WASHINGTON (November 5, 2000) -- The Department for Communications of the United States Catholic Conference issued the following statement about the Kansas City Star series on priests and HIV/AIDS which ran today:
The Kansas City Star, in an attempt to prove itself "right" on the issue of HIV/AIDS and the priesthood, has systematically violated the privacy of deceased priests in 14 states. If any organization other than a journalistic one tried to do something like this, it would quickly hear from an outraged public.
The Catholic Church has always considered it a responsibility of the utmost seriousness to respect the privacy of the individual. In confiding to the Church some of the most intimate information about themselves, people trust that the Church honors their right to keep these matters between themselves, God and their spiritual adviser. For reporters to search out information about the dead which they may never have wanted revealed is to violate the boundaries of common decency in a way that has become all too usual with the media.
At least one previously published story in a national news magazine, based in part on research by the Center for Disease Control, noted that the research found that clergy overall face about twice the risk of dying of AIDS as white males in all occupational groups combined. Yet the Star seems to use statistics only with regard to the Catholic priesthood. Not only can one question the significance of these findings in dealing with such small absolute numbers, but one also must question why the Star seems determined to create the image of a crisis, using its own criteria for what constitutes a crisis.
The reality is far more complex, and to appreciate it the following points need to be understood:
Every death from HIV/AIDS related illness is a tragedy. The Church has been active in service to those suffering from HIV/AIDS from the beginning of the epidemic. In major statements in 1987 and 1989, the U.S. Bishops Conference expressed its concern for those living with HIV/AIDS and for their loved ones and also society's responsibility to care for them. Similarly Pope John Paul II and bishops throughout the world have been among the most vigorous advocates for a compassionate, non-judgmental response to those affected by the pandemic.
The bishops' conference has never denied that priests have died of HIV/AIDS related illnesses. For over a decade and a half, the Church has been living with this fact and dealing with it, sometimes openly, where the privacy rights of individuals permitted it. In 1989, at the priest's request, HIV/AIDS related illness was revealed as the cause of death of a prominent priest psychiatrist. In 1987, the Catholic News Service, the news agency of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, did a series on priests dying of HIV/AIDS related illness. Whatever else the Kansas City Star is doing, it is not breaking this story.
As traumatic as the death of priests from HIV/AIDS related illness is, the Star's own invasive research demonstrates that less than half of one percent of the approximately 75,000 men who served as priests since the HIV/AIDS infection was identified have died of an AIDS-related illnesses.
The ways in which these priests -- and indeed any persons infected with HIV -- actually contracted the virus is often the subject of much speculation: in particular, was it through sexual means? If so, was it through heterosexual or homosexual contact? Did it occur before or after ordination? Did it involve a single lapse from the commitment to celibacy or more frequent ones? Without knowing the specific circumstances of each case, it is impossible to say. Such speculation may engage the curiosity of the media, but it does little to acknowledge the care and concern which the Church has shown and continues to show toward priests and all others affected by HIV/AIDS. It is particularly unfair when it is based on a census of the dead who can no longer address their own situation.
In other words, statistics tell only a tiny part of the story which often remains untold out of respect for the individual dignity of those directly involved.
Attempts to stir up the appearance of a crisis surrounding the instances of priests with HIV/AIDS are extremely deceptive. These deaths are certainly tragedies for the priests involved and for their families, friends, and those they served. But there is no indication that they have, in the nation's nearly 200 individual dioceses, been so numerous as to constitute a crisis situation.
Nor have these priests been neglected. The vast majority of them have been treated with respect and sensitivity, receiving spiritual and medical care.
In dealing with this and many other matters, most media seem unable to grasp the fact that the Catholic Church is not administered on the national level. Except for a very few instances, determined by Church law, Bishops' conferences do not set policy. Church governance worldwide is the responsibility of the Pope and locally of the diocesan Bishop. In addition, religious orders determine their own personnel policies. Except when it comes to core beliefs, the Church has always been one of the most de-centralized of large organizations.
The Star mentions several Catholic organizations which deal with HIV/AIDS, including such issues as those of priests who have the infection. For some reason, the Star fails to understand that they are considered part of the Church's overall response.
The justification for these stories given by the Star in the past -- that through them, it is trying to help the Church -- is patronizing, condescending and offensive to Bishops who have tended caringly for priests and others with the HIV infection, in some cases with their own hands. It is unlikely to be an explanation that most of the families, friends, and fellow priests of the men whose death certificates were the subject of this intrusion would readily accept.