Bad News on Priests and AIDS

DAVID MURRAY & S. ROBERT LICHTER

On Jan. 29, an exclusive Kansas City Star story carried nationwide through the Knight-Ridder News Service proclaimed a scandal of silence in the Catholic Church involving priests and their sexuality.

Ridder News Service proclaimed a scandal of silence in the Catholic Church involving priests and their sexuality.

As the San Jose Mercury News headlined, the “Death Rate From AIDS is Higher for Priests.” Based on the results of 801 responses to a mail survey the Star sent to 3,013 priests, the story begins, “Hundreds of Roman Catholic priests across the United States have died of AIDS-related illnesses, and hundreds more are living with HIV, the virus that causes the disease.”

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.

Consider the following assertions about the survey from the Star article and the Knight-Ridder dispatch:

“The response rate was ‘very good’... said the Rev. Rodney DeMartini, executive director of the National Catholic AIDS Network.”

In fact, few survey researchers would consider a 27 percent response rate to be “very good.” It means that nearly three of four priests who were targeted failed to respond. Normally, when a response rate is this low, follow-up surveys are conducted to increase the returns or at least to learn whether the minority who responded were representative.

“Given the sample size, the poll’s margin of error is 3.5 percentage points, meaning that if the same poll were conducted 100 times, 95 percent of those times the results would be no more than 3.5 percentage points higher or lower than the results of this poll,” the article said.

This boilerplate description of sampling error would only be valid if we knew that the 801 respondents were representative of the nationwide population of approximately 46,000 priests. But we have no idea whether the minority who responded were unusually concerned about AIDS, differentially open to questions of personal sexuality, or even more likely to have a homosexual orientation (see below) than the 2,212 non-respondents.

Without knowing such things, we cannot estimate how much other poll results might vary from this survey’s findings. And this undermines the substantive claims that follow. To wit, the article stated: “Fifteen percent said they were homosexual and 5 percent bisexual. Estimates of the percentage of homosexuals in the general population .... say the figure is between 5 percent and 10 percent.”

The potential skewing of the sample in regards to sexual orientation means the finding of 15 percent homosexuality has no application beyond the group who responded. (An additional eight percent identified themselves as bisexual or “other,” leaving only 78 percent self-identified heterosexuals.)

Moreover, the most comprehensive studies of male homosexuals in the United States (such as the 1994 University of Chicago/National Opinion Research Center study) put the percentage between two percent and four percent for the general population. The 10 percent upper limit cited in the story presumably refers to the widely discredited studies of Alfred Kinsey, which were based on small and highly skewed non-random samples.

If the percentage of homosexual males in the United States is roughly three percent, then the fact that only 78 percent of the survey respondents affirmed that they were heterosexual either means that priests are disproportionately homosexual or that a disproportionate number of homosexual priests chose to respond to this sexual survey. Unfortunately, we can’t determine from this survey which statement is true. Nonetheless, the article said, “About one in 114 said they either have HIV or AIDS or might have but haven’t been tested. That would translate into about 400 priests nationwide... .”

Specifically, 0.5% of those who responded answered yes to having HIV or AIDS, 0.4% answered possibly, and 99.1% answered no. In absolute terms, this means seven individuals said they have or fear they might have AIDS. Any projection of seven individuals onto a nationwide stage is statistically dubious, particularly when we don’t know how representative this group is.

Finally, the article concluded that “it appears priests are dying of AIDS at a rate at least four times that of the general population.”

Specifically, the Star estimated the AIDS-related death rate among priests to be “about 4 per 10,000 B four times that of the general population rate of roughly 1 per 10,000.” But the appropriate comparison group 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.”

When all is said and done, what can we conclude with scientific confidence? There may or may not be a distinctive problem with AIDS among US Catholic priests, but this study cannot provide the evidence needed to determine whether this is so.

However, a sidebar to the Star’s story did include one statement that is unquestionably true: “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.”

Indeed. So why publish the results as if this crucial qualifier didn’t matter? To be sure, every AIDS death represents a human tragedy, and AIDS incidence among an avowedly celibate community raises special and sensitive concerns. In this case, however, to paraphrase Alistair Campbell, the Catholic Church appears “more spinned against than spinning.”

ACKNOWLEDGEMENT

David Murray & S. Robert Lichter. “Bad News on Priests and AIDS.” NewsWatch: Views on the News (February 2, 2000).

NewsWatch is a project of the Center for Media and Public Affairs. NewsWatch's mission is to watch the media watchdog on behalf of news consumers, and to give a voice to consumers who want to talk back to the media. Our goal is not to make the job of the journalist more difficult but to hold them to their profession's standards of fairness and accuracy.

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