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A Voice Suddenly Heard

Psychotherapist A.W. Richard Sipe Spent a Lifetime Studying Sexual Abuse by Catholic Priests. Finally, People Are Listening.

July 07, 2002|TONY PERRY

After four decades in snowy cities as a counselor and psychotherapist, A.W. Richard Sipe was ready for retirement to sunny La Jolla. There would be ample time for reading (he's a big Tony Hillerman fan), travel and maybe some light intellectual labor, such as updating one of his books. He was also eager to indulge a hobby he acquired as a stress-reducer: doing needlepoint, mostly classic religious scenes.

Sipe and his wife, Marianne Benkert, had picked the perfect spot, a gated community in the swank Mt. Soledad neighborhood, and for the first year or so, the retirement went largely as planned. He worked at his writings at an unhurried pace, and Benkert, a psychiatrist, joined a clinic at UC San Diego. "I thought my life's work was pretty much over," says Sipe, 69. "I thought coming to La Jolla was like going to heaven, with all your work done."

Instead, his hours are now filled with phone calls, faxes and letters--pleas from journalists, lawyers, former patients, even religious figures, all begging for his advice, his consultation, an interview, a lecture, something to help in the firestorm of a moral scandal unmatched in U.S history. It's all happening because Sipe had devoted much of his career to researching and writing about sexual abuses by Catholic clergy, and to counseling the victims. Yet for all his labors, the American public never quite seemed to be listening.

Now it is. Sipe recently went to New York to talk to a documentary filmmaker--one of several seeking his help--and returned home to find more than 200 e-mails. Next it was off to Minnesota to help a school there deal with the gathering crisis. His needlepoint has been put aside, his Last Supper half-finished. "I've been called back into service," he says.

And a grisly service it is.

Although no one keeps such statistics, it is doubtful anyone has met more unchaste, or pedophile priests, or their traumatized victims than Sipe, a Benedictine monk-turned-counselor whose practice led him to explore a world that many in the Roman Catholic church, until recently, denied even existed.

In lectures, professional articles and three groundbreaking books--"A Secret World: Sexuality and the Search for Celibacy," "Sex, Priests and Power: Anatomy of a Crisis" and "Celibacy: A Way of Living, Loving and Serving"--Sipe argued, backed with statistics and case studies, that sexual abuse of children was rampant among priests and that many priests become, in effect, accomplished serial rapists.

Despite his efforts, and those of other reform-minded counselors and priests, he had no indication when he closed his practice in Baltimore that the church would ever acknowledge the moral corruption within its ranks. But in January, the Boston Globe and then other newspapers began uncovering the kind of widespread sexual abuse and official cover-up that Sipe had long warned was festering. Suddenly the world that had been ignoring him began banging on his door. There is no joy in the turnabout--but there is a modicum of vindication.

"I don't feel so alone anymore," he says.

as befits a counselor, sipe is gracious and comforting and informal. He sees no need to find a fancy term to describe the mendacity of the church. He'll use a barnyard epithet when it seems appropriate. He does not preach, argue or chest-beat. In conversation, his observations and case histories start slowly and then come pouring out.

Only one thing makes him particularly angry: The assertion by some defenders of the status quo that victims are coming forth now, years after the incidents, because they hope to make money by threatening lawsuits. "My experience is that the primary motivation in the people I deal with is: 'I don't want that [SOB] to do it to anybody else,' " he says.

At the heart of the church's sexual corruption, Sipe believes, is a system that keeps priests in a state of perpetual adolescence by refusing to confront the issue of normal sexual urges. "We have said for years that the church fosters and prefers adolescent development in their clergy," Sipe says. "They're easier to manage, they're easier to control. Adolescents, you know, are wonderful. They're enthusiastic, they can be committed and can be ascetic, and they have many, many good qualities. They can align themselves with a cause and go to the death for it. But if you're an adolescent psychosexually, who are you attracted to? You're attracted to other adolescents."

Prominent on the living room wall of Sipe and Benkert's Spanish-Mission-style home are several Crucifixion scenes by a painter from Taos, N.M. Other religious artwork is sprinkled through the house, which they share with their aging calico cat, Gwen.

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