STEPHEN de WEGER. Clerical sexual abuse of adults. Another blind spot.

Mar 1, 2019

In 2013, after working as a research assistant project into clergy sexual abuse of children, I decided to undertake an exploratory study into clergy sexual misconduct against adults. During this study I came across what I believe should be a strategic document regarding the understanding of the clergy sexual abuse crisis we are witnessing right now – Sipe’s 11-point thesis. (The late Dr Richard Sipe was a note US psychotherapist and acknowledged expert in the psychosexuality of Catholic clerics).

Dr Richard Sipe’s document along with others, have made me realise that the issue of clergy sexual abuse must be holistically confronted. We need to view this issue from three angles: the psychological – the individual (deviant) cleric; the social – clericalism & a culture of general clergy sexual activity and rubbery concepts of celibacy/chastity; & the magisterial – Church teachings and canon law. All protection policies need these ‘three’ legs before they will be able to standup. Think of it as a ‘bad apple’ + ‘bad apple barrel’ + ‘bad apple barrel makers’ approach.

However, it is arguably the ‘apple barrel’ that maybe the most important element at the moment. With the Cardinal  McCarrick case  in the US and stories of the abuse of nuns, these cultures can and are now being revealed to be a toxin barbed into the very essence of the clergy sexual abuse horror we are now witnessing. So much of the apple barrel content has gone bad in spite of the old saying. However, it must be remembered that the rot emanated from not just the ‘bad apples’ or individual abusers, but also from the barrel makers, magisterial/hierarchical law and teaching.

To explain: If an act of sexual abuse by a cleric occurs and is discovered, this is called primary deviance. However, it is only if/when the clergy community turn a blind eye to such first-time activity, that primary deviance soon turns into more serious secondary deviance and recidivism. This then also leads to normalisation. Most troublingly, what facilitates this normalisation is the pre-existence of a culture of rubbery celibacy/chastity and general hetero and homosexual activity needed to be kept secret. But does this activity exist?

One unexpected conclusion of the 2004 John Jay Report, a US Catholic study into the sexual abuse of minors by clerics (p. 258), was that “clerics are more likely to engage in sexual misconduct with adults than minors”. Sipe estimated that “four times as many priests involve themselves sexually with adult women, and twice the number with adult men, as priests who involve themselves sexually with children”. In particular, his estimate that at any one time only 50% of clergy believe and try to live celibacy/chastity was a major shock to me. The other 50% have given up on the idea. Furthermore, of the 50% that believe in celibacy, few make it through their lives without having some form of sexual activity with another person, male, female or even child. These claims were such a shock that I contacted Richard for clarification.

Sipe confirmed to me that he believed that only around 4% of clergy have never been sexually active with anyone throughout their lifetime as clergy. He said that while his definition of clergy celibacy/chastity was the Church’s one which included masturbation, he still stood by his 50% estimate at least, one backed up by others including in the Vatican.

My research question for my first study then became: “What happened/s to all the other people caught up in clergy sexual activity and can that activity be defined as abusive”. As to the latter half of the question, it became clear to me that clergy sexual misconduct against adults produces serious harm. However, in order to actually claim this, definitions of such activity, and, a deeper understanding of the power/vulnerability nexus was needed. As to what happens to victims/survivors, the answer is, we simply do not know, partly because no one has bothered to ask them, or no one is concerned about them. In my own study which included male victims/survivors, it soon became apparent that I was exploring the next major wave of scandal to hit the Church. Conversations with both Richard Sipe and Tom Doyle confirmed this. And then came Cardinal-now-Mr McCarrick and stories of abuses of nuns.

Given such stories it has become clear that there were/are sexual cultures within the Catholic clergy exactly as Sipe’s 11-point thesis has outlined. These cultures include clergy that promote those who go along with that culture and who block those that don’t. It also includes evidence of the how knowledge of other clergy’s sexual activity results in cover up and inaction, even of child sexual abuse.

When 50% of an organistion’s population have absorbed and normalised a specific deviant behaviour, it must and can easily cover up or neutralise any possible exposure of that behaviour, often just by denying it and having the 50% confirm that. However, the more troubling outcome of this denial culture, is that a deviant cleric can use that culture as well as their knowledge of the broader sexual activity of clergy and Bishops, to force them to turn a blind eye to their own. Both lead to serious recidivism and the horrific culture of clergy being transplanted into other ‘feeding’ paddocks.

A celibate priesthood is the core of the Catholic Church’s power. So, the topic of my current research is now: “If the Church tries to neutralise exposure of adult clergy sexual misconduct, how do they do it?”

In order to answer this very vital but unresearched question, I am currently seeking participants to tell me their experiences of self-reporting clergy sexual misconduct. Fir this project, the misconduct needs to have happened to them when they were 18 years old or over. I need people to be brave and tell their stories. So far, the response rate has not been good. I know there are many reasons for this. However, as occurred in the Royal Commission, it is not until victims/survivors tell their story, that things can start to change for the better. All material will be kept totally anonymous. For further information and if you want to participate, please contact me at or through my website

Stephen de Weger is a PhD candidate and sessional academic at QUT, Brisbane.

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