Those who counsel priests with AIDS say the church must be more open
By JUDY L. THOMAS - The Kansas City Star
The Rev. Thom Savage was a beloved man, an energetic, fun-loving soul who made an impression on Catholics and non-Catholics alike.
In 1988, when he was chosen to lead Rockhurst College at age 41, Savage was the nation's youngest Jesuit college president. Over the next eight years, he became a highly respected community leader.
When he unexpectedly died last May at age 51, he was eulogized as "a meteor that burned itself out in the service of others."
Everyone says Savage was all of those things. He also was a priest who died of AIDS. Yet he kept his illness so quiet that he didn't even tell his family until weeks before his death.
"It's very hard," said the Rev. James Savage, one of Thom Savage's older brothers and a priest in Cambridge, Mass. "It's particularly difficult to think that he would have gone through all of this by himself."
As Savage's death illustrates, a priest with AIDS is still a matter so sensitive that it has yet to be fully addressed by the church, by priests' families -- or even by the priests themselves.
Experts say that until the church starts encouraging a more healthy understanding of sexuality, priests will continue to die of AIDS.
"It's depressing," said the Rev. Thomas Gumbleton, auxiliary bishop of the Archdiocese of Detroit. "The bishops just won't face the fact that there's a problem and that they should be doing something."
Church leaders say they are now searching for ways to prevent the spread of AIDS, including more sex education in the seminaries and HIV tests for priest applicants.
Among the more radical suggestions are eliminating the requirement that priests be celibate, changing church doctrine on homosexuality or even banning gays from the priesthood.
The Rev. Dennis Rausch, a Florida priest who has AIDS, says those with the disease don't have to hide it anymore.
"The church is more open, there's less judgmentalism and there's more support," Rausch said. "(Priests) don't have to be as afraid as they once were."
But many priests with AIDS continue to suffer in silence.
The day Savage died, Rockhurst officials issued a news release attributing the death to severe respiratory problems. His death certificate, however, names AIDS as the only cause.
"For such a public person...his final going forth from life was a very private experience," James Savage said. "I just think that he must have been terribly, terribly isolated."
Now, James Savage and his siblings are planning to honor their brother's life by designing a panel for the AIDS Memorial Quilt. The quilt, which bears the names of those who have died, is publicly displayed across the country to raise AIDS awareness.
"I was telling my sister to put something like maybe the insignia of Rockhurst and the insignia of the Jesuits and maybe the family insignia and his name," James Savage said. "That kind of represents who he was."
"They were deathly afraid," said the Rev. Rodney DeMartini, executive director of the National Catholic AIDS Network, a group that focuses on AIDS education. "Not only of the virus living in their bodies. They were deathly afraid of being recognized, deathly afraid of any consequence to them, to their community, to their diocese, because they were living with HIV and AIDS."
Unfortunately, DeMartini said, little has changed in the last 12 years.
"There are still people today, they may not wear bags over their heads, but they are not wanting to know their own (HIV) status, or, if they do, they are not wanting to say anything to anybody until they have to," he said.
"We still have a lot of work to do."
The Roman Catholic Church has no policy on dealing with priests who have HIV or AIDS. Some dioceses and religious orders have developed their own guidelines, DeMartini said, but many have not.
"The other reality is that a lot of clergy just don't want to be out as people with AIDS," DeMartini said. "What we're trying to do is, as much as possible, encourage support, resourcing and less shame and blame."
Those who counsel and treat priests with AIDS say the church must start talking more openly about the problem.
At their fall convention in November, U.S. bishops addressed everything from a decline in prayerful silence before Mass to church architecture.
They did not, however, discuss sexuality issues.
Requests by The Kansas City Star to interview Roman Catholic cardinals in the United States and high-ranking church officials in Rome about the newspaper's findings were declined.
That perplexes Gumbleton, who has been critical of how the church has handled the issue.
"We're not ready within the institutional church to look at these hard issues and confront them the way we should," he said.
Perhaps it would have been different had AIDS struck today instead of two decades ago, as the social pendulum now swings toward a new conservatism and powerful new drugs are suppressing the deadly disease.
