Two years before long-standing rumors about Cardinal Theodore McCarrick leapt into headlines worldwide, America's most outspoken activist on clergy sexual abuse, Richard Sipe, met with his local bishop -- San Diego Bishop Robert McElroy.
"It was clear to me during our last meeting in your office, although cordial, that you had no interest in any further personal contact," wrote the now-late Sipe, a former Benedictine priest who then worked for the Seton Psychiatric Institute in Baltimore. While church officials asked him to report to McElroy, "your office made it clear that you have no time in your schedule either now or 'in the foreseeable future' to have the meeting that they suggested."
Sipe's 2016 letter to the San Diego bishop was later posted online and is frequently cited as an example of the bishop ignoring warnings about the now-defrocked McCarrick, who often boasted about his clout as a Vatican kingmaker. Now it will receive more attention because Pope Francis has named McElroy to the Sacred College of Cardinals. This promotes the San Diego bishop over several prominent archbishops -- including Los Angeles Archbishop Jose Gomez, who leads America's largest Catholic archdiocese and is president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.
In his hand-delivered report, Sipe told McElroy that his ongoing research indicated that 6% of American priests were guilty of sex with minors. Meanwhile, a "systemic" trend was clear: "At any one time no more than 50% of priests are practicing celibacy."
As for the powerful McCarrick, Sipe noted: "I have interviewed 12 seminarians and priests who attest to propositions, harassment, or sex with McCarrick, who has stated, 'I do not like to sleep alone.'"
Debates about McElroy's elevation have focused on other divisive issues in Catholic life, although decades of sexual abuse crimes loom in the background. He has, for example, supported the ordination of women to the diaconate, allowing them to preach, perform weddings and serve -- one step from the priesthood -- at Catholic altars.
McElroy has openly clashed with American bishops anxious to address "Eucharistic coherence" as prominent Catholics, especially President Joe Biden and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, support -- with words and deeds -- abortion and LGBTQ rights.
It was McElroy who told an online 2021 Georgetown University forum: "I do not see how depriving the president or other political leaders of Eucharist based on their public policy stance can be interpreted in our society as anything other than the weaponization of Eucharist and an effort not to convince people by argument and by dialogue and by reason, but, rather, to pummel them into submission on the issue."
In that context, McElroy's elevation sends a "strong message to the US hierarchy," tweeted Christopher Lamb, Vatican correspondent for The Tablet. And it's important, he added, that McElroy has "called for a more welcoming stance to LGBT Catholics saying, 'what we need to project in the life of the church is 'You are part of us and we are part of you.'"
Papal adviser Father Antonio Spadaro also said giving McElroy a red hat was "a strong and clear message for the Church in the United States," noted J.D. Flynn of The Pillar. Catholics will now ponder the meaning of that message from Rome.
In terms of strategy on abortion, in 2019 McElroy told U.S. bishops that their efforts to focus on "abortion as a preeminent priority -- the killing of nearly a million unborn children each year -- was 'discordant with the pope's teaching, if not inconsistent,'" Flynn noted. On this and other divisive issues, the "cardinal-elect is not aligned with most American bishops ... and has seemed entirely undisturbed by that."
As a man of the left, Sipe agreed with McElroy on many, if not most, concerns in modern Catholicism. However, he confronted his bishop because he believed the sexual abuse crisis is a problem that transcends left-right arguments.
Thus, after 12 pages of text and footnotes, Sipe concluded: "I have tried to help the Church understand and heal the wounds of sexual abuse by clergy. My services have not been welcomed.
"My appeal to you has been for pastoral attention to victims of abuse and the long-term consequences of that violation. This includes the effects of suicidal attempts. Only a bishop can minister to these wounds."
Terry Mattingly leads GetReligion.org and lives in Oak Ridge, Tenn. He is a senior fellow at the Overby Center at the University of Mississippi.