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

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.


John Laurence Menadue is the publisher of Pearls & Irritations. He has had a distinguished career both in the private sector and in the Public Service.

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

  1. P.Boylan says:

    The Rome Clerical Sex Abuse Summit left the world with no illusions that the Vatican has and continues to protecting culpable priests with horrific consequences.
    Stephen, it seems it’s the apple orchard where the problem lies.
    Many of high-quality fruiting trees in the orchards are dead, and the apple selection is so grossly limited in quality and quantity. As Dr Christopher Geraghty explains in his article, ‘The Candidate’ on the selection for a Pope.
    ‘The relevant cohort of papal applicants is extremely restricted and warped.
    It’s a very limited field. We are not engaged here on a global search for the ideal candidate. Those who are not men, not celibate, not old, not members of the most exclusive club on earth are not suitable. Of course, married fishermen need not apply.”
    There’s no denying the fact that the system of coverup, engineered by the Holy See and those in a position of privileged, power and influence has left infertile soil hardly allowing for any quality apple orchards to survive. The pontifical secret infected the apple orchards with a global disease.
    On a serious note, it is the two facedness of the Popes which has enabled the Holy See to get away with gross violations of human rights and accountability. The beaming benevolence of Pope Francis on one side, against the clerical abuse of tens of thousands of children worldwide. Monstrous hypocrisy has been on display.
    The ‘Good News’ is that apple trees/orchards are fast growing but grow slow with age

    • You know I agree with this outline, P. Boylan. I like the orchard as opposed to the barrel analogy but I’ve gone too far with the latter now – it’s become part of my known imagery. Either way, I can’t emphasis enough that this issue definitely has those three different ’causes’ or elements all which need inclusion and deep analysis: the individual psychology of perpetrators; the sociological culture of growing and spreading normalisation, including that of covering up as a result of high levels of clergy sexual activity; and the magisterial, the rules and laws that need changing so as to bring about changes to the culture and direct action on perpetrators.

  2. The link to Sipe’s 11-point thesis is not working for some reason. Here is the correct one:

  3. Leong Ng says:

    The challenge is more than marriage and celibacy: it is getting more obvious that health matters parallel those of the ecclesiastical realm: some parishioners, like some health workers are vulnerable for no reason than theirs; some parishioners like some health workers are abused and suffer similar chronic consequences; the power of the clergy is the same as the power of college mandarins; those with conflicts of interest sit in church councils (also mosque and temple councils) and specialist colleges…the issue of institutional child abuse has been probed by a Royal Commissions world wide—but the abuses in healthcare are left concealed…..

  4. Ed Cory says:

    Stephen, the thesis you outline above is alarming reading, at least for anyone seeking the preservation of the church’s status quo. If the current central ‘command and control’ model of church power can’t get a better result than that, surely only reforms to both celibacy and clericalism will have any impact? If the offending is enabled by power imbalances, or a response to unmet basic sexual urges, changes must be made in both these areas.

    I would be interested to know whether you recognise sexual relations by male or female clergy that are not abusive? Is it always the case they are abusive? Is it possible for a priest, nun or brother to have a non-abusive sexual relationship, either within or outside the clerical setting?

    (Your link to Sipe would not work for me)

    • Ed, here’s the link to Sipe’s article again (
      I worry about when a theoretical/ideological approaches to human situations is said to be the only true one. The scientific approach and even common sense tells us that there would most likely be situations where clergy sexual activity with others is not abusive. Mind you such a context would need t have no power imbalance and little respect for or belief in the actual Church rules concerning celibacy/chastity on BOTH parties. Sipe estimated that at least 50% of clergy have rejected the mandatory celibacy but continue to live outwardly as ‘celibate’ clergy. I am just now writing a chapter for my PhD, listing all the possible scenarios of clergy sexual activity, a couple of which I just cannot believe are abusive, even though they may be against Church law. This is major issue with this topic. The proportion of people who believe that clergy sexual misconduct events are merely ‘consensual affairs’ is far too large when compared to the few contexts where that may be the case. For so many people this is definitely abuse, involving seduction/grooming, lies, clergy saying God is completely OK with it, older clergy telling new recruits they need to ‘prove their manhood before being able to join’, and sometimes outright aggressive rape, of adult women and men. I better leave it there. But, if you want to find out more please go here: . Cheers, Stephen

  5. John Doyle says:

    I believe that celibacy was based on property rights. The excuse that Christ was celibate is just that, an excuse. If celibacy was total there would be no descendents of priests and nuns to need or be eligible for support by the church. Up until the 11th Century married Popes were accepted. It’s a bit like primogeniture except there is no first born to claim church property. It would stay indivisible.

    • You know John, When I joined a religious order I had to do my Adult matric. I remember having an argument with one of the students, a very ‘alternative’ type, who told me this very thing – I’d never heard that before. (This was after i told him I had joined a religious order). I was incensed and so angry – “typical bloody ‘hippy’, I thought” (40 years ago). I went back to the monastery and told my Postulant master what he’d said (your statement). My postulant master said, “Yeah, it’s probably true”. He had no qualms about it, but he was happy to be celibate/chaste, regardless.

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