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Priest With AIDS--'It's Important That People Know'

February 16, 1987|MILES CORWIN | Times Staff Writer

He is a Catholic priest with AIDS and he is making arrangements for his funeral.

"I don't want my death swept under the rug and have it said that I died of emphysema or beriberi or whatever," the San Diego priest said. "I can't be open now because I have to deal with my family first. But when I die, I think it's important that people know about me and know that I died of AIDS--sexually transmitted AIDS."

He is writing a statement that will be read at his funeral, he said, acknowledging that he was a gay priest and "not ashamed of it."

A small but increasing number of priests are contracting acquired immune deficiency syndrome. According to health professionals, it is difficult to determine the exact figure because the deaths are often attributed to other causes.

"There's a lot of fear and shame involved, so everything's kept very quiet," said Bea Tracy, who has counseled dying priests as a member of the Oakland Catholic Diocese's AIDS Task Force. "The church prohibits any kind of sexual behavior from them, and homosexuality is considered even worse. So the priest has an added trauma, an added burden."

Larry Kessler, director of the AIDS Action Committee of Massachusetts, said he knows of 12 Catholic clergy in the country who have AIDS. At least 12 others have died, he said, including three in the Bay Area and one each in Los Angeles and San Diego.

Tracy and many priests interviewed estimate that there is a significant number of priests with a homosexual orientation--a higher percentage, they say, than in the overall male public. And because "priests are human, and some don't keep their vow of celibacy," Tracy said, the number of AIDS patients is expected to increase.

"Pretty soon we won't be able to say anymore that Father Jones died of a brain tumor," Tracy said. "I think we'll be seeing a big jump in the figures. "

'Church Needs a Better . . . Policy'

The Catholic Church does not have a standard policy on how to deal with priests who have AIDS, said Father Michael Lopes, a Dominican priest appointed by Archbishop John R. Quinn of San Francisco as chaplain for AIDS patients. Dioceses throughout the country have dealt with the issue in a "catch as catch can" way.

"By and large the individual religious communities and dioceses have responded well," said Kessler, a former seminarian. "But the church needs a better overall policy; it has to be addressed from a scientific and medical standpoint. There needs to be more education. Telling people to just say no is not enough."

Only a tiny percentage of the country's 57,000 priest and brothers have contracted AIDS, said Russell Shaw, spokesman for the National Conference of Catholic Bishops. The majority of priests keep their vow of celibacy, he said, but those who contract AIDS have been dealt with "compassionately."

Last week in Dallas, bishops from throughout the country attended an AIDS workshop at an annual conference on Catholic medical ethics.

"If a priest or anyone else has AIDS, the church should not be judgmental or punitive," Shaw said. "These are sick people; they need medical care and we hope they would be treated decently and with compassion on the part of the religious community and everybody else."

Los Angeles Archbishop Roger Mahony said he visited on several occasions a Los Angeles priest who had AIDS. How the priest contracted AIDS, Mahony said, "or what led to it" was irrelevant. "You treat the person the same way you treat anyone who is seriously ill."

Quinn also has a policy of visiting priests who have AIDS and offering them support, Lopes said. In most cases throughout the country, Lopes said, the church has responded adequately. He said he has heard, though, of isolated cases in which "people in authority just don't want to deal with it, they just don't think the church ought to be involved."

"Some priests have dropped out of sight, just to be alone," Lopes said. "The last thing people need when they're terminally ill is someone getting on their case."

Priests in Atlanta who have AIDS face the "loss of their public ministry," said Father Peter Dora, spokesman for the archdiocese.

A priest with AIDS "would be given full support, but his public ministry would be evaluated," Dora said. "His willingness and ability to proclaim the church's teaching on homosexuality would have to be determined. We'd have to be sure he did not blur the distinction between his personal feelings and what he was supposed to represent."

Tracy counseled one priest in Northern California, who, after he was diagnosed with AIDS, was afraid to tell his superiors. He was worried, not only about dying, but about losing his job, his insurance and the respect of everyone in the parish.

Went Away for Treatment

His superiors were supportive when he told them, Tracy said, and he voluntarily went to another city for treatment to spare his parish and family any embarrassment. When he died last year, the parishioners were told that he had suffered from a brain tumor. His parents still fear that someone will find out the cause of his death, Tracy said.

The San Diego priest who has AIDS said his order has been supportive since he has been diagnosed but said the condemnatory attitude of the church toward gays is painful.

"I'm thankful I've worked through all my guilt about being gay before I got AIDS," he said. "To face dying, without coming to terms with that, would have been too painful."

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