The call comes in the middle of the night. The caller tells me
he's a man in his late forties who has had HIV for seven years. He's
come out to his family about his status, and to a few people he
works with, but he says that he wishes to remain completely
anonymous. He feels "terribly isolated," sure that he would be asked
to leave his job of 22 years if he went public about his status.
This is the voice of a priest with AIDS.
I had put the word out to scores of people in AIDS work and
church circles -- many of them friends from my own involvement in
Dignity, the gay Catholic movement, 20 years ago -- that POZ
was doing a story on priests with AIDS in the wake of an explosive
three-part series in The Kansas City Star. We all knew many
priests who had died of AIDS, but those living with it today -- with
one prominent exception in Miami -- refused to come out about it.
Through intermediaries, several priests with AIDS declined
interviews, even when promised anonymity.
My midnight caller, who reached me through a Dignity contact, is
closeted, even though he's been a leading AIDS educator in his rural
region for 15 years -- work that he began long before he
seroconverted through what he would only say was "high-risk
behavior." He says he often feels tired and wishes he could tell his
parishioners that it's because of his meds, but he fears
career-ending rejection. "Forgiveness is what we preach," he says,
"but we are so quick to judge people who make 'wrong choices.'" He's
not only sick from HIV, he says, "I'm sick of being thought of as
When The Star reported this winter that hundreds of Roman
Catholic priests in the United States have died of AIDS and hundreds
more have HIV, it immediately became one of the biggest AIDS stories
of the year. Media outlets across the nation led with statistics
from the series -- based on death certificates and a survey of 801
of the nation's 46,000 priests -- that 20 percent of American
priests are gay or bisexual, and that priests have four to eight
times the national rate of HIV infection.
"Priests-with-AIDS Story Strained Belief," charged the Toronto
Star. "Disturbing and Misleading," huffed the Hartford
Courant. "Media Sex Fixation Slants Reporting," complained
the South Bend Tribune. My old friend Bill McNichols, an out
gay Jesuit priest and artist from a well-known political family,
bravely commented to The Kansas City Star on this complex
problem and his grief for his brother priests. Back in his hometown
of Denver, they played the Star story as "Son of Former
Governor Loses 100 Friends to AIDS." The revelations were shocking
to many, but to gay Catholics, who know that most priests are
sexually active and a significant percentage are gay, it was
confirmation of the obvious.
What I saw as a sensitive account of an underreported
story, the church hierarchy called Catholic-bashing. Santa Fe's
Archbishop Michael Sheehan condemned the series as a "hatchet job."
The Cardinal of Philadelphia tried to get The Star to reveal
how many of his priests responded to the survey. The right-wing
Catholic League trumpeted an analysis by the conservative
Statistical Assessment Service faulting the methodology of the
survey -- then chided the press for not playing up such survey
findings as the 65 percent of priests who say the church is "caring
and compassionate" in its treatment of priests with AIDS (only 4
percent were critical). "Why not report that celibacy saves lives?"
asked the League's Patrick Scully.
To many gay clerics, the series cast a cleansing light on church
hypocrisy. "The church should think with its heart rather than put a
spin on it," says Rev. Bob Goss, who left the Catholic priesthood
for service to the mostly gay Metropolitan Community Church (MCC).
He lost both his partner and his brother to AIDS. "The story is
about men who desire and want love and for whom celibacy doesn't
work," he says.
Judy L. Thomas, The Star's reporter, told POZ that
she began gathering information for her in-depth report in 1993 when
a friend's priest died of AIDS in Wichita and she learned that two
more of the local diocese's 130 priests had as well. "If there were
so many priests dying in a church that requires a vow of celibacy,
then that was worth looking into," she says. Her years of spadework
and patience won her the trust of several gay priests, priests with
AIDS, and their families and colleagues, as well as some church
leaders who were looking for solutions -- like improving sex
education in the seminary -- rather than putting up walls.
Thomas says she's been under siege since the series ran in late
January. Within a month, 1,000 people had called or e-mailed her.
"They hated it or loved it," she says. "Quite a few were priests who
said, 'Thank you.'" Many lay Catholics, she adds, "were disturbed by
it, but glad to see it brought out."
One of those most pleased with the series was Rev. Dennis Rausch,
48, the most out priest with AIDS in the country, who was profiled
in the story. He spoke openly with Thomas because he was concerned
that AIDS "needed to be brought back to the foreground." He heads
the Archdiocese of Miami's HIV/AIDS Ministry, a model for other
dioceses that includes counseling, friendly visiting and advocacy.
He points out that "the Catholic Church is in every country in the
world and AIDS is in every country," and believes that the church
can therefore be a powerful advocate for making AIDS drugs
affordable in the Third World.
Rausch has been out about his status for three years and to two
successive Archbishops, both of whom, he says, have been supportive.
He is now so open that he recently announced his improved blood
count from the pulpit -- and received applause and hugs from
congregants. Rausch's openness is rare, perhaps enabled by his
support of Catholic doctrine. He never says anything in his
education work or ministry that "goes beyond church teaching." When
kids ask how he got HIV, he says he doesn't answer because it is
"irrelevant"; he won't discuss with me the church's condemnation of
homosexuality and condoms, though he says the subjects are not
off-limits in his education program.
