VATICAN CITY— When Cardinal Alfonso Lopez Trujillo, president of the Pontifical Council for the Family, was reported as saying that condoms are “not totally safe” in preventing the spread of AIDS, he never expected the stormy reaction it would receive.

International agencies such as the Joint United Nations Program on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS) and the World Health Organization (WHO) described Cardinal Lopez Trujillo's comments as “quite dangerous” and “totally wrong.”

In response, the cardinal told the Register he “imagined that the subject was better known.”

The Colombian cardinal's doubts on the safety of condoms in disease prevention were broadcast on an Oct. 12 BBC television program on the subject of AIDS, “Panorama: Sex and the Holy City,” a program which was roundly criticized for its bias against the Church.

Cardinal Lopez Trujillo said that the HIV virus was small enough to pass through a condom, being roughly “450 times smaller” than a sperm cell and that the sperm cell “can easily pass through the ‘net’ that is formed by the condom.”

But the WHO stood by condoms as an effective way to prevent HIV transmission. “From a scientific perspective, anyone who claims that a male condom does not protect against AIDS is wrong,” WHO spokeswoman Fadela Chaib told Agence France Presse Oct. 10.

Chaib referred to studies conducted by the WHO establishing that condoms are effective in preventing against the AIDS virus 90% of the time, the remaining 10% being linked to improper usage.

“If used incorrectly, if it breaks, slips or has passed its expiration date, a male condom is not very effective,” Chaib said.

But this margin of error, the cardinal said, proves his point. “Among my concerns was my intention not to mislead people, especially the youth, by making them think that there is ‘safety,’ where in fact safety is not even proven,” he told the Register.

“How many youths have taken the way towards promiscuity, pushed by false hypotheses, and have fallen victims of this pandemic? It is a serious responsibility,” he said.

The response of some organizations and the media was, in part, due to the cardinal's comments being reported out of context, and the omission of his plea for personal moral responsibility which went largely unreported.

The scientific basis of his comments was drawn from authoritative findings by Jacques Suaudeau, a doctor who has closely followed the AIDS debate and problem in Africa, and a study report by groups representing 10,000 doctors. The groups accuse the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) for covering up the government's own research which showed the “ineffectiveness of condoms to prevent the transmission of sexually transmitted diseases.”

Cardinal Lopez Trujillo was not saying that condoms are totally ineffective in preventing the spread of AIDS, but that some studies reveal permeability of condoms in 15% or even up to 20% of cases. “Thus to talk of ‘safe sex’ is a form of Russian Roulette,” he said. He urges governments to display a health warning that the condom is not safe.

“The Church understands the difficulties and anguish of the people. But she cannot keep quiet,” he said.

Cardinal Lopez Trujillo pointed out that the Church has many centers that care for the sick and terminally ill and cares for many orphans whose parents have dies of AIDS.

But he was keen to point out that the Church must also play its role in upholding morality. He criticized as “irresponsible” institutions which distribute condoms to children in public schools, and he advises parents to “exercise their right to defend their children” so that they are not attacked by this “violent type of interference in their world of innocence.”

Rather, the moral values of “mutual fidelity of spouses and chastity” already provide true protection, he said. He hopes people, especially the youth, will be better formed in these values and develop respect for the duties of the family.

These are “the only true solutions to the problem,” the cardinal said. “Some say this is not realistic. But I think the most serious challenge is to educate in love.”

Edward Pentin writes from Rome