Richard Sipe at home in La Jolla, California, working on his tapestry of Torcello's Last Judgment. Still from Sipe: Sex, Lies, and the Priesthood

Richard Sipe and Sexual Abuse

SAN DIEGO (CA) [Waltham MA]

May 27, 2021

By Marianne Benkert Sipe

[Photo above: Richard Sipe at home in La Jolla, California, working on his tapestry of Torcello’s Last Judgment. Still from Sipe: Sex, Lies, and the Priesthood]

The film you have just viewed honors Richard and serves as an outline of his life story.  This embodies his family, his time at St. John’s Abbey in Collegeville, MN as a student, seminarian and young priest.  It includes the major part of his professional life as a researcher, writer, teacher, and psychotherapist, and touches on his personal life as a husband and father.

     Richard made original contributions to the understanding of clerical celibacy and the immature narcissistic culture which tolerated and abetted sexual activity among its members.  The most recent and famous example is the now defrocked Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, former Archbishop of Washington D.C.   Rumors of his sexual activity with young seminarians had been rampant for years and yet he rose to receive one of the highest honors the church could bestow. 

     Richard came to understand the hypocrisy and lack of credibility in the church as it covered up the clerical sexual abuse of minors using secrecy and lack of accountability, further harming the victims.  This film was inspired by his contributions and his untiring commitment to survivors

     Richard was a thoughtful, inquisitive and questioning man, always seeking the truth wherever it would lead.  Initially he had no idea the painful places this would take him.

      News of the clerical sexual abuse issue began to trickle out to the public in the late 80’s from Louisiana, Texas and elsewhere.  Lawyers began looking for an individual with some in-depth knowledge of the problem to serve as a consultant and expert witness in cases that were coming to the legal system.   Richard’s work came to their attention through his early books and writings and he was soon retained by multiple attorneys over the years.  He ultimately worked on well over 200 cases.  His time in the monastery and his ten years in the priesthood added to his qualifications.  He had inside knowledge of the clerical culture.

     When the Boston Globe investigated clerical sexual abuse in that city, Richard proved to be an invaluable resource, as noted in the movie SPOTLIGHT.   Their expose was published in early 2002, and from then on he spent countless hours communicating with journalists, lawyers, and producers, as well as with victims. Talk shows and news shows sought him out for his expertise.  He saw this as a way to educate the public on a topic that the Church had managed to keep well hidden.   Richard’s legal documents were thoughtful and well written with great objectivity but he carried a heavy burden.  Richard identified with the victims in a personal way, because he had been a sexual abuse victim himself.

     I disclose this because I believe it is another way to honor Richard’s life and legacy.  He knew the impact and the long-term consequences of sexual abuse through his studies and experience as a psychotherapist, but most intimately because he experienced them himself.  He knew the pain of the secrecy, shame, humiliation, and depression that come from the experience of sexual abuse.   

     Richard had spent many years in psychotherapy but it was only with his therapist of the last six years that he truly experienced a transformation.  To this person he could tell the whole story.  This gave him the freedom to allude to the abuse in his first book of poetry, I CONFESS. 

     His first abuse occurred at the age of three at the hands of a schizophrenic uncle who lived with his family.  The uncle was soon institutionalized.  The second abuse proved more ongoing and harmful.  A couple who were close family friends, spent a great deal of time with the Sipe children, especially the troubled wife, and she formed a close bond with Richard.   During his preschool years and early elementary grades, her inappropriate behavior and lack of boundaries enabled her to sexually abuse him.  A third occurrence of abuse happened while on a Catholic Worker retreat in Rhode Island.  He was an idealistic skinny 17 year old and was assigned to share a bed with an older bulky ex-marine who was also on the retreat.  Richard awakened in the middle of the night with this man sexually assaulting him.  It was a violent, excruciating event.  Fourth, after entering the monastery, the novice master made a sexual overture to him. This surprised Richard and he pulled away with shock and disillusionment.

     In the movie, you noted Richard becomes very emotional telling two of our friends that our son had thanked his Dad for having him read his first book, A SECRET WORLD.  A male teacher at his high school had exhibited grooming behavior toward him. Our son recognized this and could take appropriate distance.  Richard felt he may have saved our son from becoming a victim of this predatory teacher.  Relief and gratitude overwhelmed him, and in the telling of this story so many years later, he could not hide his emotion. 

     Richard acknowledged that he had undergone profound psychic changes in the last years of his life which freed him.  He had just begun revealing his abuse but the issues that stop victims from coming forward affected him also.  Richard walked with the survivors every day of his life. He felt their unspeakable pain because it was also his pain.

      I feel I honor him by filling in that part of his life which he had not revealed publicly.  It can now be shared with those who loved and admired him and with the untold number whose lives he has touched in the present and will touch in the future.  His contributions are a gift to the world.