La Jolla's Richard Sipe died in 2018 — yet his research on the church's sexual abuse crisis lives on

Dr. Marianne Sipe and her husband A.W. Richard Sipe, who passed away in August, researched and published on sexual abuse by priests in the Catholic church.

In July, three weeks before Richard Sipe’s death, his wife rushed to his La Jolla hospital room with news.

“They finally caught up with McCarrick,” Dr. Marianne Benkert Sipe told him.


A front page New York Times story reported that Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, accused of sexually abusing an altar boy and seminarians, had become the first cardinal in history to resign. Sipe, who had warned the Vatican about McCarrick in an open letter published in 2008, was vindicated.

He took little comfort in this. “I wish they would have listened to me earlier,” he said.


“They’re listening to you now,” his wife replied.

Sipe, a therapist and former Benedictine priest, studied the sex lives of men who had taken vows of celibacy.

“How did priests live this life?” he wondered.

The answer, Sipe argued in a series of books starting with 1990’s “A Secret World”: At any one time, up to 50 percent of the clergy maintain sexual relationships with other men, women or, in perhaps 6 percent of cases, children.

Bishops and cardinals, Sipe maintained, also violated their vows and routinely covered up for clerics who were molesting and raping children. This was a systemic problem, Sipe continued, afflicting the church around the world.

During Sipe’s lifetime, critics dismissed his findings as the projections of a bitter man, alienated from his faith and former colleagues.

“Richard got pounded,” said Dr. Sipe, a former nun and practicing psychiatrist. “He was called an angry, discredited ex-priest who just wants to destroy the church.”

No longer. Throughout 2018, especially after his death Aug. 8 at the age of 85, he’s been cited by clerics and laity, liberals and conservatives.


“It’s been a very significant year,” Dr. Sipe said.

‘Deeply repulsive’

Born in rural Minnesota in 1932, Sipe became a monk in 1952 and an ordained priest in 1959. He came to Baltimore to study counseling at the Seton Psychiatric Institute, where he met and fell in love with Dr. Marianne Benkert, a Maryknoll nun.

In 1970, both left the religious life and married. They continued living in Maryland until 1999, when their son’s studies at UC San Diego brought them to La Jolla.

In the couple’s Mount Soledad home, Dr. Sipe continues their work. Counseling women, including nuns, who had been sexually abused by priests, her findings reinforced those of her husband. Even now, she consults with Sipe’s allies, such as Thomas Doyle, a canon lawyer, and the Rev. Michael Peterson, a priest and physician.

“The next question to answer is, why?” she said. “There is something systemic in the church culture that allowed for this to go on and allowed for the cover-up.”

In 2018, headline after headline underlined this point. As Sipe had predicted, the scandal dragged down princes of the church — McCarrick resigned, as did his successor as archbishop of Washington, D.C., Donald Wuerl, the latter for ignoring widespread abuses by clerics he had been charged with supervising while serving as a bishop in Pennsylvania.


This is a global affliction. In May, all 34 Chilean bishops offered their resignations for failing to halt the molestation of children by clerics in that country. By October, Pope Francis had accepted nine resignations.

This month, an Australian court convicted Cardinal George Pell on five counts of sexual misconduct involving two boys.

“Historically, this is one of the worst scandals” in the life of the 2,000-year-old church, said the Rev. James Martin, a Jesuit priest and editor at large of America magazine.

“There is something deeply repulsive to people about child sex abuse. That is just so repellent that it almost in a sense transcends any other sin or crime.”

By 2018, Dr. Sipe said, virtually everyone — Catholic and non-Catholic, church leaders and civil authorities — had adopted her late husband’s view that these were crimes rather than missteps that could be privately addressed with discreet counseling.

In August, Pennsylvania’s state attorney general released an 887-page grand jury report documenting the abuse of more than 1,000 children by over 300 priests. Numerous states — at least 16 to date — followed by launching similar investigations. Dozens of dioceses, including San Diego, reviewed their archives and issued expanded lists of priests credibly accused of sexual abuse.


Locally, the additions numbered eight.

Most, noted America’s Martin, are already retired, dead or defrocked.

