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Richard Sipe helped uncover pattern of clergy sex abuse

Mr. Sipe died last week in San Diego at the age of 85.Nathan Lambrecht/Associated Press/File 2017

When the Globe Spotlight team began its investigation of sexual abuse in the Catholic Church, Richard Sipe was our guide, our teacher, our chief cheerleader.

A gentle man with an easy laugh, he was also a former monk and priest, a psychotherapist, a scholar, and ideally suited to explain that the horrors we were discovering in Boston were not unusual — and quite probably part of a pattern throughout the church.

Sipe, who was 85, died Wednesday in the La Jolla neighborhood of San Diego.

His groundbreaking work began in 1990 with the publication of “A Secret World: Sexuality and the Search for Celibacy.” Based on interviews with 1,500 priests and others with firsthand knowledge of celibacy violations, Sipe estimated that 6 percent of all priests were having sex with children and young people — at the time a shocking claim that he famously repeated in the movie, “Spotlight.”

My first encounter with Sipe’s work came in the summer of 2001, when I read his expert testimony in the case of the Rev. Rudy Kos, a Dallas priest convicted of sex crimes in the late 1990s.


This was a 75-page document so complete in its understanding of clergy sexual abuse that I immediately called the author, A.W. Richard Sipe, eager to learn more.

Days passed without a reply until my cellphone rang on a warm September afternoon as I was racing down the Mass Pike, trying to get to a Red Sox game after covering a court hearing.

For more than an hour, Sipe patiently explained that, as hard as it was to believe, the appalling sexual abuse of children by Catholic priests was a systemic problem within the church fostered by the culture of celibacy, the promise that every priest makes to live without sex or marriage.


Even though the sun was shining, I had the sensation that all the lights were coming on. I told Sipe that the Globe was going to fly him and his wife from their home in California to Boston so the entire Spotlight Team could hear what they had to say.

When they arrived, Sipe and his wife, the psychiatrist and former nun Marianne Benkert Sipe, held our attention for hours, combining descriptions of Sipe’s research with their firsthand experiences as clinicians who had counseled abusive priests as well as victims of clergy abuse.

Incredibly, both had met the Rev. John J. Geoghan, a pedophile priest in Boston who would become the focus of our first story, when Geoghan was receiving in-patient treatment for sex abuse at the Seton Institute in Baltimore, though neither had treated him.

Over the next two years, as the Spotlight team published 1,000 stories, triggering the earthquake that is still reverberating today, Sipe was always available for an illuminating phone call or a pithy quote scolding church officials for their hypocrisy as they covered up for priests accused of sexually abusing minors.

“In Geoghan’s case, the church defied its own most basic values of protecting the young and fostering celibacy,” he said in the opening Spotlight story on Jan. 6, 2002.

As the months went by, I got to know Sipe better during his frequent trips to Boston to visit his son, Walter, who was serving a medical residency at Children’s Hospital. I soon learned that he was fond of a martini and a good meal and had eclectic interests, including literature, film, theology, and the history of the Catholic Church.


I also grew to view him as a near-tragic figure while admiring his courage and tenacity. As I delved into his several books, I realized that he had been doing his best to warn the world about clergy sexual abuse since the early 1990s, a decade before my colleagues and I published our first story, but to little avail.

In “The Secret World,” Sipe estimated that only 50 percent of priests were currently celibate and that many of those had had earlier sexual experiences. In addition to the 6 percent who were having sex with minors, he estimated that 30 percent were involved with women, while 10 percent were having sex with men. (Four percent were engaging in other practices that violated the celibacy requirement.)

These findings led Sipe to conclude that priests who sexually abuse minors are shielded by a culture of secrecy that is, in essence, a protection racket. Since all sex by Catholic priests is prohibited, a priest having sex with a woman or a man is unlikely to inform on a priest having sex with a child because, in the eyes of the church, they’ve all transgressed and all have an interest in protecting one another.

But Sipe’s findings were either denounced or ignored, leading him to spend years proselytizing in the wilderness, even as he continued to publish and deliver his expert testimony in one criminal trial or civil case after another.


On several occasions, over a martini and a meal, he described the pain of being ignored or patronized by colleagues in academia who refused to respect his work or heed his dire warnings.

It was only after my colleagues and I began publishing our stories, and Sipe’s expertise was suddenly sought by news organizations all over the world, that he felt vindicated.

Today, Sipe’s estimate that 6 percent of priests are having sex with minors seems conservative. In Boston, for instance, 250 clerics have been accused of sexually abusing children and young people, according to the Boston Archdiocese, or more than 10 percent of those serving since 1950.

Meanwhile, Sipe’s belief that high church officials who violate their promise of celibacy set the tone for their priests has been borne out by recent allegations that ex-Washington, D.C., Cardinal Theodore McCarrick abused seminarians — while Cardinal George Pell, the third-highest ranking official at the Vatican, stands trial for child sexual abuse in Australia.

As I grew to know Sipe, and he grew to know me, we discovered we each once dreamed of becoming a novelist. And though neither of us ever published a fictional narrative, late in life Sipe started writing and publishing poetry, prolifically.

In two collections, “I Confess” and “Courage at Three AM,” he revisits his battles, his regrets, his painful self-doubt, fiercely confronting the spiritual trials of a lifetime. In the prescient poem, “At My Graveside,” he concludes, “Truth alone will honor what I’ve been or done.”


Follow Michael Rezendes on Twitter @MikeRezendes.