Report: Priests hit hard by hidden AIDS epidemic

January 31, 2000

KANSAS CITY, Missouri (AP) -- Roman Catholic priests in the United States are dying from AIDS-related illnesses at a rate four times higher than the general population and the cause is often concealed on their death certificates, The Kansas City Star reported in a series of stories that started Sunday.

In the first of a three-part series, the newspaper said death certificates and interviews with experts indicated several hundred priests have died of AIDS-related illnesses since the mid-1980s and hundreds more are living with HIV, the virus that causes the disease.

"I think this speaks to a failure on the part of the church," said Auxiliary Bishop Thomas Gumbleton of the Archdiocese of Detroit. "Gay priests and heterosexual priests didn't know how to handle their sexuality, their sexual drive. And so they would handle it in ways that were not healthy."

The Star received 801 responses to questionnaires that were sent last fall to 3,000 of the 46,000 priests in the United States. The margin of error of the survey was 3.5 percentage points.

Six of 10 priests responding said they knew of at least one priest who had died of an AIDS-related illness, and one-third knew a priest living with AIDS. Three-fourths said the church needed to provide more education to seminarians on sexual issues.

"How to be celibate and to be gay at the same time, and how to be celibate and heterosexual at the same time, that's what we were never really taught how to do. And that was a major failing," Gumbleton said.

Asked about their sexual orientation, 75 percent said they were heterosexual, 15 percent said they were homosexual, and 5 percent said they were bisexual.

The Rev. John Keenan, who runs Trinity House, an outpatient clinic in Chicago for priests, said he believes most priests with AIDS contracted the disease through same-sex relations. He said he treated one priest who had infected eight other priests.

The Star said precise numbers of priests who have died of AIDS or become infected with HIV is unknown, partly because many suffer in solitude. When priests tell their superiors, the cases generally are handled quietly.

The newspaper cited the case of Bishop Emerson Moore, who left the Archdiocese of New York in 1995 and went to Minnesota, where he died in a hospice of an AIDS-related illness. His death certificate attributed the death to "unknown natural causes" and listed his occupation as "laborer" in the manufacturing industry.

After an AIDS activist filed a complaint, officials changed the cause of death to "HIV-related illness," the Star said, but the occupation was not corrected.

The newspaper said the death rate among priests from AIDS appears to be at least four times that of the rate for the general U.S. population.
Some priests and behavioral experts believe the church has scared priests into silence by treating homosexual acts as an abomination and the breaking of celibacy vows as shameful, the Star said.

Catholic cardinals in the United States and high-ranking church officials in the Vatican declined requests to discuss the newspaper's findings, The Star reported. The Vatican referred questions to local bishops.

Bishop Raymond Boland of the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph said the AIDS deaths show that priests are human.

"Much as we would regret it, it shows that human nature is human nature," he said. "And all of us are heirs to all of the misfortunes that can be foisted upon the human race."

 

UPDATE November 2000

New Study Finds Catholic Priests Dying From AIDS at Higher Than Expected Rate

According to a study following a January report on Catholic priests dying of AIDS, the Kansas City Star has found that the AIDS-related death rate among priests "exceeds earlier estimates." The Star reported in a three-part series in January that "hundreds of priests had died of AIDS-related illnesses and that hundreds more were living with the virus that causes the disease."

Follow-up research, based on death certificates and interviews with family members, found an additional 300 AIDS-related priest deaths nationwide. However, researchers were unable to count AIDS-related deaths in the nearly two-thirds of states that do not disclose death records, and experts say that the "exact AIDS death toll among U.S. priests will never be known." In the 14 states that allowed the Star to access death records, the paper found that the AIDS-related death rate among priests was "more than double" the rate among all adult males in those states and more than six times the rate among the general population in those states. The Star reports that these rates "exceeded the estimates and projections reported earlier this year by the newspaper," and the follow-up investigation reveals that "there is no longer any question that hundreds of priests have died of AIDS and that many bishops were aware of their plights."

Mixed Response

The new study has sparked further controversy surrounding the relationship between priests, who are required to be celibate, and AIDS (Thomas, Kansas City Star, 11/4).

An op-ed to the Star by Rev. Patrick Rush, the vicar general of the Catholic Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph, states that the paper's conclusions "are not consistent with the experience of our local diocese: not the death rate, not the silence and not the denial." He added, "The Star's continued reporting on the subject of priests with AIDS sadly misses the point. Any death from HIV/AIDS is a tragedy. ... It is a problem for us all" (Rush, Kansas City Star, 11/6).

But advocates cite the report as evidence that the Catholic Church needs to further address the issue.

Eugene Kennedy, former priest and biographer of the late Cardinal Joseph Bernardin of Chicago, said, "The fact that you have priests having very active sexual lives, that you have priests contracting HIV and dying of AIDS and that they have refused to come to terms with this and tend to deny it, I don't see how you look at this and not say that these are symptoms of an unresolved sexual problem within the church."

Sister Mary Ann Walsh, spokesperson for the Conference of Bishops, said the church "had been active in dealing with the AIDS issue and that seminary formation programs today are doing a better job of educating priests about sexuality issues."

Examples of recent efforts to address sexual issues and AIDS within the church include:

The National Federation of Priests' Councils is "updating" a 93-page document about AIDS. It now provides direction on how dioceses and religious orders should "deal with" HIV-positive priests and whether priest candidates should be tested for HIV.

The National Conference of Catholic Bishops, originally one of the study's "harshest critics," is endorsing a "major study" to look at problems priests face in their first five years after ordination. Dean Hoge, the study's principal investigator, said that the topics of sexuality and celibacy will be addressed.

The Church of England revealed this year that at least 25% of its priests had died of AIDS-related illnesses, and in September mandated that all Anglican bishops in southern Africa undergo HIV testing.

Root of the Problem

Through interviews with priests, AIDS experts, doctors, psychologists and educators, the Star found a general consensus that more education and communication is needed to curb the "tragedy of priests dying of AIDS."

Rev. Thomas Reese, editor of America magazine, a national Jesuit publication, cited the biggest issue as the "silence surrounding ... gay priests." Reese said, "The silence highlights a tension in a church that defines homosexuality as 'intrinsically disordered' but relies on many gay men to celebrate the sacraments and carry out the work of the church."

Jon Fuller, a Jesuit priest and Boston physician who specializes in AIDS, lamented the fact that the Vatican discourages open discussions on sexuality, considers homosexual relations a sin and opposes "modern practice" of safe sex.

However, the church has not entirely ignored the AIDS epidemic and has served as a "major provider of AIDS services" in San Francisco, according to the Rev. Jim Mitulski, co-pastor of Metropolitan Community Church of San Francisco, a "predominantly gay congregation." Mitulski said, "It's compassion that comes with a price tag. ... The irony is, here's this institution that does have a heart for sick people, but at the same time, it's fostering a climate where HIV continues to be spread" (Kansas City Star, 11/4).

Kaiser Family Foundation


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