Knowledge of Sexual Activity and Abuse
Within the Clerical System
The Roman Catholic Church

1. The unique character of the clerical system:

2. Although Roman Catholics form the largest Christian denomination in the United States (63 million), the clerics who rule it form a relatively small group, in 2004, fewer than 45,000 priests and bishops (29,715 diocesan & 14,772 religious priests, i.e., those who belong to Orders such as Jesuits, Benedictines, Dominicans, etc.).

3. The Catholic Church is a hierarchical system, with a monarchical structure.

4. The Pope in Rome ultimately controls the structure and religious discipline of the organization. The Pope also appoints every bishop. But each bishop has autonomous control within his territory called a diocese. This ecclesiastical authority extends over Catholic priests, religious institutions, and lay people in his territory.

5. The clerical system of the Catholic Church is homosocial. Only celibate males can qualify for any ecclesiastical position of authority within the system.

6. All priests and bishops are required to be celibate: that is not married (1) and promised to "perfect and perpetual chastity." In practice this means no sexual activity with self or others.

7. The responsibility of the bishop is clear in regard to the celibacy of his clergy. Because celibacy is essential for ordination and priesthood a priest who is ordained or assigned to any parish or ministry in a diocese is de facto by a bishop's sponsorship certified sexually safe to the parishioners and the public.

8. Every priest is educated in a system that follows the same standardized required curriculum.

9. Every priest is required to take the same doctrinal oath.

10. There is no comparable system, religious or secular, whose hierarchical and homogeneous character is so closely bound with sex and power. This is a long-standing structural reality traceable in Church documents to 309 CE.

II. The Church's General Knowledge of Sexual Abuse of Minors by Clergy

11. Awareness of the problem of priests' and bishops' sexual activity is not a recent phenomenon. Historical church documents are consistent in their acknowledgement of the existence and extent of violations of celibacy and clerics that have sex with minors. It is clear that abuse has been a perennial problem and neither restricted to ancient history nor of recent origin. (Cf. Documents and regulations written and promulgated by the Vatican in 1662, 1714, 1890, 1962, & 2002)

12. Clearly, sexual abuse by clergy is neither simply a current aberration nor a passing phenomenon, but has deep systemic roots.

13. Every bishop, without exception, has known that sexual activity of a priest with a minor is a violation of the requirement of clerical celibacy.

14. A great deal is known within the clerical system about the sexual activity of other clerics. In 1976 I already had enough experience and evidence to estimate that 6% of Catholic priests involved themselves sexually with minors.

On the completion of a 25-year ethnographic study (1960-1985) I was confident of the validity of that estimate. When current studies are confined to priest population from that time period my 1976 baseline estimate is validated. The bishops' self-report released February 27, 2004 used a 50-year period to calculate priest population. Even the incomplete number of priest abusers noted by a January 12, 2003 New York Times survey demonstrates that the publicly reported number of priest abusers increased during the 1960s (256), 1970s (537), & the 1980s (510). Whereas in the 1950s and 1990s reports were lower (63 and 211respectively). Numbers of abusing priests will be a matter of dispute. But knowledge of sexual activity once secret, and still hidden, within the clerical system has become progressively more public over the last decade. The fact can not be denied that sexual abuse of minors by priests is a long-standing problem, pervasive and nation-wide. (A current record lists 2600 names of alleged priest/religious abusers.)

15. Bishops, priests, and lay Catholics are all subject to civil laws and authority in regard to sexual behavior. The bishop has the ultimate control over the appointment or discharge of priests and religious serving in his diocese and the staffs of Catholic schools. He is the primary employer and guarantor of the competency of the men and women in his employ.

16. No bishop can claim ignorance of the fact that sexual activity of an adult with a minor is and always has been illegal.

17. Bishops and religious superiors in the United States most commonly concealed the facts when they knew a priest abused a child or minor. This pattern and practice extended to parishioners, other priests, and most certainly, law enforcement. This practice is demonstrable at least from 1946 onward, the range of my experience and observation of the clerical system. The practice of neglecting violations has also been firmly in place. In my opinion this practice is not isolated or even created by American bishops, but has its origin and sponsorship from the Vatican.

18. As recently as May 20, 2002 a judge on the Roman Rota (highest Vatican court) wrote in a Vatican approved periodical that bishops should not report sexual violations to civil authorities lest the image and authority of the Church be compromised and victims harmed instead of being protected. (P. Gianfranco Ghirlanda, S.J.)

