LINKUP National Conference - Louisville, Kentucky, February 23, 2003

View from the Eye of the Storm
Keynote Address
By A. W. Richard Sipe

There is no place I would rather be today than here with you seasoned veterans of the trials and turmoil of sexual abuse by the trusted. You have weathered part of the storm. You have held on; you are working to save others. Many of you, magnanimously, are trying hard to help the system that has spawned your abuse.

You are not alone. With us here are some of your staunchest and most steadfast advocates; Jeff Anderson, Jason Berry, Gary Hayes, Barbara Blaine, David Clohessy, but unfortunately not one bishop. With us in spirit are Tom Doyle, Jeanne Miller, Tom Economus...

Welcome to the eye of the storm. From this vantage of tranquility I invite you to consider with me the meaning of the devastation we have already witnessed. To anticipate the tsunami the future holds. Especially let us contribute to the understanding of the dynamic that makes abuse possible where it must never be allowed to exist.]


The Perfect Moral Storm

The Catholic Church in the United States, and perhaps worldwide, is involved in a crisis of monumental proportions. There is no escape for us - we are in it, but we did not cause it. We know it, but we cannot control it.

Perhaps the Church is not yet as aware as you and I are that this conflict is the perfect moral storm. Three independent but interrelated forces - Sex, Money, and Moral Authority - are colliding with hurricane force to threaten the long established assumptions and operations of the church.

Certainly our experience forces us to question the Church and its operations. But we are together here because we stand against abuse of minors, the vulnerable, and all believers always and everywhere.

Many responsible lay men and women have raised questions about the financial accountability of the Church. I know money has to be a concern. I know the amount of cash settlements in only a small proportion of abuse cases in which I have been a consultant, but that figure is over one hundred million dollars. And I am only a bit-player in this great on-going conflict.

In this conflict bishops have risked their credibility and damaged their authority across the board, not just in sexual matters. Vast numbers of Catholics simply do not trust the power structure of their church.

I will concentrate on the sexual dimension of the conflict.

Let no one say that we are anti-religion, anti-Catholic, anti-clergy or anti-celibacy. We are not! We know that there are good priests. We know the church does good works. We offer our efforts for the betterment of that Church many of us call our spiritual home.

However, when a patient is facing cancer, those trying to cure do not stand around, praising the fine eyesight, good hearing and sound heart. It is crystal clear that if those who care fail to treat the main disease, those well-functioning systems and the whole organism will be lost. And the Catholic Church has cancer. And that cancer is its culture of deceit. Sexual abuse of minors by bishops and priests is but one symptom of the disease process.

Sexual abuse of minors and the vulnerable by clergy - our primary concern - cannot be isolated in reality from other sexual activity of bishops and priests who are self-guaranteed to be sexually abstinent sexually safe. Much of the trust, reverence and moral authority granted to Catholic clergy are predicated on the assumption that they are celibately honest.

In your 1992 conference in Chicago, you could already identify that sexual abuse of minors was merely the tip of an iceberg that, if explored, would lead to the power structures that support the behavior. No agency has been more effective in exposing that structure than the Boston Globe. What is more, you knew that if abuse of minors by priests were adequately explored, other non-celibate activity was bound to come into question. How is celibacy really practiced by those bishops and priests who profess it? That topic is no longer avoidable for consideration and research.

In your 1994 Collegeville conference, you faced the fact that wherever abuse by a priest occurred, some superior "gave permission," either through easy forgiveness or by some sexual activity himself. Proof is being produced daily, reluctantly.

Today, we trust say that sexual abuse in the Catholic Church does not proceed from the bottom up from candidates for the priesthood. Sexual corruption is conferred from the top down - from men in power. Abuse would have no standing or durability if this were not so. Experience fact proves it. The complete extent of the pattern has yet to be exposed.

Today we are prepared to identify and explore another element that keeps sexual activity a corrosive element within the church its culture of deception. This ethos attempts to cover the network of sexual secrets and liaisons at the pinnacles of power. Understanding this culture comes very close to identifying the core of the sexual crisis.

This culture of sexual deceit denies in word what it knows to be true. It covers what it does. This culture teaches what it does not believe. It affects the lives and welfare of everyone, not just the abused.


Sex, more than any other reality, exposes the Church's culture of deceit. By what right do I claim that such a culture exists? What evidence do we have?

Church history is the strongest witness for the prosecution.

We must realize that Catholic clergy do constitute a culture apart. Ordinary men, yes. Representing a wide variety of personality types, yes. But they form a mono-sex culture. Besides, each is educated in a required curriculum. All are united by one doctrine. All serve under the same discipline.

In the United States, with a population of 285 million people, fewer than 50 thousand men constitute this group. Fewer than 400 bishops control uncounted billions of dollars in assets. The church forms a formidable base of influence.

Does this culture do good works? Unquestionably! Does it wield great power? Untold.

