Has Richard Sipe explained the cover-up of clerical child sex abuse in the Catholic Church?

Aug 13, 2018 | 5 comments

Richard A. Sipe – pioneer analyst of clerical child sexual abuse – died August 8th, 2018

The globally revealed cover-up by Catholic bishops of clerical child sex abuse has never been explained by the Catholic central leadership in Rome.

In the case of Ireland, Pope Benedict XVI in 2010 attributed failures by bishops in the Dublin archdiocese to the ignoring of Catholic canon law – but that raised a further obvious question: if Catholic bishops could rigidly impose Catholic canonical marriage rules on lay people, why did they so often flout canonical rules, and ignore state criminal laws, on clerical sexual abuse of children? That obvious question still hangs unanswered today – even though the very same phenomenon has been revealed on all continents.

The yawning crisis of trust that now exists calls ever more insistently for the church leadership to explain this crisis. As early as 2002 Australia’s Bishop Geoffrey Robinson called on Pope John Paul II to commission a church-wide study of the entire gamut of issues raised by clerical sex abuse – but, inexplicably, that never happened.

This failure now amounts to a cover-up of the cover-up – a dodging of the obvious duty of any global corporation to explain to those who finance it why its ‘shepherds’ have failed, globally, to protect its ‘lambs’, their children – its most vulnerable members.

In the absence of an official explanation the conclusion of an independent researcher, Richard Sipe (who died aged 85 on August 8th, 2018) gathers increasing weight.  While his own research led him to believe that up to 50% of Catholic clergy may be in breach of the rule of mandatory celibacy, multiple instances of clerical child abuse suggested mutually protective relationships between those abusers and other clerics involved in adult sexual relationships. Sipe concluded that a long-standing clerical culture of de facto concealment of this reality had led to an agreed convention of looking-away from all such clerical sexual activity – including clerical abuse of minors.

“Sooner or later it will become broadly obvious that there is a systemic connection between the sexual activity by, among and between clerics in positions of authority and control, and the abuse of children,” he told Bishop Robert McElroy of San Diego in 2016.

“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.”

The point is perfectly illustrated in the case of Dublin priest Tony Walsh, described by the Murphy report of 2009 as Ireland’s most notorious child abuser.  Walsh’s predations were known to one of Ireland’s most high profile clerics, Michael Cleary, when the two served together in Ballyfermot, Dublin, in the 1970s.  Although Cleary had a busy schedule in defending the church’s opposition to pre-marital sex to teenagers there is no evidence that he ever sought seriously to put a stop to Walsh’s abuse of children.  Much later it was revealed that Cleary by that same period had made his housekeeper his common law wife.  It is likely that Walsh was as aware of this relationship as Cleary was of Walsh’s criminal paedophilia – a classic illustration of the plausibility of the mutually protective clerical culture that Sipe describes.

And the higher his climb in the church, the further any cleric would fall if such activities became known.  With the exposure of the secret life of retired US Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, Sipe’s conclusion takes on added weight.  On June 20, 2018 McCarrick was removed from public ministry by the Holy See after a review board of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of New York had found a ‘credible and substantial allegation’  that he had sexually abused a 16-year-old altar boy while a priest in New York in the early 1970s.  Only then did many become aware that Richard Sipe had in 2010 published documentary evidence of McCarrick’s abuse of seminarians in his career as a bishop.  Sipe himself declared that in 2008 he had written to Pope Benedict XVI to tell him that McCarrick’s activities “had been widely known for several decades.”

If this is true, how had McCarrick risen to the summit of the US Catholic church as Archbishop of Washington D.C. in 2000 – becoming the ‘go-to’ Catholic cleric for high profile events such as the funeral service of Senator Edward Kennedy in 2009? Who among the US hierarchy, and even possibly in Rome, was aware of his secret life then?

Once again calls for a top-level investigation of this mystery have so far gone unanswered – but that too is easily understandable if Sipe is right about the scale of non-observance of the celibacy rule. For every day that goes by without the Vatican commissioning the wider study that Bishop Geoffrey Robinson called for in 2002, so also grows the persuasiveness of Sipe’s conclusion about the role played by de facto clerical accommodation of the flouting of the rule of celibacy.

Many totally disillusioned Catholics have already made up their own minds about that – and concluded that the onus of proof of the insignificance of mandatory priestly celibacy in the global cover-up of clerical sexual abuse of children lies now squarely with the Vatican.

Sean O’Conaill, 12th August 2018

Click here to read the National Catholic Reporter’s obituary of Richard Sipe.


  1. Mary Vallely

    “In person, Richard’s compassion, which was extended to every person who approached, was even greater than his desire for justice,” he said. 
    I love this about him, quoted in a NCR article today about Richard Sipe, a man of such huge courage and integrity and like many a true prophet his words largely went unheeded.

    “Sooner or later it will become broadly obvious that there is a systemic connection between the sexual activity by, among and between clerics in positions of authority and control, and the abuse of children,” Mr. Sipe wrote in a letter to Bishop Robert W. McElroy of San Diego in 2016.

    “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.”

    “Failures of celibacy among church leaders, he argued, even if they happened with adults, created a system of hypocrisy and secrecy in which the abuse of minors could take place.”