19. Equally demonstrable is the practice of transferring an offending priest from one parish to another, to another diocese or to a foreign country. I have been a consultant in dioceses where each of these activities is recorded. I have reviewed correspondence between bishops who exchanged offending priests, and I have seen other documents that make clear the acceptability and frequency of this practice among bishops.

20. The awareness of transferring offending priests was so well accepted that it could be a matter for open communication between all bishops. I have reviewed 1960s open letter from one bishop to all the American bishops asking if anyone was interested in giving ministerial employment to an offending priest who could not be reassigned in his own diocese.

21. I have also reviewed correspondence from this same period (1963) between the founder of the Servants of the Paraclete and a bishop, reminding the bishop of the serious civil consequences of a priest's sexual behavior with minors, beyond any spiritual damages.

22. I can trace the use of psychiatric hospitals to deal with sexually offending priests to 1936. The alliance between religion and psychiatry was firmly established by the 1950s. Specialized religious facilities to treat deviant priests, especially for alcoholism and sexual problems, also have their origins during this period of time.

23. I know from personal experience that many bishops and religious superiors were aware of sexual activity, including sexual activity with minors, by some of their priests in the 1950s and 1960s.

24. I am aware from my training and the personal experience of my mentors that knowledge of substantial amounts of clergy sexual activity was well established in the 1930s.

III. The Communication about Sexual Activity within the Clerical System

25. A clear pattern of self-revelation even about sexual ideas, temptations, and behavior is advised and practiced within the clerical system. Primary modes of self-disclosure are sacramental confession, manifestation of conscience, spiritual direction, counseling, and communication between a cleric and his bishop/superior and with other priests. Bishops and Superiors are forbidden to be confessors to their subjects because of a conflict of interest. Their knowledge of sexual abuse may be confidential, but it is not privileged.

26. Only material shared by a penitent in sacramental confession strictly binds a confessor to absolute secrecy. The penitent is not bound to keep secret what he shared during the exchange. In fact, the penitent can be instructed as part of his penance to "make restitution," that is to take certain actions to remedy or mend his offence.

27. All of these avenues can and do provide pathways to the specific knowledge of a priest's sexual actions and proclivities in addition to a general awareness of sex within the clerical system.

28. Secrecy is an unwritten but strict code within the clerical system. The clerical system extends its prerogative of sacramental confessional confidentiality beyond law or reason to include any material it wishes to keep secret to preserve its image and at times for its convenience. A bishop responded, "I only lie when I have to" when chided by a priest for denying abuse that the bishop knew about, That modus operendi and rationalization is common. The motivation to save the reputation of the church and the priesthood from scandal has been paramount since the Protestant Reformation. Caution about scandal is frequent in canon law. The dictum "not to give scandal" is impressed upon students in Catholic education as early as the first grade.

29. Cardinals make a vow to the Pope to keep secret anything confided to them that if revealed would cause harm or dishonor to the church. ["I vow…not to reveal to anyone what is confided to me in secret, nor to divulge what may bring harm or dishonor to Holy Church"] That promise of secrecy forms a template within the clerical system to keep internal scandalous behavior under wraps, "for the good of the Church."

30. Despite that, highly placed Vatican and church officials have confirmed knowledge of sexual activity by priests. Cardinal Franjo Seper said in 1971, "I am not at all optimistic that celibacy is in fact being observed." Cardinal Jose Sanchez, head of the Vatican Congregation for the Clergy said, in 1993, when he was confronted with documents stating that between 45% and 50% of priests do not in fact practice celibacy, "I have no reason to doubt the validity of those figures." The former Provincial of the Dominican Order said in 2003 that the practice of celibacy had "collapsed" in the United States among other places.

31. There is a wide spread and profound knowledge of sexual activity by Catholic priests within the clerical system. This includes knowledge of sexual abuse of minors.

IV. Knowledge of Clergy Sexual Activity through Suspicion/ Rumor/ Complaint/ Report

32. Sexual violations by their nature are difficult to substantiate because the actions are most commonly executed without a third party observer. The means of determining the facts of an allegation or the truth of denial are usually derivative rather than direct. Priests who abuse frequently instruct or threaten their victims to keep silent. Those threats include warnings that the young person will go to hell, or he, she or parents will be harmed if the abuse is not kept secret. Other means of insuring secrecy is by connecting the abuse with a religious ritual. For instance the abuse takes place in church, or before or after Mass while the priest is still in his vestments, or forcing the youngster to make a sacramental confession. Records exist of a priest anointing his victims with a sign of the cross, using his own semen.

