Ex-priest confronts Catholic Church on celibacy issue Broken Vows


In the framed photograph displayed in A. W. Richard Sipe's dining room, Pope John Paul II shakes hands with Mr. Sipe and leans toward him to speak.

"I tell people he's saying, 'Keep up the good work,' " Mr. Sipe says, laughing.

This is not likely. Not since 1990, when the ex-priest from Lutherville published his book on celibacy and the sexual activity of Catholic clergymen in the United States. Not since he started saying the church faces an "epic crisis" due to child abuse by priests, challenging the power structure of the church and the tradition of celibacy as the roots of the problem.

Even as the nation's Catholic bishops promised in Washington Monday to put the needs of child-abuse victims before those of the offending clergy, Mr. Sipe was criticizing their response as too limited to solve the problem.

"I have not heard anything about prevention," he says. "I have not heard anything about the cause being in the system."

Mr. Sipe insists he does not want to bring down the tradition of celibacy, but he argues that child sexual abuse by the clergy should be addressed as part of an examination of celibacy and church hierarchy. The system as it works now, he says, often stunts the psychological development of priests, who are not adequately prepared for the celibate life.

At 62, Mr. Sipe, who is married to a former nun and practicing psychotherapy in Towson, is known in the world of American Catholic thought as compassionate critic or hyperbolic gadfly, a raiser of important questions or bomb-thrower masked as an earnest researcher.

It was Mr. Sipe who once opened his remarks to an organization of sexual abuse victims with the line "My friends, welcome to Wittenberg" -- a reference to the town in which Martin Luther launched the Protestant Reformation.

It's Mr. Sipe who pulls out recent articles about sexual abuse in the Irish Catholic Church and says: "This is not an American problem. The Vatican likes to say this is an American problem. They're absolutely terrified if it ever becomes an Italian problem, it'll blow the lid off the church. It'll blow the lid off the Vatican."

This sort of remark prompts representatives of the Catholic Church to wonder aloud if he's more interested in media attention than in healing the institution.

"He's not a very helpful man in this discussion, and I wonder why he's in it," says Monsignor William E. Lori, chancellor of the Archdiocese of Washington.

Mr. Sipe says his goal is to encourage discussion and help the church resolve a problem that threatens to cripple some local parishes. He notes that the American Catholic Church has paid out at least $500 million in legal settlements arising from sex-abuse cases, according to the most recent estimates.

Mr. Sipe, who will publish another book on celibacy and the church in January, does not say that celibacy leads inevitably to aberrant behavior. Nor does he contend that the percentage of child abusers among clergymen is higher than the general population.

But he does say that child abuse by priests "is a symptom of a failed system of understanding human sexuality. It's a symptom that something is wrong. . . . When you have a pattern of abuse, you always have someone in the system who has given approval."

Mr. Sipe's interest in this subject began in 1960, when he started keeping notes of conversations with priests and their associates in Minnesota.

He continued the practice for 25 years and amassed a record of interviews with 1,500 people: one-third of them priests in psychotherapy, one-third priests who volunteered information, one-third lay people who were involved with priests sexually or as close friends.

Information gleaned from these interviews was published in 1990 in "A Secret World: Sexuality and the Search for Celibacy." It was the first attempt to quantify the sexual practices of priests and put the numbers in the context of a philosophical, psychological and historical discussion of celibacy.

The book revealed that about half the priests were sexually active in one way or another. One of five heterosexual priests was sexually active. One of every four priests described himself as homosexual; about half of them were sexually active. Roughly 6 percent of the priests had been sexually involved with minors.

In the book, Mr. Sipe traces the roots of celibacy to two scriptural quotations, one from the Book of Matthew, one from St. Paul's first letter to the Corinthians. Neither makes celibacy a requirement, and, in fact, the vow of celibacy was not imposed on priests until the 12th century. It was done largely for economic reasons -- to prevent popes from marrying and passing church property to their heirs.

"A Secret World" portrays a system in which church officials embrace celibacy as an ideal and a source of their authority, yet consistently look aside at violations. Priests who confess an interest in women were sometimes urged by a superior to "take a housekeeper." Priests who abused children were routinely moved from parish to parish.

Mr. Sipe argues that celibacy encourages sexual immaturity, "locking" priests into an adolescent stage of development.

That notion is an insult to clergymen, Monsignor Lori says. He encourages open discussion of sexual abuse by clergymen, but, he says, "Mr. Sipe's approach is not helpful. . . . It's an approach that is anti-celibacy. He seems to relate the tradition of celibacy to sexual immaturity. Celibacy is not the problem."

Bill Blaul, spokesman for the Archdiocese of Baltimore, says that Mr. Sipe's attempt to draw a connection between celibacy and aberrant sexuality "indicates flawed research and a bit of an agenda. . . . For Mr. Sipe to paint with such a broad brush, to say the Roman Catholic clergy and sexual abuse is a time bomb is really a reach."

Fred Berlin, the psychiatrist who founded the sexual disorders clinic at Johns Hopkins Hospital and a member of the committee that reported this week to the bishops, says he applauds Mr. Sipe as a "catalyst" for debate and further study. But, he says, "I have some concerns" about making too firm a link between ecclesiastical tradition and child abuse.

"We don't really know the cause" of pedophilia, Dr. Berlin says.

The Rev. Canice Connors, director of the St. Luke Institute in Suitland, which treats priests who have sexually abused children, also questions whether anyone has compiled enough statistical information to suggest a root of the problem in the clergy.

But Father Connors agrees with Mr. Sipe that the church generally has done a poor job of "educating people to live a celibate life."

In his own experience as a young man in a Benedictine monastery in Minnesota in the 1950s, Mr. Sipe says, the training for a celibate life "had the depth of Nancy Reagan's 'Just say no.' Well, what are you saying no to? What are the feelings involved?"

Mr. Sipe spent 18 years in religious life as a monk and priest. He was ordained as a priest in Minnesota in 1957, and eight years later moved to Baltimore to study counseling at the Seton Psychiatric Institute. At that time, Mr. Sipe "experienced a depression I could not shake or explain," he wrote in "A Secret World."

When he began psychoanalysis, the doctor asked him whether he would leave the priesthood if it turned out his work were the cause of his problem.

He had never given a thought to leaving the vocation, he says. He had been a Benedictine monk since he was 20, an ordained priest since 25. Yet when the psychoanalyst posed the question, "I spontaneously and surprisingly said 'Yes,' " he wrote.

Before he turned 38, he had left the clergy. In a Roman Catholic ceremony in November 1970, he married Marianne Benkert, a 36-year-old former Maryknoll sister whom he had met at Seton. She is practicing psychiatry at the couples' home in Lutherville. The couple has a 21-year-old son, Walter Edward, who is studying neurobiology at Harvard University.

Mr. Sipe and his wife continue to finance his research on the church and sexuality. His second book is called "Sex, Priests and Power: Anatomy of a Crisis."

He knows that the church considers him a troublemaker and a hostile critic. They don't get it, he says.

He's not angry with the church, he says, noting that he has turned down about 40 potentially lucrative requests to serve as an expert witness in cases of child abuse by clergymen. He says he testified in only one case, in which the abuse was particularly heinous. The courtroom, he says, is not the place to resolve this problem.

Despite the public criticism, Mr. Sipes takes heart from many private letters he has received from clergymen saying "A Secret World" accurately portrayed their struggles to live the celibate life.

A few letters, he says, said, " 'You're right, but you shouldn't have said it.' "

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