A Catholic-Bashing Fiasco

One of the ways the media continue to devaluate their currency with the public is by constantly debasing society's pillars, of which a persistent favorite is the clergy.

The Kansas City Star recently took a sledgehammer to the Catholic Church. "Hundreds of Roman Catholic priests across the United States have died of AIDS-related illnesses," thundered the investigative report, "and hundreds more are living with HIV, the virus that causes the disease."

Devastating stuff, that. But could the Star prove it?

Star reporter Judy L. Thomas claimed that through death certificates and interviews with priests and family members, she had "found information on about 100 priests who have died of AIDS nationwide since the mid-1980s. And many priests and medical experts now agree that at least 300 priests have died. That translates into an annualized AIDS-related death rate of about 4 per 10,000 - four times that of the general population's rate of roughly 1 per 10,000 and about double the death rate of the adult male population." The Star series also boasted a survey of 800 priests that led to an estimate that "about 400 priests nationwide" currently have AIDS.

Whoa. Notice the utter lack of numerical certainty in this supposed expose, which is nothing but guesses piled upon guesses piled upon guesses. One would suppose that no serious journalist would carry this wild speculation. But if so, one would suppose wrongly.

Newspapers across the country picked up these nuggets of nothingness and presented a "crisis" of priests with AIDS. Readers in Chattanooga, Columbus, Denver, Indianapolis, New Orleans, New York, Omaha, Orlando, St. Petersburg, and Washington received this drivel through the Knight-Ridder news wire. CBS presented an "Evening News" report which suggested things were even worse: "Father Thomas Crangle conducted his own study a decade ago and found that nearly a quarter of the 398 priests he surveyed said they were HIV-positive or had full-blown AIDS. For him, the new findings were not surprising, but accurate numbers are difficult to come by."

The nonsense wouldn't stand unchallenged for long. Statistical analysts David Murray and Robert Lichter quickly debunked the Star survey which accompanied the series as illustrating "the pitfalls awaiting news organizations that conduct surveys in order to create news."

The Star survey was sent to 3,000 of America's 46,000 Catholic priests, and only 800 responded, for a 27 percent response rate. Murray and Lichter wrote that when three out of four recipients fail to respond, "follow-up surveys are conducted to increase the returns or at least to learn whether the minority who responded were representative....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 than the 2,212 non- respondents."

Murray and Lichter also note that when the Star guesses that "about 400 priests nationwide" either have AIDS or might have it but haven't been tested, only 0.5 percent said they had HIV, and only 0.4 percent said they might. "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."

Or to turn those numbers inside out, the Star's own supposedly shocking survey concluded that 99.1 percent of priests do not have AIDS.

What of the notion that "priests are dying of AIDS at a rate at least four times that of the general population"? Murray and Lichter point out that the (now-debunked) guesstimate of 4 deaths per 10,000 for AIDS deaths among priests is four times higher than among non-priests - if women and children are added to the total. Now compare the clergy to men - or apples to apples. And there's no difference at all.

So have CBS or the legion of newspapers from Denver to Orlando taken note of the embarrassing collapse of this heavy-breathing house of cards? No. Except for reports in the Chicago Tribune and U.S. News & World Report, the Kansas City Star has gotten away with journalistic malpractice.

Judy Thomas, whose last burst of national attention came through her pro-abortion book "The Wrath of Angels: The American Abortion War," cannot disguise her contempt for the Catholic church. For example, take this sentence: "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 within the clergy. "Her series is full of pro-gay priests blaming the church for creating "a tremendous amount of homophobia" which kills priests. Christianity is turned on its head: the wages of righteousness are death.

Accuracy wasn't the point of Thomas's Kansas City Star series: overthrowing traditional Catholicism was.