33. It is incumbent upon a bishop or religious superior, each of who has the responsibility of the oversight of the celibate observance of his priests, to be alert and investigate all suspicions, rumors, complaints and reports of celibate violations. If personal investigation by the superior is not feasible, he must have a reliable system of discerning and monitoring the celibate practice of his priests.

34. For instance, even a suspicion of sexual abuse is the guideline established for physicians and health workers to protect minors. Suspicion is sufficient to trigger a report of sexual abuse to social agencies or civil authorities.

35. Denial and rationalization of sexual activity by priests and bishops is deeply engrained and institutionalized within the secret clerical system. These defenses result largely because sexual activities of various sorts are so common within the community of bishops and priests, not because they are rare phenomena.

36. Most of the sexual activity of priests and bishops is not contrary to the civil laws, namely, masturbation, cross gender dressing, viewing some pornographic materials, etc. and non-harassing consensual sexual activity with adult women and men who are free of any power differential or psychic vulnerability,

37. Bishops and priests are motivated to keep their own sexual activity secret, or try at least restrict knowledge to as few confidants as possible. The protective shroud of secrecy that shields them is threatened if they are too active in examining and exposing the behaviors of others.

38. Additionally, a significant proportion of priests introduces candidates for the priesthood to sex. In my experience and studies 10% of priests report that they had some sexual contact with a priest or fellow seminarian in the course of their studies. This is a prominent fact in the histories of priests who abuse minors. This activity also forms a basis for a network of priests sexually aware of each other's personal sexual proclivities, behaviors and past activity. This forms a formal and informal tangle of possible blackmail. I have seen that very word used in correspondence between a bishop and the Vatican.

39. Broad based sexual activity within the celibate system surrounds and protects priests who do abuse minors. It motivates other priests who clearly suspect abusers of their activity from responding to obvious signs, symptoms, red flags, and taking reasonable action and reporting the behavior. They fear their own sexual lives, albeit not illegal, will be exposed.

40. Suspicion by some responsible person can be traced in nearly every case of minor sexual abuse by a priest. Rumors are common in most cases.

41. Rumors, hearsay, about abusing priests are common and a valid source of information and an important means of child protection if respected and adequately investigated. Rumors form a valid alert to danger and are frequently the most powerful indication to the Church officials of abuse. The source of these rumors often are grounded in the fact of abuse that can be shared by the victim only with one of his or her equally powerless friends or family members. At times it is as subtle as the abused telling friends or classmates to "watch out for him." Sometimes a minor who resists a sexual proposition by a priest, and tells others, "Father is a fag" starts the chain of exposure. Knowledge by rumor can be widespread and available for investigation within the clerical community for decades.

42. Bishops and superiors most frequently irresponsibly and negligently dismiss rumors without reasonable investigation. Bishops, many of who also fear exposure of their own sexual activities have continued to exclude themselves from oversight in the directives they instituted in 2002 to deal with the problem of abuse by priests and other church employees.

43. The minor or his or her parents most commonly make complaints of sexual abuse by a priest to another priest, pastor, nun, or teacher. These complaints are delivered almost invariably and immediately to the chancery office, many times to the bishop via the chancellor, but often directly to the bishop. The most commonly quoted response from bishops to such a report is, "I'll take care of it." Responses to reports were clearly directed at damage control and avoiding scandal. To protect the Church from scandal is seen as a primary and overriding responsibility of a bishop. Abusing priests were treated as outlined above. Victims were neglected, ignored, intimidated, cajoled into silence, "for the good of the church," denigrated and even blamed for the activity.

44. Only in very recent times have victims of abuse been treated with respect and credence. These shifts in church response have been in reaction to public knowledge and outrage largely lead by activist victims, the press, and the pressure of courts and the law.

45. There is no evidence that moral leadership within the clerical community has spearheaded any of the current reviews of clerical behaviors. In fact, overwhelming evidence exists about past and present church resistance and obstruction of legitimate investigation of illegal and destructive activity by clergy. The major reason for interference and this lack of leadership is the fear of exposing the extent of sexual activity within the clerical system. This prevails over and above the scandal of sexual abuse of minors. The Grand juries empanelled so far in 12 jurisdictions and the reports from four of them, clearly expose a pattern of neglecting investigation, supervision, discipline, and reporting abusing priests to legitimate civil authority. Collusion to intimidate victims and conspiracy to conceal abuse is also prominent in the reports. In the judgment of all four reports so far made public. Reports conclude that Church authorities themselves are not capable of dealing with the problem of sexual abuse of minors by their clergy.