Finding other priests with AIDS to talk to POZ was harder.
A therapist who had treated many and cooperated with the Star
story clammed up when I called him after the controversial series
ran. After weeks of outreach through the Internet, personal contacts
and church officials, a lay friend agreed to speak with two priests
with HIV, but both were too afraid. One priest who did AIDS ministry
in the Archdiocese of Newark for 10 years, Rev. Dennis Cocozza, says
he was told by chancery officials there in 1994 that 15 out of their
1,500 priests were living with AIDS. They were connected in a
support group so discreet that even he did not know their names. "To
my knowledge," he says, "no one [in Newark] is out to their
But the deaths of priests with AIDS tell stories, too. When I was
at the Hetrick-Martin Institute for gay youth in the early 1990s,
Rev. Charles Scheidt worked for me as an educator. Despite being out
as gay and surrounded by openly positive coworkers, he kept his HIV
status mostly secret until, on his deathbed, he made a public
display of converting to the Episcopal Church in protest of the
abandonment he felt from Catholicism.
A more prominent case was Bishop Emerson Moore of the Archdiocese
of New York, a favorite of Pope John Paul II who died of AIDS in a
Midwest hospice in 1995. According to The Star, the death
certificate of this crusader against racism and for women's
ordination, who supported abstinence-only sex education in the
city's public schools, listed him as a "laborer" who died of
"unknown natural causes." When The New York Times broke the
real story of the death of this closeted gay and drug-addicted
church leader shortly after he died, someone who had been in drug
treatment with Moore said, "He was a beautiful, tortured man who
didn't seem to have any real idea how great he was. I often thought
that he was the loneliest man I had ever met."
In the 1980s, many priests with AIDS disclosed to their
congregations and were sympathetically received because "it was at
the end of their lives," says physician and Jesuit priest Rev. John
Fuller, cofounder of the National Catholic AIDS Network. Today, with
better treatments, he says, it has become harder, not easier, to
Some priests would like to be open about their status, but choose
not to, afraid to antagonize their superiors and risk losing their
insurance. Rev. Jim Mitulski, the openly HIV positive pastor of
MCC/San Francisco, says his late Catholic friend Rev. Bob Arpin was
threatened with this form of retribution by the Archdiocese of San
Francisco for speaking out against church teachings on AIDS
prevention and homosexuality. Everyone I spoke with for this story
agreed that priests with AIDS are well taken care of; the trade-off
is they must keep their condition a secret.
Many seminaries now screen candidates for HIV, according to the
Star story. But Fuller said that his group encourages
dioceses to update their seminary testing policies in light of the
new therapies available. While most seminaries test, and then remove
HIV positive candidates, Oakland's and New York City's do not. "We
no more have a policy on priests with AIDS than priests with other
illnesses," says Joe Zwilling, spokesperson for the Archdiocese of
With the Catholic Church one of the largest providers of AIDS
services in the world, activists have long protested church policies
against gay rights, condoms and safe sex. Pope John Paul II may have
apologized for the church's sins in March, but these teachings were
not on the list. That same month, the Vatican attacked the promotion
of condom use in AIDS-devastated Africa.
While the Vatican won't budge on doctrine, Fuller says that the
large number of priests with AIDS has compelled seminaries to
acknowledge that there are gay clergy and to help candidates "become
more knowledgeable and open about sexuality." This is especially
critical since, as The Star documented, almost all priestly
infections are due to male-to-male sexual transmission.
Dignity/USA's president, Mary Louise Cervone, says the Star
series will "have little effect on church leadership," but hopes
that "average Catholics will demand change."
Gay priest, author and therapist John McNeill was expelled from
the Jesuits for breaking a taboo against affirming gay love. He
estimates that within the higher religious orders, 30 percent to 40
percent of priests are gay -- more than the Star survey found
-- and argues that if the church is ever going to fully tap the
strength of its priests, "it must acknowledge that there are moral
and holy gay relationships."
After The Star's series, MCC's Mitulski, a former
Catholic, issued a press release calling on priests who are gay or
HIV positive to come out. "You can't be a good pastor and conceal
that you have HIV," he says. "I speak from experience. You can't
attend to your health appropriately, and you are setting a bad
example. You're communicating a message that there is something
shameful about having AIDS." His choice to be open about having
AIDS, he says, relieves his isolation and makes it easier for
parishioners with HIV to talk to him. "To my Catholic colleagues I
say, 'You can still do ministry as a social worker, teacher or in
the liberal churches. Don't waste your precious life mired in
secrecy, shame and guilt.'"
Selected Resources Organizations:
National Catholic AIDS Network, 707.874.3031 or http://www.ncan.org/
HIV/AIDS Ministry, Archdiocese of Miami, 954.565.7595; Dignity/USA, 800.877.8797 or http://www.dignityusa.org/;
Universal Fellowship of Metropolitan Community Churches, 310.360.8640 or http://www.ufmcc.com/.
The Kansas City Star, "AIDS in the
An Epistle of Comfort,
on spirituality for PWAs, by Rev. Bill Dobbles, a Jesuit priest who
died of AIDS in 1992 (Sheed & Ward).