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

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