Priests with AIDs are eager to talk
By PAMELA SCHAEFFER
In 1987 Jesuit Fr. Peter Davis was diagnosed with AIDS. The announcement of his illness to parishioners at St. Ignatius Catholic Church in Portland, Ore., made news around the country. Davis, the 42-year-old pastor of St. Ignatius, was thought to be the first priest active in parish work and the first Jesuit to make public not only that he was suffering from AIDS but how he got it -- through a sexual relationship with another adult male. Before his death, when he was unable to care for himself, his Jesuit brothers took turns caring for him.
A few years later a priest from the other side of the country -- Bishop Emerson Moore of New York -- slipped away from his diocese to die of AIDS-related illness. A falsified death certificate from Minneapolis, dated Sept. 14, 1995, described him as a "laborer," his cause of death "unknown natural causes." After AIDS activist Tim Campbell of Minneapolis filed a complaint, the certificate was corrected to reflect the true cause of his death. So far, Moore's occupation remains uncorrected.
Those are among the faces of AIDS in the Catholic priesthood that have appeared in the news in recent years: in one case, a celebration of forgiveness, friendship and reconciliation; in the other, an isolation so deep that even in death his identity was veiled.
The Davis case so captured the imagination of Catholics around the country that it is often recalled nearly a decade later in conversations about priests and AIDS.
Numbers up dramatically
No one keeps national data on numbers of HIV-affected priests. Many insist it would be difficult if not impossible to track, given the secrecy that still surrounds many of the cases.
It is clear, however, that the numbers have risen dramatically. Today sources familiar with clergy and AIDS estimate that more than a hundred priests have died of AIDS-related illnesses in the United States and hundreds have been infected -- somewhere between one-half of one percent and one percent of the nation's 49,000 priests. The estimates are dramatically above reports of just a dozen in each category a decade or so ago.
"It's obviously a hidden problem," said Marianne Duddy, national president of Dignity, an advocacy organization for gay Catholics. She said she knows of some priests who, to avoid disclosure, are treated under assumed names and find ways to pay for care while circumventing church-paid medical insurance programs.
"I am encountering more priests who are becoming symptomatic with AIDS," she said. "They may have been diagnosed many years ago, but their disease has now progressed to the point where it's evident. The number who are just learning they are HIV-positive seems to be declining," though it's hard to know whether her impression reflects reality, she said.
"People become willing to talk about their disease in different stages" -- some when they are first diagnosed, while others want secrecy even after death, she said. "You have to be someone a priest really trusts, because so much is at stake: his identity, his livelihood, his credibility."
Jesuit Fr. Jon Fuller, a physician and expert on HIV, the virus believed to cause AIDS, is among those who put the overall number of infected priests in the United States in the multiple hundreds and deaths during the last decade or so at about 100.
Fuller is assistant director of the clinical AIDS program at the Boston Medical Center and was founding president of the National Catholic AIDS Network. He recalls a secrecy so intense a few years ago that at a first conference on priests and religious affected by HIV, held in 1990 in St. Louis, three of four priests who attended came wearing bags over their heads. Two further conferences on the subject have been held since.
Gradually, priests are becoming more willing to talk. Five priests who have tested HIV-positive or have full-blown AIDS agreed to talk to NCR about their illnesses through the encouragement of Fr. John McGrann, a priest of Spokane, Wash., who lives in Larkspur, in the San Francisco Bay area, leads an annual retreat for priests affected by HIV. Most of the men are still involved in ministry, often AIDS-related. Only two others besides McGrann were willing to give their names, and one of those changed his mind out of concern for a non-priest partner who is still in the closet.
"The fear is just unbelievable," McGrann said. "Some priests are actually afraid someone will find out they were on some kind of special retreat."
If there were common threads to the experiences of the men who spoke, they included a love of ministry and, considering the odds, a stable or improving health profile, whether due to good luck or new drugs.
Most, falling somewhere in between the extremes of full disclosure and total secrecy, wanted anonymity, but were eager to tell their stories -- in part, several said, as a sort of reality check for a church that expects mandatory celibacy of its priests but offers in return little guidance for integrating sexuality.
Several also wanted to report that they considered HIV to have had a positive effect on their lives and/or the church. They talk about fuller lives, richer friendships, deeper faith, love of ministry.
