Regional executives of 11 religious denominations, several of which back the U.S. surgeon general's recommendations supporting the use of condoms as the next best alternative to abstinence, issued a joint statement Tuesday decrying the vandalism at four Catholic churches directed at Archbishop Roger M. Mahony.
"We affirm the right of religious leaders to express their own views and the views of their denominations," said the statement of the Religious Leaders' Council of Southern California, chaired by United Methodist Bishop Jack M. Tuell.
Gay activists have assailed a policy statement by the National Conference of Catholic Bishops last month that rejected the use of condoms as a means of fighting the spread of AIDS.
The activists were particularly angered by Mahony's statement introducing the policy paper that the "safe-sex myth" is "both a lie and a fraud." That remark provocatively reflected, however, the church hierarchy's view that condoms are not 100% reliable. The bishops also feel that recommending condoms would amount to encouraging promiscuity among homosexuals.
Over the weekend, four Los Angeles Roman Catholic churches were splattered with red paint by demonstrators who denounced Mahony's views as reckless.
"In the past we have protested the desecration of synagogues," the council said, "and our concern is that such actions violate the fabric of community which is so necessary to constructive dialogue among differing points of view on sensitive moral and social issues facing our society."
Despite Mahony's condemnation of the use of condoms for safe sex, the clinical view that condoms are the single best weapon against transmission of the AIDS virus, aside from celibacy, remains largely unchanged.
A Consumers Union laboratory study released earlier this year found that most major condom brands performed satisfactorily in tests more rigorous than those required by the federal government, although the tests found that failure rates differed sharply among brands.
The study, which included laboratory tests of 16,000 prophylactics, supported the view that top-rated condoms protect users against AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases.
However, federal health officials have said that the effectiveness of condoms in blocking the deadly disease through anal sex has been compromised in five U.S. cities with high HIV-infection rates, including Los Angeles, because of the statistical risk of being exposed to an infected partner should a condom fail.
Dr. Jeffrey Perlman, chief of contraceptive evaluation for the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, said that it would be premature to categorize condom use as futile in controlling AIDS infection among gay men who practice anal sex. But he said that, in the five cities with high infection rates, the risks in such sex, even with condom use, appear overwhelming.
That view resulted in a federal funding cutoff for a UCLA study on the effectiveness of condoms in preventing the spread of AIDS last year because of concern that condoms may be incapable of providing reliable protection for the study participants. UCLA researchers could not be reached for comment on the study Tuesday.
However, health researchers cautioned that the high risk stems from the statistical likelihood of being with an AIDS-infected partner when a condom happens to fail and not on any inherent problems with condoms.
Mahony is a member of the religious council but was not a signer of Tuesday's declaration. Among those signing were Evangelical Lutheran, United Methodist, Episcopal, Armenian Apostolic and Christian Methodist Episcopal bishops and as well as executives of the United Church of Christ, Christian (Disciples) Church, Presbyterian Church, Church of the Brethren, American Baptist Churches and Rabbi Lennard R. Thal of Reform Judaism's regional headquarters.