Yet there have been some glaring exceptions, including the Rev. Donald Timone, a New York-based priest who often visited Rancho Santa Fe’s Church of the Nativity.

This month, The New York Times reported that Timone had continued in active ministry despite the Archdiocese of New York settling two cases in which Timone was accused of abusing teens he had been counseling.

Timone, 84, had also taught a course at Escondido’s John Paul the Great Catholic University this summer and was scheduled to lead an independent study group in theology there during the 2019 winter quarter, which begins Jan. 7.

That course has been cancelled, said Derry Connolly, John Paul the Great’s president, and Timone has been barred from returning to San Diego.


His visits had been preceded by a letter from the Archdiocese of New York affirming Timone’s status as a priest in good standing, said Kevin Eckery, a spokesman for the Diocese of San Diego.

“We have not received any complaints against him,” Eckery said.

Shifting attitudes

Sipe lived long enough to see a radical change in how law enforcement and the legal system treat allegations lodged against clergy.

Dr. Sipe cited the case of the Rev. John Feit, a priest suspected of the 1960 rape and murder of a Texas beauty queen, Irene Garza. For decades, civil authorities declined to press charges against the priest. Finally, a newly-elected district attorney prosecuted Feit in McAllen, Tex., in 2017.

Sipe testified, despite being in ill health and using a wheelchair. Feit, who is now 86, was convicted in December 2017.

That case, plus the Pennsylvania grand jury report and the ongoing investigations in other states “is a message to all the dioceses,” Dr. Sipe said. “You are now subject to the law.”


Martin sees shifts in the church hierarchy’s attitudes, too. Sipe was a key source in the Boston Globe’s landmark 2002 “Spotlight” investigation into predator priests, which was attacked by the local cardinal as an anti-Catholic smear.

“By all means, we call down God’s power on the media,” Cardinal Bernard Law said in a speech that year, “especially the Globe.” (Law, who had covered up the crimes of numerous priests, resigned as archbishop of Boston by the end of 2002.)

“The message,” Martin said, “was that this is a media-created problem.”

In contrast, Pope Francis used his 2018 Christmas address to issue “heart-felt thanks” to “those media professionals who were honest and objective and sought to unmask these predators and to make their victims’ voices heard.”

While Dr. Sipe welcomed those words, she questioned whether any corresponding actions will emerge from the Vatican's Feb. 21-24, 2019, meeting. Summoning the presidents of Catholic bishops conferences from around the world, the pope will focus on “prevention of the abuse of minors and vulnerable adults,” according to a Vatican statement.

"My sources,” Dr. Sipe said, “say that in the Vatican they don’t know what to do about this.”


Doyle, the canon lawyer, doubts that the church’s governing body — the Curia — will allow significant reforms.

“The hierarchy is not capable or willing to fix the problem themselves,” he said. “The present pope took some steps that are radical, like firing a cardinal — that hadn’t been done since 1931. But he’s hemmed in by the Curia and the fact that the church is so big.”

Martin, though, said the U.S. bishops instituted crucial reforms with the “Dallas Charter” of 2002. It proclaimed “zero tolerance” for the abuse of minors and mandated the steps the U.S. church now takes when faced with accusations.

“The bishops aren’t getting enough credit for the Dallas Charter,” he said. “Before 2002, the rules were very vague. After 2002 — and every priest knows this — if there is a credible accusation you are removed immediately and then it is investigated.”

While that investigation is conducted by diocesan review boards, allegations are also forwarded to civilian law enforcement.

“There are guys who slip through the cracks, like the guy in New York,” Martin said. “But what you are seeing with these revelations, these lists coming out, these are old cases.”


Old cases, though, will continue to make new headlines in 2019. In February, Australia’s Cardinal George Pell will be sentenced. In the U.S., the year is expected to see reports from numerous state attorneys general, who — like Pennsylvania’s attorney general — may implicate church officials at all levels.

Just as a former priest had predicted.

“Richard,” Dr. Sipe said, “has been proven right."

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(John Kelley, Lauren Flynn/San Diego Union-Tribune)