"It's been a wonderful grace," said McGrann, who says he has been treated "with much kindness, acceptance and support" since he broke his silence eight years ago, 10 months after learning he was HIV-positive. He received his diagnosis as he returned to active ministry following a three-year leave. His first reaction, he said, was "great fear and helplessness. I was mad at myself that I had let this happen. I was embarrassed, ashamed and afraid.
"I tried to deal with it myself and found it too much to bear," he said. The first to learn was a priest friend who has since died of AIDS-related illness. Other close friends were next, and then his family. McGrann, 55, is the oldest of 12 children. "It helped us to speak the truth about other things in our family that are broken and hurting," he said. "We've become much more open as a family."
Similarly, McGrann believes that the disease has been "a wonderful gift to the church." Often associated with sexual activity among gay men, HIV is sometimes transmitted through drug use and occasionally through blood transfusions or other medical treatments.
"AIDS has opened people's eyes that gay people are people and God made us all," he said. "It's helping us to deal with our attitudes toward sexuality and toward death." Affected people "are more free to talk about death, about fears."
Fuller, the Jesuit physician, said the crisis has forced the church to accept the reality that a significant number of priests are gay. "There was always a presumption that people, including priests, were heterosexual," forcing those who were not -- or who weren't sure -- to pass as straight, he said. Until recently, gay clergy was a largely "undiscussed issue," and HIV-affected priests were likely to be told to drop out of their ministries, even to move away from the area where they had been working, he said. Some lost their health insurance, he said
Told to pack and leave
One priest of the Oklahoma diocese recalled that in the seminary he attended in the early 1970s, a man caught acting on his homosexuality, or heterosexuality for that matter, would be approached in the middle of the night and told to pack and leave. "It was always very mysterious," he said.
In that all-male environment, repression was so complete that sexuality almost never was openly discussed, though it appeared in "some of the raunchiest jokes you can imagine," one priest said.
Since the discovery of AIDS in the early 1980s, the church has had to deal with the fact that the majority of HIV-affected priests have contracted the disease from "same-sex sexual activity," Fuller said. Officials have been forced to recognize that "poor formation and a practice of sweeping homosexuality under the rug has put a lot of priests at risk."
Ignoring sexuality in a priest's formation often leads to "lack of integration of sexuality into a priest's self-understanding," he said. "In a climate that's not strongly nurturing, it's too scary to think about the fact that they are homosexual." The result: "They may engage in risky behaviors as part of trying to work out their identity."
Horror stories abound, though most priests say the worst is in the past. Archbishop James Hickey of Washington, former Archbishop John Quinn of San Francisco, Cardinal Bernard Law of Boston and Cardinal John O'Connor of New York are among American Catholic leaders who have encouraged compassion for people with AIDS.
Pact of silence
Fr. Bruce Cwiekowski of Portland, who does AIDS ministry through Catholic Charities, recalls that in one Benedictine community where a brother was diagnosed with AIDS, one of the other monks slipped a note under his door demanding, "Why the hell don't you get out, you faggot."
Clergy with AIDS -- or even those known to be HIV-positive -- have been pushed aside, removed from active ministry and hidden away in motherhouses, as if they were an embarrassment to the community, he said.
Fr. John, a former pastor who lives in the northeastern United States, said he had told only a few people he had tested HIV-positive in 1992, when, during a weekend absence, his medical records were found by some parishioners. Their response was hardly enlightened. First they placed an insert in the parish bulletin warning that he was a "health threat" and should be removed. They chained shut the doors of the church and put up a sign on a nearby highway saying that a gay priest with AIDS was living at the church. His bishop, who already knew about his condition, agreed to his request for a transfer. John, 47, now serves in a local hospital as a pastoral caregiver for people with AIDS.
Meanwhile, he found acceptance, possibly even healing, he said, through a deceased religious brother, the beatified Br. Andre (1845-1937), founder of the St. Joseph Oratory in Montreal. Soon after learning of his diagnosis, Fr. John took a group of Catholics on a tour of the shrine and prayed "to be cured just enough to live a normal life," he said. He has been without AIDS-related symptoms for nearly 14 years, a "minor miracle" he attributes to his prayer.
