Wednesday, March 3, 2010


On Richard Sipe's website titled Celibacy/Sex/Catholic Church, I came upon an intriguing essay titled "Are American Bishops Gay?"

The short answer is yes, some are.

I am pursuing this discussion in the spirit of contemplative transformation espoused by Fr. Thomas Keating who challenges us to confront the biases that keep us from facing truth when we fail to ask penetrating questions: “Are you so enamored with your religion that you have a naïve loyalty that cannot see the real faults that are present in a particular faith community? Do you sweep under the rug embarrassing situations and bow to the security or esteem needs of the community?”1

Who is Richard Sipe?

A.W. RICHARD SIPE is a Certified Clinical Mental Health Counselor who earlier spent 18 years as a Benedictine monk and priest. He was trained specifically to deal with the mental health problems of Roman Catholic Priests. In the process of training and therapy, he conducted a 25-year ethnographic study of the celibate/sexual behavior of that population. His study, published in 1990, is now considered a classic. Sipe is known internationally and has participated in 12 documentaries on celibacy and priest sexual abuse aired by HBO, BBC, and other networks in the United States, United Kingdom, and France. He has been widely interviewed by media including CNN, ABC, NBC, CNBC, the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, People magazine, Newsweek and USA Today.

There's more biographical information at Sipe's website, including what I presume is a picture of him at the Vatican with John Paul II.

Sipe goes on:

Why start a dialogue about human sexuality with identifying gay bishops?

At first glance this focus may seem prickly, provocative and contentious. Not true. Rather this is an effort to define a sexual reality and not celibate failure.

Denial of the reality that clergy, bishops included, have some sexual orientation—whatever it may be—is destructive and forms a linchpin keeping a diseased process in place. Also in treating disease—in this case religious hypocrisy—one starts first to address the symptom. A boil can be an ugly and painful sign of a blood disorder; it has to be treated locally and systemically. The hypocrisy of some American bishops, their arrogance and duplicity patently manifested in their dealings with the victims of abuse by clergy, their pronouncements about the “intrinsic disorders” and “intrinsic evil” of masturbation, birth control and the whole host sexual behaviors common to Christian men and women cry to the heavens for an honest accounting and open discussion. Bishops need to be honest about sexuality—even their own. Painful as it might be the boil must be lanced. That is a start to treatment and cure.

Am I proposing here an “outing” of gay bishops? No!

I am suggesting that the reality of bishops‟ sexual orientation/behavior and the need to hide it is a significant element in clerical culture and structure that keeps us from facing basic facts about how that culture operates and affects millions of people.
(My emphasis)

Since I left the Roman Catholic Church 15 years ago over the child abuse and cover-up in my diocese of Houma-Thibodaux, I've thought much about the reasons for the abuse and cover-up, and, although I'm no expert, I'm convinced that forced celibacy as a condition for ordination in the RCC is the source of at least some of the abusive behavior. Perhaps men predisposed to be child-abusers made their way through the ordination screening process, but it seems to me that being taught to live one's life in denial of one's own sexuality, whether oriented to straight, or gay, or somewhere in between, could, in some instances, lead to aberrant behavior of several varieties, including abuse of children, even if one was not originally predisposed to such behavior. A godly call to celibacy is one thing, but forced celibacy is a whole other matter.

To leave my church of almost 60 years was no easy matter, but I will say that if I had not left back then, by now I would be out of the RCC for other reasons. By no means am I saying that everyone should leave the RCC. I have many friends who are Roman Catholic, and I admire my friends who stay in the church and fight the good fight for change. When I left, I promised myself that I would not be a bitter ex-Catholic, and I believe that I've succeeded in that endeavor more than I have failed.

Regarding the cover-up, I saw the probable cause of the bishops circling the wagons and moving quickly into denial as the default response as a desire to protect the church as an institution, and in their skewed moral assessment, it was more important to protect the institution, than to protect the children.

Perhaps I'm naive, but never once did I think of the gay men amongst the bishops, probably not all of whom were celibate, having to protect themselves from being found out, as another reason to deploy the policy of cover-up. The massive scale of the hypocrisy within the Roman Catholic Church in its failure to acknowledge the numbers of priests within its own clergy population who do not practice celibacy is stunning. As the news of the scandal broke, I began to say of the priests, "For God's sake, do what you have to do, but find a consenting adult, and leave the children alone!"

