AIDS killing supposedly celibate priests

Six of 10 Roman Catholic clerics who answered a Kansas City Star survey say they've known at least one colleague who's died of the disease.

Published February 2, 2000 5:00PM (EST)

Feb. 2, 2000

If celibacy is the best protection against high-risk sex, then Roman Catholic priests should be enjoying one of the safest lifestyles because of their vow to abstain from sex. But after so many altar boy scandals, should anyone be surprised that the supposedly chaste are succumbing to AIDS?

In a special series on AIDS in the priesthood, the Kansas City Star mailed a confidential survey to 3,000 priests. More than 800 responded.

Fifty-eight percent said they knew at least one priest who had died of an AIDS-related illness. And 32 percent said they knew a priest living with HIV.

Exact casualty numbers are unknown because infected clerics are often shamed into silence by Catholic administrators. Others, like the late Bishop Emerson Moore of the Archdiocese of New York, are quietly transferred to a distant hospice where they're eventually tagged with a death certificate that conceals the true cause of their demise. Moore's passing was attributed to "unknown natural causes."

Plagued padres don't get infected just by listening to lurid stories in dark confessionals. Fifteen percent of the responding priests said they were homosexual and 5 percent said they were bisexual. Seventy-five percent said the church should have provided them with more sex education when they were seminary students. The Rev. John Keenan of Chicago believes that the majority of patients at his Trinity House clinic for priests were exposed to the virus through same-sex activity. One client, he said, had passed on the malady to eight other priests.

How will the Vatican respond to this challenge? Will it do away with the celibacy requirement and encourage its robed ranks to wear condoms? No. Hell will probably freeze over before the pope surrenders his insistence on chastity. The only clerical change that has occurred since the AIDS era began is that most religious orders today now screen applicants for the priesthood with an HIV-antibody test prior to their ordination.

By Hank Hyena

Hank Hyena is a former columnist for SF Gate, and a frequent contributor to Salon.

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Aids Catholicism Chicago Religion