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 Notes Insufficient Response over 20 Years; Calls for "Examination of Conscience," Concrete Action on HIV

Washington, DC, May 24, 2001 — Noting the 20th anniversary of the first reports of AIDS in the June 5, 1981 edition of the Center for Disease Control's Morbidity and Mortality Reports, leaders of DignityUSA are calling on the Roman Catholic Church to review its response to the epidemic. Dignity is the largest organization of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered Catholics in the US.

"We call on our Church leaders to engage in a serious Examination of Conscience about how they have treated AIDS and people with AIDS and HIV," said the group's President, Mary Louise Cervone of Philadelphia. "I think they will realize there have been grave sins of omission as well as sins of commission on their parts."

Cervone continued, "Over 20 million people worldwide have died of AIDS in the past 20 years. Nearly 36 million people are currently infected with HIV. Over 14,500 people get infected with HIV every day. This disease has affected the lives of millions of God's children. Our Church should be using its enormous moral, political and financial resources to fight for them. Instead, our leaders have been reluctant to get involved."

DignityUSA applauded the fine care that thousands of Catholic hospitals provide to people with HIV and AIDS. However, Cervone noted, "It's not enough to help people once they are sick, and bury them when they die. The Catholic Church should be in the forefront of efforts to eradicate HIV. Instead, our bishops' actions, and lack of action, virtually guarantee that HIV continues to infect people."

Cervone pointed to Church leaders' opposition to scientifically proven prevention efforts such as condom distribution and needle exchange programs as socially irresponsible and morally bankrupt. She also questioned their relative silence on efforts to make AIDS drugs more affordable and universally accessible.

"Where are the voices of the Pope and the Bishops? Why don't we hear them calling on drug companies and wealthy countries to demand that medications be made more accessible in developing countries? Why aren't they challenging pharmaceutical manufacturers to reduce the cost of these life-saving drugs? Given the vast financial resources of the Roman Catholic Church, why isn't the Vatican buying AIDS drugs and providing the means to make them available to the world's poorest people?" asked Cervone.

Cervone also noted that people living with HIV or AIDS still hesitate to turn to Catholic officials for help.

"People tell us they expect the Church's reaction to be condemnation, especially if they contracted HIV through sexual activities," said Cervone. "After 20 years, we continue to hear from parents who are afraid to tell anyone in their parish that their son or daughter has HIV or died of AIDS. The Church has created a climate of shame for people who have this disease and their caregivers. It is the Church that should feel ashamed."

DignityUSA said that it is time for the Catholic Church to become a leader in the fight against HIV. The group called on Church leaders to take the following actions:

  • Make a public statement recognizing the 20th Anniversary of AIDS, honoring those who have lost their lives to the disease, pledging support to people currently living with HIV and committing Church resources to work for the eradication of the virus worldwide.
  • Call on pharmaceutical companies, philanthropic institutions and governments of developed nations to make treatment of HIV/AIDS more widely accessible in poor countries, especially sub-Saharan Africa.
  • Use Vatican funding to purchase AIDS medications and distribute them to impoverished people.
  • Immediately cease public opposition to measures that reduce or prevent transmission of HIV.
  • Institute Masses for people with HIV, their families, caregivers and survivors of those who have died of AIDS in every US diocese and every parish in the world.
  • Apologize for attitudes and actions that have demeaned people with HIV/AIDS and their families and have led people to avoid seeking pastoral care from the Catholic Church.

"For Church leaders to do these things would send a clear and powerful message to the entire world that Catholics understand the devastation that HIV and AIDS cause to people in every nation on the planet. These six simple steps would vastly improve the quality of life and standard of care for people living with HIV, and most assuredly, will save lives," concluded Cervone.

DignityUSA is the nation's oldest and largest organization of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered Catholics and their friends. An independent nonprofit founded in 1969, it has members and chapters across the United States.