The Media
A Voice Suddenly Heard

Psychotherapist A.W. Richard Sipe Spent a Lifetime Studying Sexual Abuse by Catholic Priests. Finally, People Are Listening. [HOME EDITION]

by TONY PERRY *    Los Angeles TimesLos Angeles, Calif. Jul 7, 2002

Full Text (2260  words)

Copyright (c) 2002 Los Angeles Times)

After four decades in snowy cities as a counselor and psychotherapist, A.W. Richard Sipe was ready for retirement to sunny La Jolla. There would be ample time for reading (he's a big Tony Hillerman fan), travel and maybe some light intellectual labor, such as updating one of his books. He was also eager to indulge a hobby he acquired as a stress-reducer: doing needlepoint, mostly classic religious scenes.

Sipe and his wife, Marianne Benkert, had picked the perfect spot, a gated community in the swank Mt. Soledad neighborhood, and for the first year or so, the retirement went largely as planned. He worked at his writings at an unhurried pace, and Benkert, a psychiatrist, joined a clinic at UC San Diego. "I thought my life's work was pretty much over," says Sipe, 69. "I thought coming to La Jolla was like going to heaven, with all your work done."

Instead, his hours are now filled with phone calls, faxes and letters--pleas from journalists, lawyers, former patients, even religious figures, all begging for his advice, his consultation, an interview, a lecture, something to help in the firestorm of a moral scandal unmatched in U.S history. It's all happening because Sipe had devoted much of his career to researching and writing about sexual abuses by Catholic clergy, and to counseling the victims. Yet for all his labors, the American public never quite seemed to be listening.

Now it is. Sipe recently went to New York to talk to a documentary filmmaker--one of several seeking his help--and returned home to find more than 200 e-mails. Next it was off to Minnesota to help a school there deal with the gathering crisis. His needlepoint has been put aside, his Last Supper half-finished. "I've been called back into service," he says.

And a grisly service it is.

Although no one keeps such statistics, it is doubtful anyone has met more unchaste, or pedophile priests, or their traumatized victims than Sipe, a Benedictine monk-turned-counselor whose practice led him to explore a world that many in the Roman Catholic church, until recently, denied even existed.

In lectures, professional articles and three groundbreaking books- -"A Secret World: Sexuality and the Search for Celibacy," "Sex, Priests and Power: Anatomy of a Crisis" and "Celibacy: A Way of Living, Loving and Serving"--Sipe argued, backed with statistics and case studies, that sexual abuse of children was rampant among priests and that many priests become, in effect, accomplished serial rapists.

Despite his efforts, and those of other reform-minded counselors and priests, he had no indication when he closed his practice in Baltimore that the church would ever acknowledge the moral corruption within its ranks. But in January, the Boston Globe and then other newspapers began uncovering the kind of widespread sexual abuse and official cover-up that Sipe had long warned was festering. Suddenly the world that had been ignoring him began banging on his door. There is no joy in the turnabout--but there is a modicum of vindication.

"I don't feel so alone anymore," he says.

as befits a counselor, Sipe is gracious and comforting and informal. He sees no need to find a fancy term to describe the mendacity of the church. He'll use a barnyard epithet when it seems appropriate. He does not preach, argue or chest-beat. In conversation, his observations and case histories start slowly and then come pouring out.

Only one thing makes him particularly angry: The assertion by some defenders of the status quo that victims are coming forth now, years after the incidents, because they hope to make money by threatening lawsuits. "My experience is that the primary motivation in the people I deal with is: 'I don't want that [SOB] to do it to anybody else,' " he says.

At the heart of the church's sexual corruption, Sipe believes, is a system that keeps priests in a state of perpetual adolescence by refusing to confront the issue of normal sexual urges. "We have said for years that the church fosters and prefers adolescent development in their clergy," Sipe says. "They're easier to manage, they're easier to control. Adolescents, you know, are wonderful. They're enthusiastic, they can be committed and can be ascetic, and they have many, many good qualities. They can align themselves with a cause and go to the death for it. But if you're an adolescent psychosexually, who are you attracted to? You're attracted to other adolescents."

Prominent on the living room wall of Sipe and Benkert's Spanish- Mission-style home are several Crucifixion scenes by a painter from Taos, N.M. Other religious artwork is sprinkled through the house, which they share with their aging calico cat, Gwen.

Sipe's battle is not with the Catholic faith but with the application of that faith. He and his wife attend Mass each Sunday. "Richard and I both believe we are very spiritual," says Benkert, 68. "There's a difference between spirituality and the church as a bureaucracy. That's what we want people to separate. The church bureaucracy is in trouble, but spirituality remains strong."

Their own spirituality has deep roots. Sipe was born Walter Richard Sipe on Dec. 11, 1932, in Robbinsdale, Minn., a farming town of 5,000 within the shadow of Minneapolis. He had an upbringing that he jokes could have been a chapter of a Sinclair Lewis novel: The dominant values were Republicanism and pro-business; life centered around school and the church; and Main Street was two blocks long and full of stores.

Sipe's father owned several gas stations. The family was devoutly Catholic, and Sipe admired the enthusiastic young monks who came down to do parish work from St. John's Abbey in Collegeville, 80 miles away. "I was pious, I was intellectually inclined, I think I needed community support," Sipe says. "You know, if you're one of 10 kids, how do you make your mark?"

He graduated from St. John's Preparatory School and St. John's University, and after studying at Collegio Sant Anselmo in Rome, he arrived in 1957 at St. John's Seminary, run by the same Benedictine monks he had admired as a boy. It was there that he was ordained as a Roman Catholic priest and took the first name Aquinas, which he still uses today as an initial.