A pope Gregory XVII in 1832 said, "The idea that defect, shadow, or other misfortune could ever cause the church to stand in need of restoration or renewal is hereby condemned as obviously absurd."

The church will endure. The culture of the clergy can, and is, sexually corruptible. (And reformable.) Elements in the culture support that corruption.

Secrecy is primary among these elements. Secrecy and accountability cannot co-exist.

When a man is created a cardinal he kneels before the Pope and takes a vow in Latin. He promises fidelity to Christ and the gospel. He vows obedience to the pope and unfailing communion with the Roman Catholic Church. Then comes the one practical directive at the heart of the commitment. I quote:

" ... never to reveal to anyone whatever has been confided in me to keep secret and the revelation of which could cause damage or dishonor to the Holy Church."

The criterion for secrecy is not charity. It is not justice. The statement is the opposite of a vow to tell the truth in defense of God, Chinch or humanity. The criterion for secrecy is harm, dishonor, or scandal for the Church. (How do they define church?)

In the past ten years I have worked with over 40 lawyers, most of them Catholic. Repeatedly, I have been chagrined as they registered their dismay and disappointment that so many clergy bishops and priests lie. Many have asked me for some explanation. "How come?" Is there an explanation for this kind of behavior they never expected from a bishop?

After reviewing many documents and depositions, I have to agree that some bishops lie. I have tried to explain it in terms that they are resorting to a rationalization in moral theology, called "mental reservation." Namely, one can prevaricate if the person asking the question has no right to know the true answer (or truth would do incalculable harm). I have also observed a frequent clerical subterfuge: subsuming under the rubric of "confessional" (sacramental) information that does not deserve to be in that category.

Another explanation is that the clergy identify themselves so closely with the organization that they cloak themselves with its supernatural stature; they submerge what should be their own conscience into an ethic that values their own "reputation and corporate good above all."

Certainly there has to be some rationale for the way victims of abuse and abusive clergy have been treated. Unfortunately, even these sincere attempts at charity will not adequately explain or cover the multitude of sins committed by bishops against the truth of sexual abuse by clergy. Many bishops state in depositions that they were never aware of any problem before 1985 (the date of the Doyle, Peterson, Mouton Report). However, in 1992, the then President of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops and the United States Catholic Conference, Archbishop Daniel Pilarczyk, and I quote, that report "presented no new issue of which the NCCB was unaware or presented information that required some materially different response."

A direct example of the cultural attitude: when Bishop John Ricard was Auxiliary Bishop of Baltimore, one of his priests chided him for a misstatement. The bishop defended his action: "Look, Father, I only lie when I have to." He is not the only bishop to utter those exact words.

The Public Relations Lie

This attitude is woven into the fiber of response from the Church about sexual violations. Sister Mary Ann Walsh, spokesperson for the Catholic Conference in Washington DC., stated on national TV (ABC Feb. 02) that she believed that "99 & 44/100s percent of priests keep their celibacy." When the interviewer, incredulous, asked if she really believed that, she staunchly affirmed, "I do." Did she believe that? That would make her grossly uninformed or deluded. Did she not really believe it? What would be her justification for the deceit?

I am well aware that the line between personal information and public exposure demands delicate deliberation. An account from the Desert Fathers (4th century) tells about a famous Abbot who violated his celibacy. He felt that he could not confess his sin publicly lest he dishearten his disciples and give scandal. So he prayed, fasted vigorously, isolated himself from all communication, even refusing to participate in any public spiritual activity for one year.

It may be difficult for moral leaders to expose their sexual foibles or reveal facts about the sexual network of knowledge and association in their power circle. However, public confession has not harmed the spiritual witness of St Augustine.

But "public relations" are not an excuse for the Church to lie when the fate and welfare of so many are at stake - to say nothing of its own integrity.

A sad, and as yet unsolved, chapter of the sexual abuse saga in the United States is the story of Cardinal Joseph Bernardin. This man probably did die a saint, as his close friends attest. Without doubt, he did many wonderful things for the Church in America.

In the media flurry that surrounded the allegation of sexual abuse, an impertinent reporter asked the Cardinal, "Are you living a sexually active life?" A simple "no" would have been sufficient. But the Cardinal said, "I am sixty-five years old, and I have always lived a chaste and celibate life."

However defensible in the arena of public assault, I knew that the statement was not unassailably true. Years before, several priests who were associates of Bernardin prior to his move to Chicago revealed that they had "partied" together; they talked about their visits to the Josephinum to socialize with seminarians.

It is a fact that Bernardin's accuser did not ever retract his allegations of abuse by anyone's account other than Bernardin's.

If, as reported, three million dollars were paid in handling the scandal, certainly there are still informed people in Chicago who know at least part of the story. And the story is complex. It holds repercussions far beyond Chicago and one allegation.

I speak of this only as an example a clue to a mystery. This should not be sensational. Rather, it should be an occasion for the Church to divine an important pattern of its sexual operation. The principle players must speak for themselves. But getting to the heart of the Church's sexual crisis is like solving a mystery. And it is important for her integrity that truth not be stifled by silence and subterfuge.

