KANSAS CITY, Mo. Debate erupted nationwide after The Kansas City Star reported that Roman Catholic priests in the US are dying from AIDS-related illnesses at a rate 4 times higher than the general population and the cause is often concealed on their death certificates.
In 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 Aux. Bp. Thomas Gumbleton 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 US. The margin of error of the survey was 3.5 percentage points. 6 out of every 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.
Asked about their sexual orientation, 75 percent said they were heterosexual, 15 percent said they were homosexual, and 5 percent said they were bisexual.Two-thirds lauded the church for being caring and compassionate to priests with AIDS. Often, the church covers medical costs, gives them a place to live and cares for them until they die.
Most priests, however, said the church failed to offer an early and effective sexual education that might have prevented infection in the first place. Two-thirds said sexuality either was not addressed at all or was not discussed adequately in the seminary. Three of four said the church needed to offer more education about sexual issues.
Fr. 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 8 other priests. As long ago as the early 1980s, he discovered that priests were contracting AIDS at an alarming rate. Other experts agree that the incidence of AIDS among priests stems primarily from sexual contact.
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 Bp. 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.
In Missouri and Kansas alone, at least 16 priests and two religious-order brothers have died of AIDS since early 1987 7 times that of the general population. Many priests and medical experts now agree that at least 300 priests have died. That translates into an annualized AIDS-related death rate of about 4 per 10,000 4 times that of the general population's rate of roughly 1 per 10,000 and about double the death rate of the adult male population.
Other statistics and experts suggest that those estimates are too conservative. A.W. Richard Sipe, a former priest who has spent more than 30 years studying sexuality issues in the church, thinks that about 750 priests nationwide have died of such illnesses. That would translate into an AIDS-related death rate 8 times that of the general population.
The deaths are of such concern to the church that most dioceses and religious orders now require applicants for the priesthood to take an HIV-antibody test before their ordination. There is no question the disease is taking its toll on an already-diminished pool of seminarians. For example, now-closed St. Stanislaus Seminary in Florissant, Mo., had 26 novices in 1967. Of the 7 who were ordained; 20 years later, 3 of them had died of AIDS.
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.
Cardinals in the US and high-ranking church officials in the Vatican declined requests to discuss the newspaper's findings. But criticism of the survey methodology and its assumptions was not slow in coming forward.
Fr. Jon Fuller, a Jesuit physician, said that it wasn't fair to presume, nor was it "really relevant" how the disease was contracted. More important, Fuller said, is the question of when a person contracted AIDS. Because the virus has a long incubation period, a priest may have become infected before taking his vows.
Or contracted it while serving as missionaries in countries that have poor medical practices, like Fr. Luis Olivares, 59, pastor and an activist who ministered to poor immigrants in Los Angeles, who died of AIDS in March 1993. Doctors thought Olivares contracted HIV from contaminated needles while being treated for an injury during a visit to Central America.
Rebecca Summers, a Kansas City diocesan spokeswoman, said though priests take a vow of celibacy, the church is aware that not all priests are celibate. She said while the Star's findings were a "disappointment," they were not necessarily a surprise. because the disease is so pervasive in society in general.
Other organizations, like religious broadcaster EWTN, criticized the size of the response, and how representative the sampling was.
Some priests seek support among other priests who have AIDS. The National Catholic AIDS Network (707-874-3031) can put priests in touch with others in their area.
Kansas City Star, 1/31/2000, 1/30, 1/29; Reuters, 1/31; AP, 1/30