Group Says Report on Catholic Priests and AIDS Flawed

July 7, 2008 - 8:02 PM

( - A recent report in the Kansas City Star that claims that Catholic "priests are dying of AIDS at a rate at least four times that of the general population" may be based on flawed statistics, a major media watchdog group reported Wednesday.

The January 29th story, which was carried nationwide on the Knight-Ridder newswire, may illustrate nothing more than "the pitfalls awaiting news organizations that conduct surveys in order to create news," said S. Robert Lichter and David Murray of the Center for Media and Public Affairs.

Lichter and Murray take issue with the sample upon which the report is based - 801 Catholic priests out of the nearly 46,000 nationwide. Further, the authors point out, that number of respondents represents only 27 percent of the questionnaires that were distributed by the National Catholic AIDS Network, the group that conducted the survey.

In the Star's article, Rev. Rodney DeMartini, that group's executive director, was quoted as saying, "The response rate was 'very good.'"

"In fact," said Lichter and Murray, "few survey researchers would consider a 27 percent response rate to be 'very good.' . . . 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."

"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," Lichter and Murray continued.

In fact, 20 percent of the respondents to the survey identified themselves as "homosexual" or "bisexual/other," a rate between five and ten times more than the general adult male population.

However, say Lichter and Murray, "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."

Finally, the article's assertion that priests die of AIDS at a rate of four times the general population is misleading, the authors assert, because priests must be compared to adult males, not the general population, which includes women and children.

"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," said Lichter and Murray. "On this basis, contrary to the headlines, the AIDS death rate is not 'higher for priests.'"

"There may or may not be a distinctive problem with AIDS among U.S. Catholic priests, but this study cannot provide the evidence needed to determine whether this is so," the authors conclude.