

[5] Pew Forum on Religion and Social Life, 2008.


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