Let's start where the hierarchy has long staked out its sexual concerns—specifically about homosexuality even before the term came into common parlance in the 1850s. Same sex orientation and behaviors remain a perennial and major concern of Vatican officials both concerning laymen and within the clerical culture.

When James Hickey, later cardinal of Washington D.C. was rector of the Pontifical North American Theological College in Rome, a sign posted on a bulletin board in the college stated “Overt homosexuality will not be tolerated in this seminary.” A priest from Louisiana took a photo of the bulletin board when it appeared.

Once again, it's the hypocrisy that is so very disturbing. Sipe cites Andrew Greeley's novel, The Cardinal Sins, which I read back in the day:

Father Andrew Greeley outlined the clerical celibate/sexual system most elegantly and accurately in his novel The Cardinal Sins. Struggles and failures around power and celibacy are personified in two boyhood friends who become priests. Pat Donahue is a prototype of the clerical sociopath who even violates a classmate and sneaks dates with girls while in the seminary. As he ascends the clerical ladder to become a cardinal he has sexual encounters—some sadistic—with women, fathers a child, and is dominated by bi-sexual passion that is equaled only by his limitless ambition and ecclesiastical savoir-faire. Kevin Brennan the faithful celibate friend and fellow priest repeatedly covers up for Donahue and saves him and the Church from scandal.

Although Greeley could hardly have intended it at the time of writing, the book remains a paradigm of the clerical culture and the celibate/sexual structure—homosexual Vatican Monsignori and all—that constitutes clerical society. Greeley‟s “novel of grace” has the status and force of a parable: clerics collude to cover clergy malfeasance to preserve the Church from scandal. The sexual abuse crisis in the U.S. (and Ireland) spotlights that paradigm with glaring clarity.

The essay was an eye-opener for me, and I'm probably quoting too many of Richard Sipe's words, but I hope that some of you will read the essay. It's 16 pages in a pdf file, but worth taking the time.

As I look at the leadership in the Roman Catholic Church today, I see no move towards openness or an acknowledgement of the reality of the state of the RCC clergy. But the RCC is not simply the hierarchy. The church is the people and the priests who go about their business each day doing the Lord's work and therein lies my hope for the church in which I spent so many years of my life.

I'll end on a humorous note with one more quote from Sipe:

A longtime religion reporter/editor for a prominent daily remarked one time during an interview that he was struck by “all the beautiful young priests” who were in attendance to bishops he had interviewed during his career. Similar innuendoes and jokes are circulated among the Rome Press Corps about a young priest-secretary who attends Pope Benedict XVI. The pope's red Gucci pumps and his obvious predilection for fashionable miters and robes (in addition to his long assault on the "intrinsically disordered" population) do nothing to establish a secure masculine image.

Thanks to John for pointing me to Richard Sipe's writing.


  1. As an outsider, it appears to me that most of the abusers were made, not born. Not only is it a matter of impossible and conflicting demands of a failing sexual morality, but the lack of transparency and accountability. Opaque and secretive institutions tend to breed all kinds of corruption. The combination of no real accountability with the charisma that is part of the office of priest, will inevitably lead some to abuse their authority. That the hierarchy thought first about preserving themselves and their privilege instead of the victims of this abuse is something they will have to answer for in the here-after, and should be held accountable for in this world.

  2. I am not here to defend clerical celibacy as I do not not advocate it, however nor do I think that the end of it as some panacea for the church. That is the topic of its own post.

    As someone who has had to deal with being at the receiving end of child abuse and as someone whose healing path meant learning much more about it than I ever intended, I will say this.

    I absolutely do not think that enforced celibacy is the root of the problem. If that were the case the numbers of childhood sexual abuse outside of the church world would not be what they are.

    I do believe that many men who cannot deal with their sexuality in a healthy way became/become priests and that is another issue. That is certainly connected to part of it, but I do not think it is the enforced celibacy. My abuse came at the hands of numerous people, all with many available sex partners - these people wanted children, plain and simple. No I do not mind talking about it - I think it does need to be spoken of if my healing means anything at all.

    I see the constant drumbeat of how people -not you - but many who think that the end of celibacy will be the end of abuse and the majority of those people also think that this is tied up in something about homosexuality.

    Sex with children - any forced sex has to do with power and perversion. The power is one element and the attraction to younger people is another. There are different types of disorders, people attracted to younger kids and then others to teens.

    Then there is the whole element of those who were once abused who become abusers. This happens to men and women you know, I was very lucky that this never was the case for me, thanks be to God. It is one of the primary drivers however.