    We need more people of the calibre of Richard Sipe and Fr Tom Doyle to continue to criticise the institutional Church. How did we allow ourselves to become so deluded? We are all of us sinners but what we have learned about the egregious crime of clerical sex abuse, the bullying, blackmail and cover up by those whom we thought our moral guardians is still very hard to take in. Our grandparents went to their graves in such innocent belief that things were as they seemed in the Church.

    God help those good priests and bishops who continue trying to live lives of integrity. They need our prayers more than ever but we also need to encourage them to challenge unacceptable behaviour in their ranks. The reputation of the institution of the RCC cannot sink any lower so there is no point in thinking that it is disloyal to criticise it. Children and the vulnerable are our priority as they were the Nazarene’s. It would be a great legacy to Richard Sipe if more lives were saved because we are all at last wakening up to the truth of his research.
    Ar dheis Dé go raibh a anam uasal.

  2. Frank Gregg

    I could not open the obituary, but it is now clear that the issue has to be addressed by the Vatican in all truth , sincerity, and humility unless it is to lose more and more people of good faith . It is now common for people to say that they are not followers of the Catholic Church but are still believers in God and have a spiritual life. My own view for a long time is that clericalism over centuries has corrupted the church and so disrespect the People of God who form part of the Body of Christ and are co heirs with Christ and are equal before Christ .

  3. Noel

    Mary is so correct in her comments about there being no point in using disloyalty as an excuse for not facing up to the crisis of credibility faced by the church. Frank has highlighted a development which one encounters more and more – people who no longer want to be associated with the RCC. They have not lost their faith – just their faith in the institutional church.

    The only action which might begin to resonate with these people and others who are totally disenchanted with the church is for the leadership to ‘come clean’, open the cupboard and reveal all the ‘skeletons’. The ongoing ‘drip feed’ of scandals over recent decades has destroyed any vestige of remaining credibility. The scandals have also sapped the morale of many, ordinary life-long church supporters, including good priests and religious.

    There is really an onus on those who remain in the church to continue to agitate for the truth. Unfortunately there still seems to be a belief, in at least some quarters of the institution, that somehow or other they will get away with burying the facts so it is hard to see all those ‘skeletons’being exposed any time soon.

  4. Kevin Walters

    Many years ago, as a fly on the wall, I was aware of a conversation that went like this “he has always had these leanings/inclinations/desires, now he wants to become a priest, it is for his own good as he can be with others like himself”

    Some years afterwards I heard that he had become one. It is not unrealistic to say that this situation has been duplicated many times within “Catholic” families over a long period of time.

    As now we are seeing flourishing manifestations of spiritual corruption and the fruit of that corruption is satanic influences/practices/agendas now at play within the church, especially known by those who encounter them.

    Sadly many have been devoured, principally because there appears to be no one to turn to within the Priesthood, who can be trusted, as all are compromised by the self-serving structures within Clericalism which has permitted evil to reign. Many sheep have been devoured while many unseen others suffer, often grievously while trusting in God, sadly they remain Shepherd less.

    So, how do you separate the wheat from the chaff?

    You cannot as the wheat and the weeds must grow together until harvest time…

    What are we to do? Structures have to be created to confront evil and the only structure that can do this is one that serves the Truth.

    I have suggested a structured way forward initially for the Priesthood but then to include all the laity/faithful. See my post via the link,

    So yes, the weeds have to grow with the wheat, as we are taught not resist the evil doer, rather the light/grace of Truth exposes the wolves who would steal the sheep and the poacher as he wanders around in the darkness, ensnaring the innocent/lambs.

    It could be said the Church needs an Amnesty within herself, as in, embracing the ‘gentle’ cleansing grace of humility,

    kevin your brother
    In Christ

  5. Stephen de Weger

    You are absolutely on the right track, Sean. But alas, this ‘reason’ is not the popular one or the one that many in the church, even those seeking to end clergy abuse, want to accept. Why? Because it is going down the path of perhaps needing to criticise liberal attitudes to sexual expression, including homosexual expression, something not popular with many of today’s Catholics. The question needing to be asked is “do today’s clergy and hierarchy accept the more liberal approach to sex and if so, why don’t they just come out, be honest and say as much”. If they did then there would be less chance of ‘blackmail’ or inaction. Oh, that’s right, they might lose their jobs if they are honest about it. Better to live a double life. My research question (see https://eprints.qut.edu.au/96038/ ) has always been…but what about the other people involved in clergy sexual activity? What becomes of them? Now I ask, how has all this clergy sexual activity impacted the whole abuse reality, the church’s responses to it and, the church as a whole? You have another excellent researcher in your own country, Margaret Kennedy, who has done such a brilliant and thorough investigation of clergy sexual abuse of adult women. Worth getting (The Well From Which We Drink Is Poisoned: Clergy sexual exploitation of adult women – by Margaret Kennedy: http://ethos.bl.uk/OrderDetails.do?uin=uk.bl.ethos.507071 (Free registration then Login needed (Kennedy’s PhD dissertation is so thorough and delves into so many aspects of CSMAA and explains the process of grooming, entrapment and escape so convincingly).


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