The Media
Special Report:
Perilous choice to ignore AIDS issue
National Catholic Reporter

March 31, 2000 - A firestorm of reaction has followed a Kansas City Star series on priests with AIDS, published in the Missouri paper Jan. 30, 31 and Feb. 1 Sr. Mary Ann Walsh, associate director of communications for the U.S. Catholic Conference and a spokesperson for the American bishops, attacked the series, the Star, the Associated Press and Knight Ridder with scathing criticism in the Feb. 14 issue of Editor & Publisher, a weekly journalism and trade magazine. She chided the Star for exposing the AIDS death of a Catholic college president, as if exposé was the aim of the series. In fact, the Star had documentation of the AIDS death of another Catholic college president, which they chose not to publish, presumably to avoid sensationalism.

The ever-vigilant Catholic League named the Star a “Catholic basher.” The Catholic League took credit for “taking the sting out of” the series and stated that the Star was being “swamped by criticism.”

Already on Feb. 4 the Catholic League claimed that notable statisticians had “discredited” the results of the Star’s survey of 3,000 priests, which appeared in the series. They cite as their authority S. Robert Lichter who, not coincidentally, had previously been hired by the Catholic League to produce a study that analyzed media coverage of the Catholic church.

Lichter runs three Web sites: Newswatch; Center for Media and Public Affairs; and STATS. What first appears to be four separate entities criticizing the series is in fact a consortium of information sources and interests, not independent, objective sources.

The Catholic Register accused reporter Judy Thomas of collaborating with NCR in producing her series and retracing interviews that had previously been published.

Many diocesan papers have published editorials and official statements about the series; some expanded their coverage to defend seminary training, the quality of sex education in the seminary and the leadership of the church in sponsoring AIDS hospice care.

Why the furor?

Already on Dec. 12, 1986, NCR ran a substantial story about the AIDS death of a priest and spoke of “a dozen cases” within the clergy. That story quoted a Hawaiian physician who said, “There are an awful lot of men in that profession [clergy] who test positive for the AIDS antibody.”

In 1987 NCR ran a piece about the gospel response to AIDS (Dec. 25). Pamela Schaeffer updated the NCR coverage of priests with AIDS in the April 18, 1997, issue and estimated that 100 priests had already died and several hundred more were infected with the virus.

NCR was one of the few Catholic papers to address the problem of priests with AIDS, but the secular media has also dealt with the issue for some time.

The Village Voice for Feb. 10, 1987, noted more than a dozen confirmed cases of priests with AIDS and cited the relationship of the virus to homosexual behavior. They referred to the October 1986 Vatican letter that identified homosexuality as “an objective disorder” and homosexual orientation a condition “ordered toward an intrinsic moral evil.”

David Firestone, writing for the New York Post, found a dozen priests with AIDS in New York after he was told by the chancery in 1989 that they knew of no cases. The Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Jacqui Banaszynski reported in a Feb. 8, 1987, St. Paul Pioneer Press article on priests with AIDS: “The incidence of AIDS among priests seems to be almost four times higher than among the general population.” She also quoted priests who acknowledged that clergy were not instructed in safe sex procedures, either in the seminary or after.

Fr. Donald Cozzens, a seminary rector, commenting on the current status of the priesthood, does not hesitate to acknowledge that a large proportion (perhaps over 50 percent) of American priests are homosexual in orientation.

The Star series raised a level of attention and wrath not engendered by any of the earlier articles either individually or collectively.


The Star series was based on interviews, over a seven-year period, of priests with AIDS; families and friends of priests who died of AIDS; experts in HIV/AIDS research, training and treatment; and documentation including death certificates; and a sample survey sent to 3,000 randomly selected priests. Critics have zeroed in on the survey as if the piece stands or falls on its methodology and results. The sophistication, or lack thereof, of the Star survey is not a major consideration. The deaths of several hundred priests from AIDS can be documented.

Twenty priest deaths would be sufficient to establish a ratio of HIV infection greater than that of the armed services – 2 per 10,000 – in a group of males of somewhat similar ages.

