A. W. Richard Sipe, a psychotherapist and former Benedictine priest who became one of the country’s foremost experts on clergy sexual abuse, died Aug. 8 at his home in La Jolla, Calif.
The San Diego Union-Tribune reported the cause of death of the 85-year-old Sipe as multiple organ failure.
Sipe’s research into celibacy and priestly sexual behavior helped guide the work of church leaders and others studying, investigating and responding to the clergy sexual abuse crisis that emerged in 2002.
Born Walter Richard Sipe Dec. 22, 1932, he added the name Aquinas, after St. Thomas Aquinas, as a Benedictine monk in Collegeville, Minn.
His research into priestly celibacy emerged after his Benedictine superiors asked him to train for and research the mental health problems and stresses of priests. His interest in the topic rose upon hearing from abusive priests and their victims as a psychotherapist.
His research led to the publication in 1990 of “A Secret World: Sexuality and the Search for Celibacy,” a 25-year study (1960-1985) of the sexual behavior of Catholic clergy. Based on his findings, Sipe concluded that about 50 percent of U.S. priests practiced celibacy at any one time and that about six percent – a figure he later raised to nine percent – had sexually abused children.
He maintained that the two phenomena were connected, arguing that priests who failed to remain celibate led to hypocrisy and secrecy under which child sexual abuse could occur.
His conclusions irritated some within the church, who dismissed them as being based on anecdotal evidence rather than formal research.
Others, however, welcomed his work, which they said offered a warning to the U.S. church long before the sexual abuse crisis emerged.
Sipe consulted with the U.S. bishops until falling out of favor because of his critical comments on what he saw as a lack of action by the hierarchy to adequately respond to issues of abuse.
His conclusions about Catholic clergy remained controversial until his death. He also reiterated that a culture exists in the church that has prevented church leaders from adequately addressing the sexual abuse crisis and that it “produces, encourages, fosters and protects a certain element among its membership who abuse – often with impunity and rationalized as no real offense or a minor sin at most.”
Sipe left the priesthood in 1970 to marry Marianne Benkert, a former nun and fellow psychotherapist. They had a son, Walter, also a psychiatrist, whom Sipe leaves behind.