Fr. John is among those priests who acknowledged becoming infected through unsafe sexual encounters as they struggled with vows they found hard to keep. None would speak on the record about their disregard for celibacy, concerned that their ministry or even their medical insurance could be jeopardized. Several of the priests said they strongly believe in Jesus' words "The truth shall make you free," but feel obliged to live by a pact with church officials. Whether spoken or unspoken, the agreement is this: Bishops or superiors keep financial support coming; priests publicly toe the doctrinal line.
A very heavy party
"There's a lot more focus on avoiding -- or at least keeping quiet about -- sins of the flesh than there is on avoiding sins against truthfulness," one priest said.
Fr. John had his first sexual encounter in the mid-1970s, soon after ordination. "I wasn't looking for it," he said. "It was something that just happened, with a total stranger I met bicycle riding. He invited me in for a drink, and one thing led to another."
He believes he may have been infected in 1981, when little was known about the disease. At that time, he was going to gay bars monthly -- not in his own area, and not to have sex, he said. But in 1981, he attended a party -- "a very heavy party," he said -- involving drugs. "There were some things going on at that party that I might have gotten myself into," he said, and he thinks his infection may have been the result.
He insists that that incident was an exception to his lifestyle in those days. "I was never promiscuous," he said, "and I was always trying to live up to my vows. But it was very difficult, and I wasn't always successful."
Fr. John said he knew of other gay priests at the time, yet sexuality was something never discussed, leaving him with virtually no support. "There is a lot of fear" -- a tremendous fear "of letting other gay clergy get close," he said. "Clergy are very catty. They often tear other people down to make themselves look good."
Only the boldest priests would visit gay bars in their own area, he said, fearing others would spot and "out" them as a way of expressing their anger at the church for its view of homosexuality. In a 1986 document by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the inclination toward homosexuality was labeled "an objective disorder," rooted in a tendency "ordered toward an intrinsic moral evil."
Duddy, the president of Dignity, said it's especially hard for priests to later run into someone they've met in a gay bar -- someone who is now wearing the collar. "Do you pretend you didn't see the person, act like you don't know him or do you acknowledge that you do?"
The priest from Oklahoma said his first sexual experience followed a visit to a gay bar just after he had been admitted to a seminary. He ran into the vocations director of his diocese at the bar. "He had been drinking heavily, and he came on to me," the priest said. "I can't say I didn't want it to happen, but he had a lot of power." In retrospect, the priest regarded the vocation director's behavior as inappropriate.
The Oklahoma priest wanted very much to identify himself, but said his relationship with a well-known business leader -- a man with whom the priest has exchanged rings -- prevented his coming out. The priest said he has had "full-blown AIDS" for four or five years.
Fr. Joe, a priest from Boston, said, "My diagnosis has really caused me to reflect on many things -- particularly on the fact that this lifestyle has fostered isolation and loneliness." Only two people know that Joe has AIDS -- his religious superior and another member of his order. Joe, in his early 50s, learned he had AIDS about a year ago, following a second bout with shingles and the development of an eye condition suggestive of AIDS.
Ironically, Joe said his diagnosis "had a liberating effect" on his life -- a statement that may say as much about the confusion and loneliness of the past as it does about his present gratitude. Joe believes that many priests suffer from a low-grade depression.
He estimates that he was infected around 1982, "after a wonderful relationship with another guy ended. I was emotionally vulnerable," he said. "I felt a void, and I got involved with another guy." After they had been involved for a while, his friend got tested, Joe said, and called him to report the bad news.
"Initially you can feel pretty guilty that you had sex and that's how you got infected," he said. "Suddenly, if you've been in the closet as I had, you're out of the closet whether you like it or not."
Yet, he said, "I am truly grateful to God for what has happened in this past year -- and some of it has been pure hell. I've lost a lot of fear about life -- although obviously I haven't lost it all or I wouldn't be asking for anonymity. When we get involved in this, we assume people are more sophisticated than they are. There are still some men in my community who would say AIDS is God's punishment for people who are gay.
"It used to be embarrassing for me to be gay," Joe said. "Now I find I can have great conversations with other men who are also infected. I'm so impressed with the heroism of these men, with their compassion and depth.
"I think we always have the potential for transformation," he said. "A greater integration of who I am has been the result of my diagnosis."
