20/20: Priests With AIDS

Like other Roman Catholic priests, Father Roger has taken vows of poverty, obedience and celibacy to stay pure and focused on God.

His parishioners trust Roger, who has known since grade school that he wanted to devote his life to the church.

But he’s afraid if they knew the truth about him he would lose that sacred trust.

“My ministry will not be able to continue if people knew that I was HIV-positive,” says Roger, who is gay and has broken his vows of celibacy.

Father Roger is not the only HIV-positive priest. He estimates that over the course of his ministry, he has known 15 to 20 priests who have contracted HIV through homosexual relations. Many have died.

“I’ve worked with priests who have died with AIDS,” says Richard Sipe, a psychotherapist and former priest, who has spent the last 40 years researching and writing about the sexual habits of Catholic clergy. “I estimated that 750 priests had already died of AIDS,” says Sipe, who has analyzed hundreds of cases of AIDS in the priesthood, and believes that “another 750 priests carry the HIV virus.”

The Church’s Response

No one knows precisely how many priests have the AIDS virus or have died from the disease. But a recent effort to find out was conducted by the Kansas City Star.

Reporter Judy Thomas, who has collected priests’ death certificates over the past few years, says, “We will be able to document that at least 300 priests have died of AIDS — and that is likely to be conservative.”

But Sister Maryanne Walsh, the spokeswoman for the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, the official voice of the church in the United States, says this represents only a small percentage of priests.

“It concerns me terribly that anybody has AIDS,” says Walsh. “And even more so it concerns me that 300 of our church leaders, of our priests, would have AIDS.” But, she adds, “even if you doubled that number, you’d have less than 1 percent. So while you have 300 tragic stories there, you don’t have a trend in the priesthood.”

Even though AIDS can be contracted in a number of ways, experts including Sipes believe many priests contracted the disease through homosexual relations.

In his new best-selling book, The Changing Face of the Priesthood, Father Donald Cozzens, a respected Catholic seminary president, says there is such a high percentage of gay priests in the church that he is concerned “the priesthood is or is becoming a gay profession.”

Sipe, too, estimates that between 25 percent and 45 percent of American priests are homosexual in orientation.

Sister Walsh says not only would it be difficult to find evidence to support these estimates of gay men in the priesthood, but it is also irrelevant. “There’s no real purpose in saying whether someone is homosexual or heterosexual,” she says. “The issue is whether they can make a commitment.”

Indeed, the Catholic Church teaches that there is nothing sinful about having a gay orientation or homosexual desires — whether you’re a priest or not. It’s acting on those desires that the church considers unnatural and wrong. So when a gay priest has sex, he is not only violating his vows of celibacy, but the church’s very strong moral teachings on homosexuality as well.

Preparing for Celibacy

Bishop Thomas Gumbleton, an outspoken liberal Catholic leader in Detroit, believes most priests are maintaining their vows of celibacy. But he says many of those men are gay. Gumbleton also believes that until recently, Catholic Seminarians failed to teach priests how to integrate their sexuality and didn’t adequately prepare them for a lifetime of celibacy.

But the church has made dramatic changes in the last decade in the way it addresses sexual issues in seminary. Instead of denying or repressing sexual desire, seminaries now use progressive psychology to help men deal openly with the once taboo topics of sexual attraction as well as homosexuality.

Seminarians, for example, learn how to channel their sexual energy, and that it is alright to embrace their homosexual orientation. They are taught that intimate, nonsexual friendships may help keep them from breaking their vow of celibacy.

And even AIDS is now being seriously addressed by the church.

“Jesus didn’t ask how people got leprosy,” says Father Dennis Rausch, a Miami priest who ministers to AIDS victims and also has full-blown AIDS himself. “We don’t ask how they became infected. We are here to walk with them — not to judge them in their journey.”

Rausch still has his job and can talk openly about his disease in his diocese because he refuses to discuss how he contracted HIV. By his silence, he hopes to sever the connection between homosexuality and AIDS.

“The Church has worked so hard to take away blame and guilt and shame and victimizing of anybody with this disease,” he says.

But not all priests with AIDS feel as comfortable speaking so openly. Often, their homosexuality and the violation of their vows of celibacy condemn them, keep them from telling the truth about their disease, and prevent them from finding the support they need.

“I’m comfortable with what I’m doing,” says Roger, though he also says the double life he lives sometimes troubles him. “If people wanted perfect priests and ministers and rabbis, perfect clergy, we’d all have to take off our collars and leave the sanctuary.” Roger adds, “I’m a good priest. My HIV is a result of a poor choice I made in my life … And that doesn’t mean that I have nothing left to give to the Church … God will judge me — with all the strengths and the weaknesses that He has given me.”