Celibacy expert says Wehmeyer was giving 'danger signals'

Curtis Carl Wehmeyer
The Rev. Curtis Carl Wehmeyer, now in prison in St. Cloud.
Minnesota Department of Corrections

Anyone in a position of authority in the Roman Catholic Church should have been able to see "red flags" in the behavior of the Rev. Curtis Wehmeyer, a priest now in prison on charges of child pornography and child sexual abuse, says a former priest who now works as a counselor in the field.

Wehmeyer served for years in parish positions in the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis, even as a series of allegations suggested that he was cruising for anonymous sex, propositioning strangers and spending unsupervised time with young boys.

"These are red flags," said Richard Sipe in an interview with Morning Edition. "These are danger signals," he said, that should have portrayed Wehmeyer as "compulsive and having a hard time controlling himself, as was very clear to the bishop and to the priests — some of the priests, certainly, in authority in St. Paul."

Sipe, a former priest and professor at St. John's University in Collegeville, Minn., is now a clinical mental health counselor in California. He has spent years researching celibacy and mental health among Roman Catholic priests.

He said the outlines of the Wehmeyer story are familiar, "and that's the problem. Sexual behavior by priests and bishops is very, very common.

"Now, most of it is not illegal. It might be hypocritical, and certainly at times it is abusive, with women or with men, but many times it is consensual. Many times it's activity that many men have. But it should not be in the priesthood."

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Host Cathy Wurzer asked about research into whether priests have difficulty remaining celibate. Sipe cited two studies, one of them a survey in which priests in South Africa reported on their own sexual behavior. That survey suggested that fewer than half of priests "were sexually abstinent over a period of two years."

"Those studies clearly point out what the other, earlier studies have pointed out: that priests have a very difficult time practicing celibacy," he said. "Only 2 percent of priests practice perfect and perpetual celibacy, chastity, that is required before they are ordained."

Sipe said the Wehmeyer case was "a very sad, sad story ... because it's an old story. This isn't a new story. This is what's gone on, and what we've been fighting, for the last 30 years, quite publicly. Yes, these were indicators of trouble, because sexual immaturity seeks sexually immature behavior. And there's no question that the evidence that Wehmeyer gave was sexual immaturity."

Read MPR News' special report on the Wehmeyer case, "Archdiocese knew of priest's sexual misbehavior, yet kept him in ministry."