Series demonstrates one function of diocesan press
By Albert de Zutter
Catholic Key Editor
ONE REASON we need a diocesan Catholic press is demonstrated in The Catholic Key's response last week and this week to the Kansas City Star's three-day series entitled "AIDS in the Priesthood." Setting the record straight is not the main purpose of a Catholic newspaper, but it becomes a necessary and important one from time to time.
The total impact of the series has yet to be fully assessed, but a couple of things are already clear. The first is that the series evoked a storm of sewer-level invective from the ever-ready anti-Catholic bigots, as evidenced in the e-mail messages on The Star's Internet site.
But disgusting as those may be, an even worse effect results from the nation-wide and world-wide summaries of The Star's series trumpeting their allegations that the church has a major problem with AIDS among its priests, and that the Church is suppressing the information and failing to deal with the problem.
We and many others are of the opinion that one reason The Star published its series was to spring the "news" that Jesuit Father Thom Savage, former president of Rockhurst College (now university) died of AIDS. The reason for the quotation marks around "news" is that such information is of questionable public value. It has more to do with scandal-mongering than with serving the common good.
But the Father Savage angle has little currency outside the Kansas City area. The national "news" that The Star manufactured has to do with its allegation that priests are dying of AIDS at four times the rate of the general public, that the church has lacked compassion in its treatment of its stricken priests, who must suffer in silence and isolation, that celibacy and the male priesthood somehow contribute to the incidence of AIDS among priests, that candidates to the priesthood are so cocooned by the church as to remain totally unaware of "modern methods of safe sex" and other things about sexuality generally known by the public.
The internal evidence of The Star's own series contradicts the contention that the church has lacked compassion in its treatment of stricken priests. There is no logical way to connect the requirement of celibacy or the male priesthood to the incidence of AIDS.
The fact is, the series was not news. It is based on old information. It went over the same ground tracked by the National Catholic Reporter in a story published on April 17, 1997, and a three-part series by Catholic News Service in 1987.
THE MAIN CONTENTION of the series is that Catholic priests are dying of AIDS at a rate "at least" four times that of the general population.
It did not take a great deal of scientific acumen for The Catholic Key to point out that you cannot draw valid conclusions by comparing the rate of AIDS deaths among a small sub-set of single, adult men (priests) to the general population. That only required a bit of thought and common sense.
That common sense conclusion was reinforced professionally by NewsWatch, a service of the Center for Media & Public Affairs, which wrote on Feb. 2, "Despite the heavy and uncritical news coverage, questions about the survey suggest caution in inferring a hidden AIDS epidemic among priests. Instead, they illustrate the pitfalls awaiting news organizations that conduct surveys in order to create news."
NewsWatch is only one of several expert sources to criticize The Star's methods.
NewsWatch faults the survey on a number of points, among them the invalid comparison:
"The Star estimated the AIDS-related death rate among priests to be 'about 4 per 10,000 - four times that of the general population rate of roughly 1 per 10,000.' But the appropriate comparison groups for priests is surely not the general population, which includes women and children, but rather adult males.
"Data from the most recent (1998) Statistical Abstract of the United States put the AIDS-related death rate among adult males at about 4 per 10,000, the same rate that The Star estimates among priests. On this basis, contrary to the headlines, the AIDS death rate is not 'higher for priests.'"
David Murray, research director of NewsWatch, told The Catholic Key that the figure of 4 per 10,000 for adult males was reached by eliminating males under 19 years of age. Other experts have pointed out that a closer resemblance to the priests' population would have eliminated all males under 25, and all married males.
The NewsWatch critique said the response to the survey (801 out of 3,013 questionnaires) was small enough that normally a follow-up would be required. The declared sampling error of 3.5 percent "would only be valid if we knew that the 801 respondents were representative of the nationwide population of approximately 46,000 priests."
Murray said a valid comparison would require many more controls than The Star employed to make a sample of the non-priest population "look like" the priest population to make valid comparisons possible.
THE STAR SERIES faulted seminary education as a factor in the incidence of AIDS among priests, based on the testimony of a few individual priests suffering from AIDS. But a check with Conception Seminary revealed an in-depth process of exploring celibacy and integrating sexuality and spirituality in the seminary college-level curriculum. Such courses may not have been in place in the 1960s and early 1970s, but they are part of the current reality. The Star series presented no hint of awareness of that reality.
The Catholic Key responded vigorously in news stories and editorials to what we saw as an unwarranted denigration of the church and its priests. We did so on the basis of journalistic standards of accuracy and fairness. It is bad journalism, as NewsWatch point out, to "conduct surveys in order to create news." And, may we add, especially when the resulting "news" presents an inaccurate picture of the reality, as this series did.
From our point of view, there is enough misinformation and bigotry about the Catholic Church without having a powerful news organization purposefully add to it.
Keeping Catholics informed about our faith, our church and our mission in the world is our main function. A small publication like ours can effectively address mainly our own constituency. Our ability to "set the record straight" on the larger world stage is minuscule compared to the power of The Star and its Knight-Ridder chain to promulgate its version of reality. Nevertheless, we will continue to raise our small voice whenever that is necessary, trusting our Catholic constituency to amplify it.
Our work with and for our readers and the action of Catholics in forming opinion in the wider community - a constituent part of the church's mission - is one of the important reasons why we want more Catholics to be readers of The Catholic Key. We - the church - have a job to do in serving the common good. And the truth is, that while Catholics are a distinct numerical minority in western Missouri, we are nevertheless important in the eyes of our communities, as even the negative attention we sometimes receive demonstrates.
-Albert de Zutter