By Tim O’Neill
Speaking about the sexual abuse scandal that has rocked the Catholic Church this past summer, Leon Podles, author of Sacrilege: Sexual Abuse in the Catholic Church (2008), said, “It was nothing new to me. I had known about McCarrick myself for almost 20 years. I live in Baltimore, and a lot of the chancery there is—at least was—pretty much controlled by homosexuals. So it was nothing surprising to me.”
The pervasiveness of sexual abuse in the Catholic Church was not new to Richard Sipe either. Sipe, who died in August, was a former Benedictine monk, psychotherapist, and expert witness in cases involving clergy sexual abuse. Sipe and Podles met in 2002, not long after Podles was asked to serve on the board of directors of Bishop Accountability, a non-profit group which follows U.S. bishops who are accused of sexual abuse or of facilitating it. Sipe and Podles remained close friends until Sipe’s death.
A letter penned by Sipe and sent to San Diego Bishop Robert McElroy in July, 2016 became a central topic this summer. Sipe sent the letter to McElroy on the heels of two meetings he had with the bishop to discuss the sexual abuse crisis. In the letter, Sipe detailed sexual abuse within the church and listed allegations and cases involving clergy sexual abuse—among them, ex-Cardinal Theadore McCarrick.
Podles and Sipe spoke numerous times about McCarrick. According to Podles, “[Sipe] said he had five priests come to him who had been sexually molested by McCarrick and go in great length about molestation.” Podles continued, “Sipe told them, ‘Look,’ he said, ‘dumping on me accomplishes nothing. Go public!’ And they said, ‘We can’t. We will never work as a priest again if we go public.’ McCarrick has such protectors all over, all over the United States. All over the Vatican.” According to Podles, Sipe told him just before he died that there would be another cardinal just as bad as McCarrick who would soon be exposed. Sipe did not name the cardinal.
Sipe became a recurring topic at McElroy’s listening sessions this fall on the clergy sexual abuse crisis. The American Conservative published an email from a reader (with permission) that had attended a session. The reader remarked that when a question regarding Sipe was asked, McElroy seemed “happy” to answer it. The reader says, “…it was perhaps his longest answer of the night. His answer was more or less a smear of Sipe, painting his accusations as gossip and outlandish.”
McElroy explained that he and Sipe had met two times to discuss clergy sexual abuse. During their discussions, Sipe credited the acceleration of the sexual abuse crisis to three factors: 1. Celibacy, 2. The church’s refusal to ordain women, and 3. The fact that many bishops were not able to properly discipline abuser priests because they themselves were sexually comprised. McElroy said that “a lot of the conversation was about that third topic and it ranged in quality, and texture, and tone.”
On Sipe’s third point, Podles and Sipe were in agreement. Podles said, “Many, many bishops are compromised…It’s a tacit agreement. I don’t expose you, don’t expose me.”
In addition to the three points Sipe enumerated with McElroy, Podles said that “[Sipe] clearly saw homosexuality as part of the problem. But you know that if he had said that explicitly and publicly, he would have been discredited among a certain element…he told me he advised homosexuals who had sincere desire to be chaste not to enter the seminary he says its the worst possible environment for them that they would be seduced.”
Also discussed during one of two Sipe-McElroy meetings was a list of bishops in which Sipe opined as to their sexual orientation. According to McElroy, Sipe did so, not based on the specific actions of bishops, but instead, based on his questioning of priests in which he’d ask them their opinion on the bishop’s sexual orientation. In this same exchange, Sipe allegedly conjectured as to the sexual orientation of recent popes. McElroy said he “found this repugnant” and that the two “had some friction over it.”
About the list, Podles said, “Yeah, its conjecture. I mean it’s—well some of it’s certain like McCarrick certainly…Sipe knew about McCarrick … as did McElroy.”
Regarding Sipe’s letter, McElroy offered a timeline of events. After describing how Sipe had employed a process server posing as a major donor to deliver his letter to the bishop, McElroy said, “Then, I called him, and I said ‘Look, ya know, how can we have any trust in our conversation after this?’ He sent a process server, he lies, it’s notarized, you sent it to all these people in the world. So I said, ‘I’m not meeting with you any more.’” McElroy then described a second letter he had received from Sipe in which he had summarized the points made in his previous discussions with McElroy. The second letter, according to McElroy, was addressed to the papal nuncio and the Pontifical Commission in Rome for the the protection of children.
Sipe posted the letter (it is not clear if it is the first or second letter McElroy mentions) to his website accompanied by a brief caption in which he says, “This letter was sent to Bishop McElroy but [I] received no reply. Repeated phone calls to his office—left the message that copies would be made public, specifically delivered to the Papal Nuncio’s office in D.C. and to Rome for members of the Papal Commission for the Prevention of Abuse.” McElroy made no mention of Sipe’s phone calls or warnings that the letter would be sent to others.
When asked if Sipe had ever personally discussed the McElroy letter with him, Podles said, “He just mentioned that, you know, that he didn’t get any response.” Podles continued, “It’s difficult to know the exact sequence of events in the correspondence between Richard Sipe and McElroy. It’s difficult to tease out and not very relevant. The question is, why did McElroy not take all these allegations seriously?”
Summarizing his perspective on McElroy’s listening session remarks, Podles said, “Sipe can be a little bit difficult to deal with because Sipe had had many bad experiences with the bishops over the decades. Nonetheless, you don’t attack the messenger. You listen to the message, and decide about that, and investigate if necessary.
After receiving the second letter, McElroy alleges that he called Dr. Sipe: “Richard, I can’t tell what’s true and what’s not here, and I said, the nuncio’s not going to be able to look at this and tell what’s true or not and Rome isn’t going to tell what’s true or not. So if you have—he had said he had corroboration, because remember, he had worked on these cases as an expert witness. I believed he did probably have some corroboration, but I didn’t know for which ones. So I said, ‘If you have corroboration, send it to me ,or if you don’t trust me, send it to the nuncio, and if you don’t trust the nuncio, send it to the commission’…But, he never did anything about it…I encourage any of you who want to go look on his website, all of this stuff is there about how he labeled bishops and their orientation, the allegations against people, the allegations he makes against the pope. So you can see what a webbed reality that this letter was written like.
Responding to McElroy’s characterization of Sipe, Podles said, “It is true that Sipe held some unorthodox opinions; but he was an ethical researcher and would never misrepresent facts.” Podles expounded saying, “Sipe’s a psychologist and so therefore, he couldn’t…publicize what these people had told him in confidence. It would be a violation of professional ethics.”
When Podles was asked if McElroy’s treatment of Sipe in any way damaged Sipe’s credibility, he said, “Sipe was probably the one person in the whole world who knew about sexual abuse in the Catholic Church. No one. No one in the world knew more about it. Even if he wasn’t 100 percent right, he knew more than anybody else -– he knew more than McElroy or anyone at the Vatican. The fact is, is that no one is interested in talking to people who know things.”