WASHINGTON -- The Roman Catholic archbishop of Washington said Saturday he agreed to take the unusual step of revealing that one of his priests was dying from AIDS to demonstrate the church's compassion for victims of the disease.
'The truth is always something that frees us,' Archbishop James Hickey told a news conference in describingwhy he agreed to reveal the illness of the Rev. Michael Peterson, 44, who died Thursday.
'It was (Peterson's) great concern that to speak of his illness would in some way harm his work,' Hickey said, but when the two clergymen met Feb. 27, they discussed that fear and decided to speak out together to alleviate the isolation that AIDS sufferers feel.
Hickey, who became archbishop of Washington in 1978 and has known Peterson since then, said, 'I believe that when someone is ill, it's far better to just say what it is. Would I give that advice to others? Yes, I would.'
The Roman Catholic Church prohibits all homosexual practices and Hickey said he would not recommend that the church relax that opposition.
'We hold that homosexual orientation is not sinful; we hold that homosexual practice is sinful. It stems from our best understanding of the dignity of the human person,' he said.
Hickey said he did not know how Peterson contracted the disease.
'I honestly have no idea. When he told me, he was a very, very sick man and the last thing I wanted to do was ask. ... If there's anything in one's past, a sin, that's a matter for the confessor and the Lord Jesus,' he said.
On Feb. 27, Peterson asked Hickey to visit him in the hospital and told the archbishop that he was dying from AIDS. After discussing the priest's plight, the two men sent letters to Catholic bishops around the country asking for prayers and understanding for Peterson and all AIDS victims.
Peterson's letter, dated March 9, said: 'I hope that in my own struggle with this disease, in finally acknowledging that I have this lethal syndrome, there might come some measure of compassion, understanding and healing for me and for others with it -- especially those who face this disease alone and in fear.'
In his cover letter, Hickey wrote: 'Father Peterson's illness reminds us in a personal way of the terrible human tragedy of AIDS in our midst. His suffering challenges us to reach out with renewed conviction and compassion to those with AIDS and their families and friends. We must offer the victims of this disease care and compassion, not condemnation.'
At the news conference, Hickey said those suffering from AIDS, 'deserve our care, our respect and our understanding,' and the church should ensure that victims are not sent off 'to die in oblivion.'
Hickey said he had personal knowledge of only one other priest who died of AIDS but the priest asked that the cause of his death remain private and the church agreed with that request.
Peterson founded St. Luke's Institute in Suitland, Md., a health facility nationally recognized for its treatment with alcoholic priests and nuns.
A Seattle native, Peterson converted to Catholicism at 19 and was ordained in 1978 after getting a medical degree from the University of California.
He also worked as a psychiatrist for the Public Health Service, the Food and Drug Administration and at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Md.
A funeral mass will be held Monday at St. Matthew's Cathedral in Washington, where he was ordained.