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." 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.