Some of my fellow Catholics — both the ever-faithful and the faith-fallen — snap with disagreement when I say that one of the reasons for the appalling and ruinous sexual abuse scandal is the insistence on celibacy in the priesthood. Many lay Catholics echo their church leaders, who insist that the abuse of minors by hundreds of priests across the land, and over the decades, had nothing to do with their vow to abstain from sex and marriage.
They claim they don’t see the connection. I do.
In fact, my views on celibacy predate the seemingly endless cascade of nauseating revelations about sexual abuse and assault by Catholic clergy. The cascade continued this summer with two major developments. First came the removal from ministry of Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, the former archbishop of Washington, amid allegations that, as a New York priest in the 1970s, he had had sex with minors, including an altar boy. Then, last week, a disturbing report described widespread abuse by more than 300 priests in Pennsylvania along with either negligent indifference or active cover-up by their superiors.
Having watched a steady exodus of men from the priesthood, starting in the late 1960s, my opposition was a practical one: With the insistence on celibacy, it seemed inevitable that the church, particularly in America, would soon run short of priests. I also believed that celibacy is unnatural and unhealthy. Once we started hearing about pedophile priests, I came to believe, based on my reporting and that of other journalists, that the priest shortage of the last four decades contributed to the recycling of predators — that is, the movement of problem priests from one parish to the next, from one archdiocese to the next, instead of their ouster.
So I had moved to firm opposition to celibacy — and full support of allowing priests to marry and women to be ordained — before I learned of Richard Sipe and his studies of the sex lives and mental health of priests, much of it right here in Baltimore.
A native of Minnesota and a former monk and priest, Sipe had pursued a career in counseling at the old Seton Psychiatric Institute, where priests with problems were sent for treatment. He left the priesthood after 18 years, at age 38, and married Marianne Benkert, a psychiatrist and former Maryknoll sister. Sipe practiced psychotherapy, wrote books on sexuality and the priesthood, served as an expert witness in more than 200 criminal and civil cases involving the sexual abuse of minors by Catholic clergy.
Sipe said he had amassed a record of interviews with 1,500 people — priests in psychotherapy, priests who volunteered information, and people who were involved with priests sexually or as close friends.
Based on all those conversations, Sipe concluded that more than half of all priests were sexually active, and that six percent of them had been involved with minors.
Sipe described the priesthood as a secretive world of emotionally and sexually immature men “locked” in an adolescent stage of development and poorly prepared in seminary for the celibate life. “People have sexual impulses that they have to deal with, and the church doesn’t deal with them,” Sipe told me last year. “Church leaders hold up celibacy, as if it is some kind of ideal, as if it is even possible.”
He did not claim that celibacy led inevitably to deviant behavior or that the prevalence of child abusers among clergy was any higher than the general population. But, in an earlier interview with a Sun reporter, he called child abuse by priests "a symptom of a failed system of understanding human sexuality.”
In a letter to a bishop several years later, Sipe added this warning: “When men in authority — cardinals, bishops, rectors, abbots, confessors, professors — are having or have had an unacknowledged-secret-active-sex life under the guise of celibacy, an atmosphere of tolerance of behaviors within the system is made operative.”
Sipe was widely criticized by church officials, who insisted, even as the sexual abuse scandal grew and legal settlements mounted, that celibacy was not the problem.
But Sipe held to his beliefs, right until his death, at age 85, on Aug. 8 in San Diego.
I spoke to him after he appeared in “The Keepers,” the Netflix documentary series about the unsolved murder of Sister Catherine Cesnik and the abuse of some of her students by the chaplain of Archbishop Keough High School in the late 1960s and early 1970s. I asked Sipe if he could imagine the Roman Catholic Church ending its insistence on the all-male, supposedly celibate priesthood.
“I think it would lead to a flourishing,” he said. “I think we would see a renewal of men and women committed to the priesthood. ... The danger is, it will upset the power structure. The resistance would come from the established male hierarchy; they don’t want to give up power and entitlement. ... The church will not prosper without women and marriage in the priesthood.”