He worked as a counselor in a Catholic high school in Cold Spring, Minn., and then as executive director at St. John's University Institute for Mental Health. He began to encounter students who had been abused by priests, and priests who could not stop stalking young boys. At the same time, he began to have doubts about committing his life to the church and forsaking marriage and a family of his own.

"It just churned my guts upside down," he says. "I went into treatment with a good person and he helped me get some sense and put it together. The first thing was not sex but that I really couldn't live this life. The obedience just doesn't make any sense. So that was it. But once I made that decision, God, I fell in love with Mary. I've never had that experience."

He enrolled in a religious counseling program at Baltimore's Seton Psychiatric Institute, where Marianne Benkert was doing a residency in psychiatry. Benkert was born in South-Central Los Angeles and raised in Arcadia. She was a nun in the Maryknoll Sisters order and a graduate of St. Louis University of Medical School. Like Sipe, she was having doubts about the religious life. They married in 1970 and their son, Walter Edward Sipe, was born in 1973.

Life for the couple has been a series of academic appointments and professional positions at prestigious clinics and hospitals in the Baltimore area, such as Johns Hopkins Medical School, St. Mary's Seminary and University, Loyola College, Woodstock College and the U.S. Public Service Hospital.

Sipe has counseled hundreds of priests who have broken their vows of celibacy with consenting adults, or sexually abused children or young adults. He has also counseled many of their victims. After serving as a consultant in at least 58 cases of abuse victims seeking restitution or acknowledgment from the church, he is receiving almost daily requests to help in the burgeoning number of cases nationwide.

Over the years he has seen it all: priests who have impregnated women and are urging them to have abortions, transvestite priests, priests who select altar boys on their potential as sexual targets, priests who condone the conduct of fellow priests because they know of the sexual transgressions of the laity and priests who dismiss their actions as just "fooling" around.

"There have been times in our careers," he says, "when we've said, 'God, we can't take anymore. We just can't take another revelation because of the hypocrisy, because of the damage.' Those aren't intellectual exercises. It breaks your heart."

a criticism of Sipe's writings has been that he has drawn his conclusions--such as the belief that half of priests do not remain celibate--from the priests who have come to him for treatment rather than from a more scientifically grounded random sample. Sister Mary Ann Walsh, deputy director of communications for the U.S. Catholic Conference, an organization of American bishops, took issue with his conclusions in "Secret World."

"One instance of sexual abuse is one too many, but one can rightly hope that conclusions drawn from a research base such as Mr. Sipe's should not be seen as reflective of the general population of priests, the vast majority of whom are faithful to their commitments."

Eugene Kennedy, an ex-priest, university professor and columnist for the Religion News Service, says of Sipe, "He's been written off by the institution because he challenges their conception of reality. He's a noble man. I don't know of anyone else who's tried dispassionately to look at the most difficult of subjects."

Sylvester P. Theisen, professor emeritus of sociology at Sipe's alma mater, St. John's University, tried a middle approach in his review of "Sex, Priests and Power." He wrote: "This reviewer thinks that the officials of the Catholic church owe Sipe grateful attention but wishes an editor had toned down the author's detracting arrogance."

Although not a combative man, Sipe says his critics are missing the point. He concedes that his conclusions are not based on anonymous surveys or polling--but on collected data from individual cases.

"When the church cannot refute my numbers, they attack how I collected them," he says.

If there is a silver lining in the current crisis, Sipe says, it may be that it will force the church to confront the forbidden topic of sexuality. Ideally, the church would open its leadership ranks to women, he says, and begin debating whether celibacy is an attainable goal for all priests.

The church's revolutionary Second Vatican Council (1962-64) "neglected to talk about human sexuality. They dealt with everything else: communications, ecumenism, world involvement, justice, the Jewish-Christian question, everything. And although the focus of what's happening now is sexual abuse of minors, the larger topic under discussion is sexuality, the only question the church has not wanted to discuss."

He was disappointed in this year's Vatican gathering, where Pope John Paul II called together American bishops and cardinals to discuss the scandal. He wished that the pope had been more forthright in announcing a "zero-tolerance" policy. He is more heartened by the resolve of American bishops who met in Dallas last month. "It's a good first step but they're going to have trouble being as public as they promised. They're just not in the habit."

Although some people may be shocked at the actions of Boston Archbishop Bernard F. Law, who has been under fire for protecting abusive priests by moving them to new parishes, Sipe says Law is sadly typical of bishops he has encountered.

If Sipe has some professional sympathy for the priests who are attracted sexually to children--because he understands their underlying psychological problems--he has none for the cardinals and bishops and other ranking church officials who cover up their crimes. "Some of them are so terrible," Sipe says. "I mean the plain lying that I've seen, bishop after bishop saying, 'No, this was never true. I don't know anything. I can't remember anything.' And sometimes the bishop just smiles. One bishop said, 'I only lie when I have to.' "

The bishops, Sipe alleges, are worried only about themselves.

"The problem is this: There are a number of bishops who have this in their background [even though] they may have done very good work since that time. If they put that down retrospectively, they're going to have to clean house in a very, very formidable way."

In May he returned to his former abbey to help the monks confront a long-hidden scandal: that a former abbot had repeatedly seduced younger monks. The new abbot decided the scandal must go public. Sipe had counseled some of the victims but because of therapist- patient confidentiality had been forced to keep silent.

"That's the pain of my position," he says. "I've known too much for too many years."

* Tony Perry is a Times staff writer. He last wrote for the magazine about a Marine sergeant who gave his life rescuing victims of a military helicopter crash.


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