There are clues beyond victims. There are clues beyond documents. You who courageously have been willing to tell your stories provide many clues about the culture of deceit. Unfortunately, other clues have had to be wrested from unwilling testimony and uncooperative witnesses.

There have been a few heroic priests who have given witness to how the sexual system of the church works. One courageous bishop said years ago what we all know now that one reason the American bishops have been slow to deal with sexual abuse of minors is because some of them have been involved themselves.

The Lie of Feigned Ignorance

Court documents and press releases abound from bishops that assert, "I did not know" ... "Things are different now" ... "We know more."

Which bishop only recently learned that sex with a minor or any one else for that matter is non-celibate behavior?

When did bishops learn that it is reprehensible dangerous, immoral to ply youngsters with alcohol? Have any only recently learned that exposing children to pornography is more than simply poor pastoral care?

Who, even in 1950, did not know that sexual activity with a minor was a crime?

Some bishops may not have been aware of the extent and the intensity of the damage sexual violation by a priest causes.

Some bishops may not have been aware of the progress psychiatry made in understanding abuse as an addiction.

They did not need to. Fidelity to their stated responsibility as guardians of the celibacy of priests and the care of souls were adequate guidelines for action. Respect for civil decency and law are not suspended by devotion to secrecy.

Under what circumstances will the Church reveal the real number of abusing clergy? What will it take for the Church to account for all the financial costs of their neglect? What toll are denial and opposition to the revelation of celibate failure taking on moral authority? Can it afford to be honest? More importantly, can it afford not to? What will it cost all of us to maintain opposition to the exposure of facts?

Father Steven Rossetti, a good priest concerned with the problems of clergy, was asked by a group of six victims of Father James Porter, "What will it take for the Church to change?" He responded without hesitation, "The church will not change until it is threatened with bankruptcy."

Perhaps he was correct.

The Lie of Positive Affirmation

Cardinals and bishops have announced that their goal is transparency and accountability. Noble ideals. Worthy goals. Fine words. The hierarchy has proudly asserted that they pledge "complete cooperation" with legal authorities.

But talk to district attorneys. Consult Attorneys General. They say that bishops simply do not cooperate. Bishops fight turning over documents every inch of the way, by every means possible. One district attorney said the fight goes "page by page." They are fighting to cover up. Their energy is expended to secrete, not to reveal. Transparency and accountability proclaimed by bishops are words. No, let us name them for what they are lies. Part of the culture of deceit.


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.

One reason the work of the Boston Globe has been so effective is because they have sought out the facts. Every member of the original five-member Spotlight Investigative team is a Catholic. (Not anti-Church, not anti-Catholic, not anti-celibacy). Their agenda was a search for the data facts beyond emotion or prejudice.


The stated goal of your conference is to help victims of clergy abuse. (You are victims, not alleged victims.) You have come here to learn ways to help yourselves and your families. But also, you want to understand and help solve the bigger problem. You can. (You already have.)

No one can expect you to approach these tasks without emotion. You are burdened with the grief of loss and betrayal. You are understandably angry - furious.

Saint Augustine said that anger is the beginning of courage. Let us turn our anger and indignation into a transforming courage. You have already been partners with the courage of the free press that has told your stories. Let us take a cue from the factors in those stories that have had power FACTS.

The Church has tried and is still trying vigorously to keep facts secret.

Church lawyers in deposition have asked me, "What should the Church have done to deal with the problem of abuse?" My answer is constant: "Tell the truth."

You can generate a great deal of good if you insist that your lawyers in settling your case do not agree to seal the facts of your case.

Push for exposure of the records of all abuse cases in your diocese or religious order.

Support the work of grand juries, district attorneys, and public officials investigating abuse by clergy. See to it that church investigations are as assiduously conducted.

Support bishops and priests who have proven that they can operate outside the Scarlet Bond of secrecy.

One horrendously abused victim said, "The bishops are cowering behind their crosiers, trying to impress the unsuspecting and gullible with the flash of their pectoral crosses and empty sounding apologies." This is too harsh a generalization, but it does speak to the growing distrust many Catholics have for church authority at this time.

Apologies, no matter how heartfelt, will not stem the course of the storm. Only a shift in the winds of the clerical culture of denial and secrecy will do that. That will come; if not from within the system, it will come from without. That is the nature of this storm.

A tragic element to the storm around us is that good clergy are submerged in the culture of deceit. Forces beyond their control buffet and harass them. And yet, they are supposed to be the captains leading us to shelter from the storm. Where are their voices? Their orders cannot be heard unless they are shouting facts.

But the next round of the storm is going to be harsher, bigger, more dangerous, and powerful. Facts beyond fear ... facts beyond vested interests ... facts beyond scandal ... facts beyond our personal stories ... facts - the sacred truth - are the only safe harbor for all of us, including the clergy.

Let us batten down our hatches in safe harbor.