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St. Peter's Seminary bucks mandatory HIV test trend

PATRICK MALONEY, Free Press Reporter and news services   2004-01-14 03:49:19  

HIV tests are now mandatory for prospective priests at several Canadian seminaries, but St. Peter's Seminary in London won't adopt the practice, its rector says. Institutions responsible for training priests in Edmonton and Vancouver -- and, most recently, Montreal -- have moved to make the tests for HIV, the disease that causes AIDS, mandatory for applicants. Church officials call it an effort to adjust to the changing face of would-be priests, but Rev. Bill McGrattan, the head of London's seminary, says the change isn't happening here.

"We've always felt we're receiving adequate information about the candidates," he said of the screening process. "We've determined that it isn't necessary."

The reasons behind the policy change in Montreal are simple, says Jean-Claude Cardinal Turcotte: Applicants to the priesthood in Montreal are considerably older now than they once were -- last year the average age was 38 -- and many potential priests arrive with baggage from adult lives

That diocese's new mandatory testing, however, has been derided by critics as a way to weed out homosexual applicants to the priesthood.

Turcotte took exception to that yesterday, saying a priest's capacity to maintain relationships -- not sexual orientation -- is the issue and noted the practice of mandatory HIV tests has been in place for years at U.S. seminaries.

With the introduction of such tests at Canadian institutions, the head of the Canadian AIDS Society was suspicious yesterday.

"It's a narrow-minded approach and I think there is a hidden agenda, which makes me very skeptical," Paul Lapierre said.

McGrattan, who said the average St. Peter's applicant is about 32, doesn't agree with the anti-gay criticism.

"There's always a danger in coming to a predetermination that HIV testing is linked to a gay, active lifestyle," he said.

"What we're talking about is a medical condition.

"Do I think it's important? I certainly do because of the potential health risks to the individual."

Long-term illness could stop the priest from fulfilling his commitment to the church, McGrattan said.

St. Peter's turns away about 10 applicants a year and any disease, including Hepatitis C or diabetes, could make a student unsuitable for a life in the church.

"When the seminaries begin to adopt a new policy . . . sometimes it comes under scrutiny," he said.

"To categorize this as (anti-gay) is maybe unfair and it's unfair to all people that have (HIV)."

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