KANSAS CITY, Mo.—A newspaper series claiming a high rate of AIDS deaths among priests is based on shaky research and points to unfounded conclusions, statisticians and Church observers said.
The reports in the Jan. 29-31 Kansas City Star claimed the death rate from AIDS among priests is four times higher than that of the general population. The newspaper tried to link the purported high incidence of HIV/AIDS with Church teaching on sexual morality and seminary formation.
Star reporter Judy Thomas told the Register that her story was the fruit of “several years” of research. The Star's Web site explained that the story was based on a sampling of “scores of death certificates” and hundreds of interviews.
These materials were supplemented by a “sex survey,” circulated by the Star to 3,000 priests last fall. The survey asked priests if they were homosexual and if they knew of any priest with AIDS or who had died of AIDS. Only 801 priests responded to the survey.
After comparing the sampling with the results of the survey, Thomas said, the Star was ready to present its case to the general public: “That hundreds of Roman Catholic priests … are dying of AIDS at a rate at least four times that of the general U.S. population … often in silence.”
“I worked with three separate statisticians,” added Thomas, “so I'm very confident with the way we came up with the death rate.”
That confidence wasn’t shared by one of America's most highly esteemed research analysts, however.
Michael Traugott, the president of the American Association of Public Opinion, said the Star survey leaves some important questions unanswered.
Since only 25% of those who received the survey responded, there is a strong possibility that respondents represent a “self-selecting” group, Traugott told the Register.
“And when the response rate to a survey gets that low,” he cautioned, “we worry about whether or not there is a bias that results from the people who chose to answer being different from the people who chose not to answer.”
In a note to the Rome-based ZENIT news service, Star editor Mark Zieman said the paper devised the number of priests' deaths through interviews with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the National Institutes of Health and AIDS experts and priests who work in AIDS ministries “as well as independent research by The Kansas City Star of death certificates of priests in several states and other data.”
Observed Traugott, “I don’t know anything about the analysis of the death certificates because they [the Star] didn’t disclose much [about them].” He said this leaves readers with only the survey to go on.
Dennis Boznango, a statistician working for a pharmaceutical company in the Philadelphia area, agreed.
“My first thought was that some people are more likely to respond to a survey that's all about sexuality and AIDS,” Boznango said. “You have to be careful when three-quarters of the people don’t want to talk.”
Boznango suggested one reason why the actual figure for AIDS cases among priests is actually lower than the Star's estimate.
“Since the poll was anonymous,” he said, “there isn’t a fear from admitting sexual orientation. However, heterosexual priests are much more likely to see the questionnaire as not being applicable to them and thus not responding. One would have to see the actual document to see if it was ‘loaded’ to encourage one group to respond rather than another.”
The Star's own “explainer” box cautioned: “It is important to note that because this survey was mailed and anonymity was assured, The Star cannot ensure that the priests responding are demographically and geographically representative of all Roman Catholic priests. The priests who chose to respond to the survey may be different from those who opted not to reply.”
That might raise the question why the Star decided to publish the survey in the first place. The series was even taken to task by the Star's ombudsman.
Miriam Pepper, the ombudsman (an employee who acts as an arbiter over the fairness of published stories), wrote that one of the lead paragraphs in the Star's series “was too broad” in its claim.
She also quoted a statistics expert who took note of the relatively small number of returns. “The 800 may not be a random sample because of selection bias,” said Steven Maynard-Moody, a professor of public administration at the University of Kansas in Lawrence.
Series writer Judy Thomas contended the Church isn’t doing enough to educate future priests about the power and the perils of sex.
“The focus of the story was that the majority of priests who responded and the majority of people we talked to said that issues of sexuality were not addressed enough in the seminaries,” Thomas told the Register.
In one article Thomas wrote, “Many priests and behavioral experts argue that the church's adherence to 12th-century doctrine about the virtues of celibacy and its teachings on homosexuality have contributed to the spread of AIDS with the clergy.”
At least one seminary's formation director disputed that view.
Msgr. Paul Langsfeld, vice rector of Mount St. Mary's Seminary in Emmitsburg, Md., told the Register, “It's illogical to say that because people violate the rules, that the rules should be abolished.”
Criticism came from other parts of the Church too.
“It appears that the Star is going for a journalistic award,” said Father Norman Rotert, a Kansas City diocesan priest quoted in a statement issued by the Archdiocese of Detroit.
“If they are using the priesthood to win an award, then I resent it very much,” he said. “There isn’t any question that it calls the character of every priest into question and invites the general public to call the character of priests into question.”
Father Joseph Cisetti, associate director of vocations for the Archdiocese of Detroit, and Father Don Farnan, who was vocations director for the archdiocese from 1991-1997, took issue with the Star series' contention that seminarians receive inadequate training and counseling on sexuality.
Father Cisetti said that prospective candidates for the seminary undergo an extensive application process that includes counseling on celibacy and sexuality. “The application process and the seminary formation process [on those issues] is much more sophisticated than it was in the past,” he said.
Catholic League President Bill Donohue said the report rested on “anecdotal commentary,” intended to bolster its shaky methodology. But the methodology wasn’t nearly as troubling to Donohue as what he viewed as the ideology driving it.
“The agenda is evident,” Donohue said. “By citing unnamed ‘experts'who urge the Church to change its teachings, the editors invent support for their position that their own data do not allow. And notice, too, that they even throw in a shot about the male clergy, as if that contributes to AIDS.”
A statement issued by the Archdiocese of Philadelphia countered the Star series with an affirmation of celibacy.
“It appears as though the Star is trying to say ‘here is evidence that priests are sinners,’” the statement said. “But priests will be the first ones to tell you that.
“The vast majority of priests are living out their commitments to be holy and celibate ministers.”