Thomas’ series did more than venture a conclusion on the basis of the survey. In effect, the author posed some important questions. Do priests contract HIV/AIDS? If so, how many? In what proportion to others in the population? What is the experience of a priest with HIV/AIDS? How is he treated by his diocese or by his community? His family, friends? Lay people? Does the rate of infection among clergy have any relationship to the lifestyle or requirements of the priesthood? Does the number of homosexually oriented priests influence the kind of sex education priests and seminarians receive? Are priests instructed about safe sexual practice? And finally, does the church’s understanding of homosexuality prevent or foster the transmission of the HIV/AIDS among the clergy?

These are the real land mine questions that lie beneath any responsible treatment of the subject of AIDS in the priesthood. The Star series raises all of these questions, all linked to sexual issues that remain controversial in church circles. If ignored, they can result in peril to priests and lay persons alike.

In 1995, a priest with AIDS asked me to write his story. I had hesitated to speak about priests with AIDS until that project was complete because I want to set his story in the surest possible context, one that avoids any misunderstanding or aura of sensation. But the church’s response to the Star series commands attention.

Fr. James Graham was probably the first full-time diocesan director of an AIDS ministry in this country. He founded a hospice for the poorest of the poor AIDS patients. In 1989 he was appointed by the Vatican to head the International Christian AIDS Network (ICAN) as an adjunct to the Pontifical Council on Health and Healthcare Workers. He was a close personal friend of Dr. Robert Gallo, co-discoverer of the virus that causes AIDS and founding director of the human virology research institute at the University of Maryland.

These are all elements that make his story complex and compelling.

Graham knew that AIDS among priests was not the central problem of the AIDS pandemic. He had hoped that the American church, with its health care knowledge and its wealth of medical resources, would lead the church in preventing, fighting and curing AIDS throughout the world.

But he was also aware that AIDS does not discriminate. Bishops and priests from many countries have died of AIDS, and others are infected with the virus. This in itself is not scandalous, nor even surprising to those who understand human nature and the history of the church.

There are two scandals: the measures the church takes to deny the reality of the illness among clergy and its refusal to openly discuss the issue, means of primary and secondary prevention, and the ways in which it contributes to the stigmatization of the disease and those who suffer from it.

There are examples of the church’s behavior far more disturbing than the Star series: An archbishop died in Rome of AIDS. Those responsible for his body had his legs broken so that the cause of death could be listed as accidental.

A priest in a major American city was diagnosed HIV positive. In the process of contact tracing, 20 priests were notified that they had been either primarily or secondarily exposed to the virus.

And death from AIDS has not bypassed clerics in those areas of Africa that are being devastated by the disease.

The church will assume its moral credibility sooner is the issue of priests with AIDS is faced squarely in all of its dimensions.

No one is suggesting that the church abandon moral teaching. Rather, AIDS within the clergy is an urgent call for the church to establish its moral leadership by confronting all the elements that impact the contracting and transmission of HIV/AIDS in all persons everywhere.

The American hierarchy had ample notice to become proactive about the crisis of sex abuse by clergy. Many dioceses and religious communities are still picking up the pieces from their resistance to a clear warning from the 1985 Peterson, Mouton and Doyle report of the potential repercussions of the problem of abuse.

The Kansas City Star series is the beginning, not the end, of the story of AIDS in the church. The portrait it gently and kindly painted is of good clerics in profound struggles. These lives do not ask for cheap compassion, so easy for religion to supply. They beg for consideration, honest discussion and attention to the celibate/sexual agenda facing everyone in the church.

The National Conference of Catholic Bishops should be the leader not the reluctant follower – let alone the obstructionist – to the discussion of sexual problems within the church. They should know the number of priests suffering unnecessarily from this deadly disease and establish effective means of prevention and education within their own ranks.

This is a time when a growing number of priests and bishops are homosexual in orientation. They should not be outcasts or second-class servants or secreted behind homophobic facades. Homosexually oriented clergy are equally observant of their celibacy, as are their heterosexual brothers, and one struggles as much as the other. Coming to terms with one’s identity and relationships are tasks central to any spirituality and leadership irrespective of one’s sexual orientation.

If The Kansas City Star moves the American hierarchy to pay attention to a vital problem within its own ranks, it should receive a medal for saving lives and enhancing the credibility of a venerable institution.

Richard Sipe is researcher and author of Celibacy: A Way of Loving, Living and Serving. He is currently working on a book about priests with AIDS.

National Catholic Reporter, March 31, 2000

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