    I am sorry Mimi, you know I love you, but I do not think that the celibacy part is true.

    I do think that a culture of power and secrecy are something else. I also know that you worked in and around this for a long time during your life as an RC, and we have talked about what you experienced. You know more than the average person and in a most heartbreaking way.

    This is said so that you know that I am not defending the church, but I do not agree with this post. And I think it strays dangerously close, although without your intention of such, of mixing up that gorgeous gay young priests and the implications of abuse.

    Please forgive me if I have said anything upsetting to you or others. And no - I am not here to defend the church I belong to, work for etc. If I were witness to any abuse, I would be the first one to report it. I pray to God it never happens around me, but if it does, I will do what I must.

  3. Counterlight, we agree. Of course, I'm simply expressing my opinion.

    Fran, you know that I love you, and I thank you for weighing in here. You have every right to disagree and to speak your disagreement.

    I am so very sorry for what you have suffered. I have not been a victim of sexual abuse. I don't speak from experience. I agree that sexual abuse is very much about power. Beyond that, I believe that forced celibacy was a factor in the widespread child abuse cases which have come to light. I could be wrong, but, as of now, that's how I see it.

    I do believe that many men who cannot deal with their sexuality in a healthy way became/become priests and that is another issue.

    That's very likely true. I'm not saying that forced celibacy is the only cause of child sexual abuse by RCC priest.

    I'm sorry if my writing is so unclear that it's read as an implication that "the beautiful young priests" are abusive, for I did not mean that at all. The question is, "Why are they present?" It's the hypocrisy.

    Not for one minute would I ever believe that YOU, Fran, would ever cover up child abuse. If somehow you read that into my post, I humbly apologize.

  4. Certainly bears keeping in mind that Jim Jones, David Koresh and, a current case, Warren Jeffs, used their flocks as stud farms and, to stretch the metaphor, as chicken farms. Power - political and religious - breeds and enables sexual abuse. But agree totally with Mimi on the evils engendered by compulsory celibacy.

  5. The celibacy is part of it, but not all. Just forced celibacy would lead to a bitter viciousness, certainly, but it requires the power that given to the RC clergy, both by its authorities and its followers. I believe that that is one of the main reasons that they are so intent on keeping an all-male priesthood . . . the preservation of a certain type of leadership-by-fatherly-fiat model. While there has sexual abuse among nuns, it is far less regular. More readily observable are the dried-out old prunes, joyless, vindictive and bitter, who gave parochial school children nightmares. Why? They lack the power of men in the RC. They twist inward, rather than outward.

  6. I think Fran is right, people who struggle with their sexuality enter a calling that they believe will keep them safe from themselves, only to find that it doesn't.

    And Mimi is right in saying that enforced celibacy has a role to play, because if the church didn't insist on it, it might attract fewer people with huge sexual problems and then put them in positions where they have easy access to children.
    Fran is right, it's about power and control, and people with access to adult sex partners will still abuse if they feel the need to.
    But the strange situation of RC priests with their strangely imbalanced lives, their domestic loneliness and the lack of mature adults in their private lives who can help them to remain balanced, probably means that those who entered the church struggling with sexuality are far more likely to succumb to their devils.

  7. Mimi, no apologies are needed from you! I am grateful to enter into a conversation with you and others about this awful topic at your blog. Light needs to be shining on the dark places, without a doubt.

    Let me start with that awful canard about the good looking priests - I do not think for one second that you said that. I do however believe that that thought leads the truly uninformed to jump to some awful conclusions. You how many people link sexual orientation and abuse. I was just saying that the mention of it may feed that line of thought, which I know you do not support.

    As for me covering anything up - you never said that either or even implied it. I said that because I have received emails from lurkers and others who think that my own love of church would lead me to do so. It is ugly and while it has only happened a few times, it is horribly upsetting, so I was just being clear at large.

    Lapin makes some excellent references to others as does Mark Brunson and they add much to the conversation.

    However, I have been around so many priests for so long now, almost 20 years. The bad ones can be perceived and I can say that looking back, there were some who were questionable in regard to abuse. At that time I was not involved with church like I am now and my own sexual abuse wounds were far from healed, so I do not know that I would have ever thought to or knew how to deal with that at the time.

    However, in my small and very not scientific sample of being heavily involved in church matters, wounded or not, tells me a few things.

