The Media
BCM Logo


April 20 2010

Richard Sipe

No one today has to be convinced that sexual abuse of minors is a deadly serious problem. It is a longstanding and widespread crime—it knows no cultural, ethnic, economic or religious boundaries.

The Roman Catholic Church has received a great deal of attention and criticism in the media over the last ten years after the discovery of its pattern and practice of hiding abusive clergy and covering up their crimes. Even the Pope is currently embroiled in the crisis.

Over the past twenty years I have been involved as a consultant and expert witness in over 250 legal cases advocating for clergy abuse victims. I have also reviewed the documents in over 1,500 civil and criminal cases of abuse by Catholic clergy. The experiences have been harrowing and sobering for me, brought up and educated as a Catholic.

What I have to say is born out of care and admiration for all the good that priests and nuns have done. Many of them are just as concerned as I am about the harm and corruption that some in their ranks have inflicted.

Where do I find hope for a church, and for all of us concerned with the protection of our children? In reform. Institutional and personal reform is possible. Many times over the centuries institutions have cleaned up the corruption that they accumulated by their deviance or neglect. We are also lucky to have examples of people who show paths to renewal and reform.

For instance, merely giving up drinking does not cure an alcoholic problem. Truth is needed. It may seem presumptuous to remind a church about truth, but any spiritual transformation takes full responsibility for its actions and their consequences; the process of reform reevaluates relationships, and institutes a new way of life and being.

There are facts the church must face if it wants to reform itself and lead the campaign to prevent abuse in every community as it claims is its goal.

Minor abuse is a worldwide problem, but we do not yet have figures on the number of abusers in the general population. Neither do we have clear statistics on the number of abusers among teachers, Scout leaders, ministers or other professionals, but we know that in the U.S. between 6 and 9 percent of Roman Catholic clergy have a record of abusing minors.

One concern for Roman Catholics is the requirement of celibacy for clergy. They are the only large group of men (over 400,000) in the world required to be celibate in order to practice their profession. The promise or vow of celibacy (perfect and perpetual chastity) means that the person will have no sexual expression with self or another at anytime. Despite church protestations this custom is outdated and potentially harmful. Celibate rules are not the cause of abuse of minors, but it is related to the problem because in spite of the vow no more than 50 percent of bishops and priests at any one time are practicing abstinence.

Sexual abuse of children is only part of a larger pattern of sexual involvement of priests with others--adult women and men. Although adult sex is not criminal for a bishop or priest, it is hypocritical; when tolerated, indulged, or covered up by ecclesiastical authority it amounts to moral negligence and abuse. It makes discipline among the ranks difficult to maintain. Even he Pope is facing this problem now.

I taught seminarians—even in a Pontifical Seminary for twelve years. Seminary training does not prepare priests for celibate/sexual reality. It produces many psychosexually impaired and retarded priests whose level of adjustment is adolescent at best. This tends to create a psychic and moral field and situation in which immature liaisons with young children not only become more possible but are psychosexually over-determined because children are actually on a developmental par with these men.

Clerical culture is founded on secrecy and infused with entitlements that fosters and often rewards psychosexual immaturity.

The homo-social system of the hierarchy that categorically excludes women from institutional decision-making and power at the same time that it glorifies exclusively the roles of virgin and mother creates a psychological structure that reinforces male psychosexual immaturity and malformation.

 A significantly larger proportion of Catholic clergy has a homosexual orientation than does the general population. This has always been the case. Gay clergy often serve their communities with distinction and are not more sexually active than straight clergy. Church teaching about homosexuality is hypocritical and fosters self-alienation of its clergy and encourages and enables identity confusion, sexual acting out, and moral duplicity.

I know I’ve thrown out a mass of problems for any institution to wrestle with, but if the Catholic Church is going to take the lead in preventing sexual abuse it will need to reform. It has done so before.

Along with institutions we as citizens also need to help each other protect our children. Vigilance, awareness, education, and honesty about sex and growing up are all elements of prevention and protection. Cover-up and denial will not do any of us any good. Prevention of abuse may require an element of reform in our personal attitudes as well.


web analytics