Deaths are down sharply since the introduction of AIDS drugs. In 1998, AIDS killed 17,047 persons in the United States -- a decline of 20 percent from 1997. From 1996 to 1997, the drop in deaths was a more dramatic 42 percent. The difference in those percentages raises questions about whether the medications already are losing their punch or whether some AIDS patients are failing to take them properly.
Health officials now fear that the drugs may be encouraging those at risk to let down their guards. At the first National HIV Prevention Conference in August, researchers said AIDS patients may become less likely to use a condom or to abstain from risky behavior.
Those factors, researchers worry, could cause the death rate to shoot up again.
Health officials say priests who have used intravenous drugs or have been sexually active need to be tested for HIV.
Most dioceses and orders now require priest applicants to undergo HIV-antibody tests, according to the National Catholic AIDS Network and church officials.
Proponents say testing is a safeguard against escalating medical costs and a means of ensuring that the priests can perform their duties. Others, however, fear that it's a way to exclude gays from the priesthood.
The Rev. Thomas Crangle, a Franciscan priest in the Capuchin order in Passaic, N.J., knows what a positive AIDS test can do to a seminarian.
When he was vocation director for his province, Crangle said, a man applied for his order, which didn't require testing, and another order that had mandatory testing.
"He came out positive," Crangle said. "He came to me and he said, 'That just blows all my dreams.' I said, 'It doesn't blow your dreams. You had a vocation before this, and this does not make you who you are."'
Crangle said that although his order was open to accepting the man, he chose not to become a priest.
Each diocese or order decides whether to reject a priest applicant who tests HIV-positive. Some say that a positive test shouldn't disqualify an applicant. Others argue that the means of contraction is an important issue.
"If it was sexually transmitted and if the person has a sexually active background, well, that should be taken into consideration," said the Rev. John Keenan, a priest and psychologist who runs Trinity House in Chicago, a church-sponsored outpatient clinic for priests.
One religious order that doesn't require the test is the Society of the Precious Blood. The Rev. Mark Miller, provincial director of the Kansas City province, said the testing raises issues that he does not wish to address.
"When you ask a question, you need to know why you are asking it," Miller said. "The answers that would come up puts it in a category where we don't want to go."
Officials at other religious orders said that while they don't require testing, they will recommend it if screening determines that the applicant has engaged in risky behavior.
The Diocese of Oakland, Calif., does not require testing. The Rev. Jim Schexnayder, executive director of the National Association of Catholic Diocesan Lesbian and Gay Ministries, who developed the Oakland policy, said several factors went into the decision not to test.
"One was that it's limited in terms of what it's trying to communicate," Schexnayder said. "You'd have to test regularly, because one test at one time would not necessarily resolve the question."
Another factor, he said, was that "money that had been spent relative to HIV medical treatment from the policy provider indicated that the larger costs were not for HIV, but for other kinds of issues, like cardiac problems and cancer."
For those who test positive for HIV, Rausch said, "make sure that you have a spiritual director, that you have a counselor, to help you deal with the ups and downs."
Some priests seek support among other priests who have AIDS. The National Catholic AIDS Network (707-874-3031) can put priests in touch with others in their area.
Homosexuality and celibacy
Homosexuality has been a divisive issue for years. Even among priests, there is little room for compromise.
The Rev. Dan McCarthy, for example, marches in New York City's Gay Pride Parade dressed in his clerical clothing.
"I am quite proud to identify myself as a gay man," the priest and psychotherapist said.
The Rev. Charles Fiore, however, thinks openly gay priests should leave the priesthood.
"I am damned mad at those people who accept the power and the glory and the honor of the priesthood and then foul the nest," the Wisconsin priest said.
Some priests and liberal Catholics think the church needs to rescind its doctrine that considers homosexual relations a sin and calls for all homosexuals to be chaste.
Many other Catholics say the church has no authority to do so.
"The Church's teaching on homosexuality is based on the Bible, the word of God," wrote one priest who responded to The Kansas City Star's confidential nationwide survey of 3,000 priests. "What is needed is greater fidelity to the Catholic Church, to Christ, to the Gospel and Word of God."
Others go a step further, saying the church should expunge gays from the priesthood.
"Homosexuals should be encouraged to seek other means of livelihood -- aided by church officials where possible, thus sparing the church much scandal and proselytizing," wrote one priest.