Joe is one of a number of HIV-affected priests who found support through the retreat led by McGrann. Joe said he applied at the last minute, at a time when he had so little energy that the effort of just making travel reservations and getting himself to California "was the equivalent of climbing Mount Everest."
This year, the fourth such retreat, with the theme "Body Blessed and Broken," will be held May 5 to 9 at San Damiano Retreat Center in Danville, Calif. McGrann said about a dozen attend each year. "We share from our hearts," he said. "It's a time to be listened to, to take responsibility for empowering ourselves and learning not to become victims or martyrs." The priests share sacraments too -- Eucharist, reconciliation and anointing.
Groups offer support
"One of the characteristics long-term survivors have in common is being involved in support groups," Joe said. "Another is getting involved in helping others." Duddy, Dignity president, said support groups in general were helping a lot of priests come to terms with whatever issues they are facing.
McGrann said his illness has given him a strong personal perspective on euthanasia and assisted suicide. "It comes up a lot with people with AIDS," he said. "I don't want to be in pain even if drugs hasten my death, but I do want to go through the process of dying naturally."
McGrann has planned his funeral down to the last detail -- the readings, the music, the flowers. With that behind him, he said he tries not to worry about tomorrow, but rather "to tell myself my life is rich and full and I need to embrace it." Each night he writes down five things he appreciates about the day, he said. "I've learned to live with a lot of trust."
Widespread use in the past year of combinations of drugs, including the new protease inhibitors, are making a tremendous difference in the lives of many priests with HIV or AIDS. For some, optimism has replaced preoccupation with death.
Joe, for whom routine tasks formerly seemed insurmountable, now says his energy level "is great, fantastic. There's a lot more hope than there was a year ago," he said. "There are wonderful resurrection stories."
Fr. Robert Chenoweth of St. Louis, a priest of the Jefferson City, Mo., diocese, has one of those stories. He learned three years ago that he was ill, though he has no idea when he was infected, he said. The disease progressed rapidly after his diagnosis, and less than a year ago he was waiting to die. "Nothing that should have worked worked on me," he said.
The illness resulted in four hospitalizations between July 1995 and July '96 and left him a "walking skeleton." Then Chenoweth's doctor tried a combination of new and standard drugs. "It's miracle category stuff," Chenoweth said of the result. His immune system is "slowing repairing itself," he said, and he has regained nearly half of the 40 pounds he lost. Though he walks with a cane to compensate for partial paralysis in his feet and legs caused by nerve disintegration, the excruciating pain is gone.
'I'm a better person'
Just eight months ago, his illness had forced him into retirement from his post as a hospital chaplain, and he had adjusted emotionally to imminent death. Today, Chenoweth, 65, is considering volunteer work as part of his readjustment to life ahead.
"It's been really weird, kind of bittersweet," he said of his renewed health. "At first I felt really restless, kind of depressed, and I couldn't figure it out. Then I realized death had become a full-time project in itself."
Several other priests said Chenoweth is someone they greatly admire. He lives independently, gardens and enjoys a broad support network of neighbors and friends.
Once terrified of living with AIDS, of dying and of disclosure, Chenoweth now finds a silver lining to his devastating illness. At first, he said, he devoted a lot of time and energy "getting acquainted with the stranger invading my body. Now it's become so much a part of me that it's hard to imagine not having it.
"Beyond that, I've become a better person -- a fuller person, spiritually and emotionally," he said. "Since becoming ill, my spirit has been moved in a way it had not been moved." When Cardinal Joseph Bernardin spoke openly of his terminal cancer and of facing death, "I thirsted for every word," he said.
Although his physical appearance troubles him -- Chenoweth declined to pose for a photograph -- he said friends tell him, "The 'Bob spirit' is very much alive."
If there is a positive side to death-dealing illness, priests who are affected say it lies in the reality check it offers the church.
"We're moving to an understanding that celibacy is more than not engaging in sexual activity," said Fuller. "Sexuality is different for different people at different stages of life. People learn to live celibacy as they grow." An unworkable approach of the distant and recent past was "don't do it and there's nothing more to say. Now we acknowledge that celibacy is complicated. It takes a lot of attention ... over a lifetime."
Based on her conversations with priests, Duddy feels the church still has far to go in that regard. Almost "to a person, priests who have told bishops or religious superiors about their AIDS-related health problems have received support," she said. At the same time, she said, those bishops and superiors show "enormous discomfort" in discussing the circumstances surrounding a priest's becoming ill, in asking about sexual activity or drug use -- as do laity "who find it hard to think of their priest as a sexual being."
