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Editor takes aim at Sipe, Star


Is there an AIDS epidemic among Catholic priests? Is the church in denial about it? Do church teachings contribute to the incidence of AIDS among Catholic priests? Richard Sipe and The Kansas City Star would like us to think so.

Sipe claims that the Star’s series caused “a firestorm of reaction,” and he asks, “Why the furor?” (“Perilous choice to ignore AIDS issue,” NCR, March 31).

Jesuit Father Jon Fuller, a medical doctor who works with AIDS patients, asks a better question: “Why is this story getting so much attention now?” (“Priests with AIDS,” America, March 18).

The issue of priests with AIDS has received extensive coverage since 1987, following a December 1986 NCR story. Yet the Star claimed to be the first “mainstream” newspaper to bring the issue to light and to give it “in-depth” treatment. One would think that “in-depth” research would have uncovered the fact that the story had been covered by such “mainstream” lights as The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Philadelphia Inquirer, among others.

The NCR revisited the issue in 1997. Re-reading that story by Pamela Schaeffer, one finds that many of her paragraphs were parroted by the Star. In fact, the Star presented hardly anything newsworthy that was new. What sold its story nationwide and around the world was its sensational claim that priests “are dying of AIDS at a rate at least four times that of the general population.”

The sum total of the Star’s substantiation for its estimate of 300 priests’ deaths from AIDS is as follows: “And many priests and medical experts now agree that at least 300 priests have died.”

Sipe says that the Star at least asked the right questions. Actually, lack of substantiation did not deter it from answering them. The series repeatedly blamed AIDS among priests on the church’s requirement of celibacy; on its teaching about homosexual activity; on its restriction of the priesthood to males; on the lack of seminary training in “the modern practice of ‘safe sex’ ”; and the inadequacy of seminary formation on sexuality.

The Star said not a word in its three-day, 10-page report about what seminaries are doing today to help seminarians integrate their sexuality with their spirituality and to make informed choices about celibacy. Its criticism of seminary education is based entirely on the memories of priests who attended the now defunct St. Stanislaus Seminary in the 1960s.

Despite the 13 years of public airing, Sipe (and the Star) maintain that the church is “in denial.” Fuller, on the other hand, says the issue has been widely discussed; that many priests have been quite open about their diagnoses while remaining actively engaged in ministry; that the church’s response to infected clergy has become more enlightened and compassionate; and, “most important, that there has been a significant evolution in how sexuality and psychosexual development are understood and incorporated into formation programs.”

Obviously, these developments preceded the Star’s “revelations,” as they will have preceded Sipe’s book on priests and AIDS.

The Catholic Key, newspaper of the Kansas City-St. Joseph, Mo., diocese, was one of the diocesan newspapers Sipe talks about -- perhaps the first -- to report on the Star’s series, to publish reports on current seminary education and to comment editorially on the Star’s series. We criticized it on the basis of journalistic principles and found it wanting in professionalism and reliability.

Sipe tries to impugn the objectivity of the coauthor of an article questioning the Star’s statistics. But Sipe himself provides a classic example of the misuse of statistics when he writes, “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.”

The average age of U.S. priests is somewhere around 60. If the average age of our armed forces is similar, we’re in deep trouble. Secondly, the average military hitch is what, four years? Eight years? A male soldier who contracted AIDS in the Army would be long out of the service by the time he died of AIDS. Moreover, the military has a long history of discharging known gays. Should the church adopt a similar policy for priests?

“The deaths of several hundred priests from AIDS can be documented,” Sipe says. Well, neither he nor the Star has documented it.

Albert de Zutter is editor of The Catholic Key, newspaper of the Kansas City-St. Joseph, Mo., diocese.

National Catholic Reporter, April 21, 2000