Another possible solution is for the church to re-examine its discipline on celibacy.
"I think celibacy should be lifted to enable priests to marry," wrote one priest who responded to the newspaper survey. "This will assure more heterosexuals in the priesthood."
Some priests disagreed.
"Church cannot change doctrine," wrote another survey respondent. "God gave us the gift of sex. Used in marriage as God proposed would eliminate the epidemic. Celibacy does not cause AIDS! The majority of priests live celibate lives, and the majority of married people live their vows faithfully."
Education and discussion
For years, the Rev. James J. Gill watched as priests came to him for treatment of sexual problems long after the "acting out" had begun. The priests told Gill they were scared to talk about their sexual inclinations while in the seminary.
"They were afraid they'd get thrown out if they brought up something sexual, or else they said there was nobody they could talk with," said Gill, a senior consultant at the Institute of Living in Hartford, Conn.
For Gill, a Jesuit priest and psychiatrist, that raised a question.
"Who trains, who educates the faculty members, the spiritual directors, the teachers, to be able to deal with the sexuality of the young people who come under their care?"
The answer, he discovered: Nobody.
In 1994, Gill started The Christian Institute for the Study of Human Sexuality. Gill and his 10-member faculty train those who teach prospective priests.
Based in Silver Spring, Md., the program runs 30 days and costs $3,000. Students participate in role-playing to gain experience in counseling priests about sexual issues.
Gill said the reality of priests contracting AIDS illustrates how difficult celibacy can be.
"You don't pick up AIDS living a celibate life," he said. "You have to know how to talk to people about their motivation, help them be honest about their temptations, be honest about accepting their own gender and help them learn how to live with what their sexual orientation is."
To date, about 400 have been through Gill's program. What baffles him is that more haven't attended.
Sister Mary Ann Walsh, spokeswoman for the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, said the church holds Gill's program in "very high regard."
"But we don't say, 'Everybody go see Jim Gill.' "
Walsh said the Bishops' Committee on Priestly Formation urges seminaries to promote a healthy sexual development of all seminarians. Walsh added, however, that "each seminary is free to implement that however it chooses."
Bishop Raymond J. Boland of the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph said churches and seminaries are addressing sexuality issues.
"I have no doubt that everybody is doing something," Boland said, "but I would also say that some are doing it better than others."
Also working to curb AIDS in the priesthood is the National Catholic AIDS Network.
As its director, DeMartini conducts workshops for dioceses and religious orders. He says priests need to learn to address issues of "nonconsolidated sexual identity."
"That means I act different than I speak," DeMartini explained. "It's what happens when the collar comes off....It's what happens when I find myself taking risks, even though I understand in my head fully how HIV is transmitted[ ... ]."
Rausch, the Florida priest who has AIDS and ministers to others with the disease, said one positive step would be a national forum to discuss the issue.
"There are several of us priests who are HIV-positive who would love to go and talk as a panel, for example, to the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, and let them hear from us first-hand what it's like to...live with this disease," he said.
As priests continue to battle the disease, the Rev. William Hart McNichols, who attended St. Stanislaus Seminary in the late 1960s and lost two of his best friends to AIDS, believes there is hope -- for gays, for priests with AIDS, and for the Catholic Church's struggle to deal with those issues.
McNichols thinks, however, that the ultimate challenge is for the church to discover why God created gay people. He thinks gays have many gifts to offer and have been major contributors to the image of the church, citing as examples two men who many art historians agree were homosexual.
"Michelangelo made the Sistine Chapel. St. Peter's Basilica was designed by him, too," McNichols noted. "Leonardo da Vinci, who did the Last Supper, was gay."
The Rev. Jon Fuller, a Boston priest and physician who specializes in AIDS, doesn't believe the hundreds of priests' deaths from AIDS-related illnesses were in vain.
"Certainly it has made us look at the issue of homosexuality more closely," Fuller said.
The deaths also show the need for more open and honest discussion about sexual issues within the church, he said.
The Rev. James Savage wishes his brother had been more open about his illness.
"I don't know how he could have kept his spirits up as well as he did, because to me, to be without personal support, human support, I just find that to be very, very sad."