"It's very weird to be a priest with a disease" contracted through behavior that is considered inappropriate "and have no one in your accountability structure ask, 'what does it mean that you are not celibate,' or 'what is it that you are struggling with,' or 'what is your sexual history like,' or 'are you having anonymous sex because there isn't a possibility for a healthy relationship.'
"No priest breaks the vow of celibacy lightly," Duddy said. "It's an act of desperation to put yourself at risk. The tradeoff priests are making is that they have this tremendous yearning for making that level of contact with another person, yet they feel they can't cross into the territory of having a long-standing intimate relationship with a single person. Obviously that would be safer sexually.
"Those kinds of conversations, which get at some of the root causes, the ways in which behavior and AIDS are linked -- those are really important conversations to be having," she said, "but I haven't seen evidence that the link is being made. People are treated as patients with a disease. Only the disease is treated. Issues of identity, of lifestyle, relationships, which really ought to be part of this discussion, are ignored. We just haven't figured out as a church how to support our priests around the whole issue of sexuality whether they're straight or gay." Their sexual energies are "alluded to, acted on, channeled into sports, cars, drinking, but they are not discussed." What the AIDS crisis is doing, she said, "is blowing the lid off the whole celibacy myth."
Among U.S. bishops, there is general agreement that priests with AIDS should be treated with compassion, with some of the most prominent leaders setting the tone. Two years ago in Boston, Fr. William John Cummings died a year after he told his congregation he had AIDS. Cardinal Bernard Law paid tribute to the ailing priest's honesty during the congregation's centennial Mass, a month after Cummings "came out." Law said, "I have to say how profoundly happy I am of the statement that he made to you and to the church ... the statement of a man of faith, of a man willing to rely, as all of us must, on the mercy and love of a God who had revealed himself as love."
Cardinals James Hickey, John Quinn and John O'Connor have also shown and called for understanding. O'Connor treated Bishop Emerson Moore with respect and compassion before Moore's death and reflected deep caring in a homily delivered at his funeral Mass. It is unknown whether efforts to hide the cause of Moore's death were made by Moore himself, his family or the archdiocese. But top officials made no attempt to deny the truth when it became public.
Less certain, though, is the outcome of other challenges AIDS has presented to the church: HIV testing policies for men requesting admittance to seminaries and improved formation programs to help priests deal with sexuality in the context of celibacy.
"It's been a big debate," said Fr. Nick Rice, president of the National Federation of Priests' Councils in Chicago. He said the majority of dioceses and seminaries are moving in the direction of testing candidates, the strongest argument for it being the financial liability associated with a serious illness.
On the other side, testing carries with it serious moral obligations, primarily how the information will be used. What is the responsibility of church leaders if a required test turns out positive and it produces a crisis in a person's life, asked Fuller, the Jesuit physician.
Another issue is whether information about positive test results should be shared with the community a priest is sent to serve, Rice said. He noted that many legal questions related to testing have yet to be answered.
Fuller also worries that testing could become a way of discriminating against gays. He said he knows of cases where applicants have been rejected based on test results -- wrongly, he feels. HIV-affected people have been able to serve for up to 20 years, he said -- and new treatments could improve that outlook considerably.
As for formation programs, Rice said progress in improving them has been slow and fraught with setbacks. Seminaries face a real dilemma, he said, noting that they are financially dependent on bishops.
"If a seminary appears to be too accepting of homosexuality or of forms of intimacy that cause concern on the part of church leaders, they stand to lose their students," he said. "Some leaders are watching bishops' signals very closely."
Jesuit Fr. Gerdenio Manuel, clinical psychologist and formation director for his order's California province, said, "The goal of formation for us is for individuals to find where God is calling them, which might not be the Society of Jesus. We assume that if they are called to the Society of Jesus, they are called to the richness and possibilities of celibate life supported by a religious community."
If the emphasis is on discernment -- making the right personal choice -- "people can feel more free to talk about their struggles and issues ... and to face whatever issues come up," he said.
"The important thing is to lay the groundwork," he said, for a lifetime of "healthy psychosexual development."
National Catholic Reporter, April 18, 1997