V. The Profound and Lasting Effects of Sexual Abuse by Clergy

46. There is undeniable evidence that the sexual abuse of a minor by a priest or bishop has dire consequences physically, emotionally, economically and spiritually on many victims. My own experience working with victims of clergy abuse for over 40 years accords with the studies of David Finkelhor (1979; 1990) and those conducted at Johns Hopkins Medical School (1997).

47. Abuse victims manifest a greater propensity than comparable patients for physical illness and complications from physical trauma. Alcohol, drug use, sexual promiscuity, and their addictions are common modes of self-medication for victims of abuse. Depression, anxiety, diminished self-confidence and esteem, interference with relationships, deprivation of educational opportunities, even incarcerations and suicides can be traced to the profound and long-lasting impairment inflicted on victims by abuse.

48. When a priest inflicts abuse the consequences are exacerbated because of the individual, familial, and social esteem in which a "representative of God" and the church is held.

49. Church authority and priests have been dedicated to preserve the image of the priesthood before the public and in the minds of the faithful since it is a fundamental source of power. That image is defined in the Catechism of the Council of Trent. "Bishops and priests being, as they are, God's interpreters and ambassadors, empowered in His name to teach mankind the divine law and the rules of conduct, and holding, as they do, His place on earth, it is evident that no nobler function than theirs can be imagined. Justly, therefore, are they called not only angels, but even gods, because of the fact that they exercise in our midst the power and prerogatives of the immortal God."

50. Betrayal by an authority that is believed to hold divine power is hardly able to be absorbed by the believer and is psychically overpowering to a developing youngster. The resultant loss of faith and attendant trauma can be and often is devastating in terms of inhibition and damage to all future relationships. (3)

51. When personal sexual betrayal is coupled with institutional neglect, denial, attack, conspiracy to hide abuse, protection of the abuser, and self justification, immeasurable harm is inflicted on the victims, their families, the church community and society at large. That damage is almost irreparable.

52. The Catholic Church is noted for maintaining documents and keeping meticulous records and files. The truth that can support the victims' allegations and reveal guilt, negligence, and conspiracy to conceal evidence can most frequently be found in Church files. This is my experience from many dioceses in the United States and my participation in and review of Grand jury investigations.

53. The Church has been extremely resistant to divulge files even when subpoenas are served in criminal or civil law cases.

54. In spite of the church's regard for the preservation of documents, I have interviewed a person who was hired as a personal assistant to an archbishop (Atlanta, 1988). One of his duties was specifically to "cleanse" the personnel files of priests. That meant to destroy some, secrete others in separate files or the Secret Archives of the archdiocese. I also interviewed a priest, abused as a young seminarian, who was investigating the trail of his own priest abuser. When he went to the chancery office of another large archdiocese (NY) secretaries there told him that some files had been cleaned out. A bishop recently appointed reassured the priests of his diocese that they were all starting with a clean slate; the old files had been removed. It is well known that Bishop James Quinn addressed all the American bishops (c 1991) with instructions on procedures to secrete documents in the office of the Apostolic Nunciature in Washington DC, where they would be protected by diplomatic immunity.

55. External oversight, the self-reports, and mechanisms established by the bishops in their 2002 Dallas meeting to regulate abusing priests has impacted but not overturned Institutional secrecy. Church authority generally maintains its reluctance to cooperate with legitimate civil authority in its investigation of abuse and those ultimately responsible for abuse. Attorneys General and District Attorneys from several jurisdictions (4) have given me examples of this behavior. The clerical culture is still largely resistant to the degree of accountability and transparency needed to assure victims and society at large that they are safe from sexual abuse by priests.

56. Father Stephen Rossetti, a priest-psychologist prominent in the treatment of sexually offending priests at St. Luke Institute, told some victims of Fr.

James Porter, "the church will not change until it is threatened with bankruptcy." He made that statement in response to their question, "what will it take for the church to change?"

57. Courts are not able to impose that kind of penalty for sexual crimes. It does, however, have the power to exert sufficient financial pressure to compensate victims sufficiently to impact the offending institution and to spur a more responsive program for reform of illegal behavior.

A.W.Richard Sipe
2825 Ridgegate Row
LaJolla, CA 92037
February 1, 2004

(1) There are exceptions. Priests of the Uniate rites affiliated with Rome may be married. Married Anglican or Lutheran Ministers who convert to Catholicism may remain married and yet ordained.

(2) C.f. Declaration on Pastoral Privilege March 2003

(3) C.f. Declaration on Abuse by Clergy & Loss of Faith December 2002

(4) Pius V, Const. Cum Primum, 1561. Fontes, Vol. I

close window