    One of them is that the forced celibacy that is so often spoken of is a bit of a fallacy for one thing. That it could somehow lead to abuse is still beyond my own study and experience, but I could be wrong.

    The worst elements of the culture of the church are the all male hierarchy and the power and secrecy that it engenders. It is the very, very worst part of the church. Misused power and secrecy are evil and that is the biggest problem.

    As I was typing all of this I see that Erika Baker has added a wise comment that probably says way more than my rambling does!

    Strangely enough, my verification word is healls.

  8. The most striking thing I saw in the Sipe excerpts is the idea that religious hypocrisy is a "disease".

    When will that make it into the DSM?

    wv = idsee
    (cf. "Forbidden Planet")

  9. Perhaps in my post I did not emphasize power as a factor in child abuse as much as I should have. The point that I wanted to make was that, some men enter the priesthood with sexual issues, but others are normal and sincere men who get ruined by the priesthood.

    By no means do all of their problems arise because sexual relations of any kind are forbidden. The loneliness of their lives lead some into alcoholism, and with others, power goes to their heads, and the priests act out in various harmful ways.

    What I DO intend to emphasize is that to impose celibacy upon another person from a position of power is evil. I'm tempted to use an even stronger word than evil.

    The RCC is not the only church with hypocrites in power. We have our share in the Episcopal Church, and the attempt to impose celibacy on LGTB folks is just as evil.

    Paul (A.), people are the same today as in Jesus' day, thus the long, angry rant in the Gospel of Matthew against hypocrites, when Jesus calls them a few choice names, "whitewashed tombs", "blind fools" and "blind guides". Jesus says, " not do as they do, for they do not practise what they teach. They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on the shoulders of others; but they themselves are unwilling to lift a finger to move them."

  10. Hi to All,
    Cannot put into words how many bells this conversation rings for me! I worked for the RCC for 13 years in parishes as ed. staff. The worst experience with sexually oriented abuse was the last one. We got a new Pastor (who already had been dismissed from a religious order) who terrorized the whole staff. W#hen he was ready to fire the cook (of 14 faithful years)he invited some other priests in for cocktails. They sat in a room close enough to hear all that went on in the kitchen. He would insult her, and then dash to the gathering of brother priests and tell them what he had said to her (although they could hear it themselves) and mimic her response. They would laugh and then he would return to the kitchen to continue his attack.
    I really thought she would have a heart attack......
    When this same twisted guy arranged a "retreat" for everyone but me to go to, I knew it was my turn and I couldn't figure out what to do. If I didn't go in to work, I would be in hot water. If I did go in..........In the end, I brought in my large dog and tied him to my desk for protection. The
    other side of the coin was that a priest who had just been transferred out of the parish showed up and sat with me all afternoon while I worked. I was touched to tears when he arrived.
    On the day that I had a visiting nun, when we walked into my office, there was a stripper's fan, complete with feathers and black lace hanging from the lighting fixture over my desk! It's hard to describe the fear that this mman deliberately provoked. I heard that he harrassed the next educator and the next one also. Finally, he is out of active ministry. God have mercy!

  11. Oh, Nij, I'm sorry. And the poor cook! How clever of you to think of taking your dog to work. And God bless the priest who came to stay with you. I'm shaking my head at the stripper's fan.

  12. I think that there is a supply and demand problem here.

    Celibacy - and the refusal to consider the ministry of women - severely reduces the supply of people to the ordained ministry. Since the demand rises as the church grows through birth, immigration, and the occasional conversion, the leadership is forced to accept people who might otherwise be screened out or weeded out.

    Celibacy does not create child molesters, but it does make it more likely that they will find their way into active ministry.

  13. Anonymous, if you comment again, please make up a name and sign your comment.

    I'm no expert on child abuse. It's pretty generally known that children who are abused are more likely to become child abusers as adults. Perhaps I am mistaken in thinking that forced celibacy is a factor in the widespread child abuse scandals. Still, it's hard for me to believe that such numbers of candidates predisposed to child abuse made their way through the screening process. In some cases, we're talking about my contemporaries or men ten or so years younger. I am 75. At the time that many of the men were accepted as candidates, the shortage of priests was not as acute as now. Why were the abusers not screened out when the pressure was not so great?

    My main point in my post is that forcing celibacy on a person who feels a call to serve God as a priest is just plain wrong and leads to hypocrisy on a grand scale amongst the clergy.


Anonymous commenters, please sign a name, any name, to distinguish one anonymous commenter from another. Thank you.