Chris McDonnell: in appreciation of Richard Sipe

When honesty comes at a price

Chris McDonnell 

We happen to live in a time when honesty is lacking. Maybe that has always been the case but in our own time through a wide variety of social media, dishonesty has had a new airing. Being ‘economical with the truth’ has a long political history, going back to Edmund Burke

In the mid-80s, when Peter Wright published his book ‘Spycatcher, the then-UK cabinet secretary, Robert Armstrong used the phrase again and it gained credence as a euphemism for telling a known lie.

Political economy with the truth is with us, both in the manner in which the current White House occupant conducts his business day after day and, sad to say, in our own political climate where transparency is at a premium. Trust and understanding of honesty are not only of value in the present tense but contribute long term to the legacy we leave to future generations. In his play ‘All’s well that ends well’ Shakespeare has Marianna say thatNo legacy is so rich as honesty”.

So much for the public forum.

Richard Sipe died earlier this month in La Jolla , California.  And why should his name get a mention here in a discussion about honesty? Because he was an honest man who tried to shine a torch into dark places. Ordained as a Benedictine monk, he left after eighteen years a priest and as a qualified psychotherapist began his life’s work of examining issues surrounding abuse and celibacy in the Church.

He did so fearlessly, not in an antagonistic spirit, but one of seeking truth based on carefully gathered data and his vast experience. Over the years he amassed documentation from both perpetrators and victims of abuse. What he found time and again, was a cover-up, a desire to hide facts  ‘for the good name of the Church’. It was the detailed background information that Sipe was able to provide the ‘Spotlight’ reporters of the Boston Globe that broke open the deep scandal affecting the Boston Diocese under the guidance of its then archbishop, Cardinal Bernard Law. The recent film of the same name won high acclaim for telling the story.

Time and again, Richard Sipe tried to get the US hierarchy to listen to the evidential data he had collected, urging them to take action. But to no avail. Long before the current case of the retired Archbishop of Washington DC, Cardinal McCarrick was finally publicly acknowledged and his resignation from the College of Cardinals accepted by Francis, Sipe had raised the issue based on the documented evidence he had of sexual misbehaviour. But nothing was done.

As with Watergate, the cover-up by those in authority allowed an unacceptable pattern of behaviour to continue un-checked, those whose actions caused such pain remained unchallenged. The cover-up became part of the story.

And Boston was not alone. Across the US, a similar pattern of protecting criminal practice occurred in other Dioceses, with the silence of victims bought time and again with Diocesan funds and legal agreements of confidentiality. Beyond the US, it is apparent that similar behaviour has occurred, both in the UK and in many countries of Europe, South America, Australia and elsewhere.

Who is to blame? That is a net that must be cast far and wide. Certainly the individuals directly concerned, but then also those in authority who knew what was going on and did nothing to interrupt the cycle of damage. Maybe too we should include the laity whose implicit trust in the authority figures in the Church led them to act without question and show disbelief for the stories as they began to emerge.

We cannot continue in this way. Bishops and others have no right to exercise their pastoral role in such an authoritarian manner, they must listen to and work with the laity, especially when the laity have professional expertise that they themselves lack.

Richard Sipe had such expert knowledge and experience, he spoke and wrote from an evidential base that was sound and secure, offering a professional service to the Church that few were willing to accept. His actions came at a personal price, the rejection of his honesty hurt, but he was persistent.

Only two years prior to his death, in July 2016, he sent a long and detailed letter to an American, Bishop McElroy. This is not the place to paraphrase the discussion, it is publicly available on the Net. His words show clearly the depth and extent of the problem.

That is why the charge of being ‘economical with the truth’damages the credibility of the Church and so diminishes all of us.

Dishonesty has only one legacy, a tainted view of the whole story and a trail of broken, damaged people who walked the Journey of Faith together.

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One Comment

  1. Jane Ireland says:

    I used to work in retail. I was very lucky that honesty was valued. Quite a large percentage of the staff were gay. Many where in management. They did not prey on the younger men or give gay men preference for promotion. At staff meetings we could speak out minds. If I were to say that we had a problem in a depot they were grateful for the information. There were 700 of us and one of two unusual personalities, but no-one was cruel to them. We were very accepting and we all got on. We knew that all people were different and that people made mistakes and the system didn’t always work. In a way we were all looking for anything that could prevent the smooth running of the firm. One day security came in and removed a whole section…credit card fraud. They knew that sooner or later it would happen and they were ready for it.
    The church likes to think it is perfect always and everywhere. If anyone suggests otherwise they are punished.
    I have read a lot of Richard Sipes work and greatly admire him. I also admire
    Tom Doyle
    Marie Collins
    Mary Raftery
    This refusal to face reality and tell the truth will destroy the church. It is about time the powers that be come face to face with devil within

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