- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 11, 2015

An international Catholic charity has affirmed its dedication to abstinence education in HIV/AIDS prevention, noting that recent claims about it distributing condoms are “absurd” and “malicious.”

Salesian Life Choices was invited by the South African government to participate in an HIV/AIDS prevention program because of its “proven model of abstinence education,” the service organization said in a statement to donors posted on its website Wednesday.

The recent online attacks on Salesian Missions “are malicious in nature and contain absurd information,” the statement said.

The Salesian Missions statement was in response to two critical reports released in recent weeks by a Virginia-based research group called Lepanto Institute for the Restoration of All Things in Christ.

One report faulted Salesian Missions for condom distribution while the other criticized use of a program that urged youth to use birth control and engage in safer-sex activities.

In response to the claim about condom distribution, the Salesian Missions statement said that a 2008 South African government report — which indicated Salesian Missions distributed more than 100,000 condoms to South African youth — contained a significant “data entry error.”

“The number on the table in question is actually the number of youth who received abstinence education,” Salesian Missions said.

The mission group, which cares for at-risk children and families in 130 countries, posted a letter from a South African program official, who explained the error and apologized to Salesian Missions for any “harm caused by our misrepresentation in the report.”

In Lepanto Institute’s other report, it focused on a Life Choices training manual, which was written by international health and nongovernmental agencies and used by Salesian Missions. This manual appeared to promote contraception and other activities deemed immoral in Catholic teaching.

However, the Lepanto report did not mention that when Life Choices was used in Salesian programs, it was “customized” to “make sure it was in adherence with not only their [the authors’] approach but also Catholic teachings,” the mission statement said.

Salesian Missions, which is part of the Don Bosco Network and Salesians of Don Bosco, the second largest order in the Roman Catholic Church, ended its statement by urging its donors to exercise caution about Catholic groups that make public critiques about other Catholic groups — but do not speak for the Catholic church.

Michael Hichborn, president of Lepanto Institute — which says it monitors Catholic organizations to find “those who have sold out to the world” — said Wednesday the “manuals indeed promote immoral activities.”

“If they don’t want to be connected to the stuff we found in the manuals they claim to have ‘customized,’ like telling boys to masturbate in order to satisfy sexual urges, then they need to stay away from government funding. It’s that simple,” Mr. Hichborn said in a statement to The Washington Times.

He called an earlier response by Father Mark Hyde, director of Salesian Missions, to the first report “unfortunate and disappointing.”

Some people who saw the Lepanto reports on the institute’s website and left a comment said they were so alarmed by the documents, they planned on ending their donations to Salesian Missions.

Mr. Hichborn has said he is preparing a list of Catholic mission groups that he believes have remained faithful to the church and its teachings.

Earlier this year, Lepanto Institute and another organization issued a report critical of Catholic Relief Services’ HIV-prevention activities with children and teens in Africa; that report claimed the relief charity was promoting contraception use.

Catholic Relief Services (CRS) rejected those claims as “misleading, exaggerated and untrue,” and on Wednesday, its chairman, Archbishop Paul S. Coakley of Oklahoma City, reiterated their view that Catholics would be wise to reserve judgment when they hear critical reports about mission activities.

“Catholic Relief Services helps 100 million people in 93 countries each year, so it is disappointing and disturbing that this fund-raising group continues to mislead the faithful in an attempt to breed discontent and distract from the wonderful work Catholics are accomplishing around the world​,” Archbishop Coakley said in a statement to The Washington Times.

​”As the Administrative Committee of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops said in 2013, these groups ‘do not speak for the Catholic Church​​ and we advise the Catholic faithful to exercise caution and consult the CRS website for clarification before endorsing or giving credence to the groups’ critiques.’

​”​We stand by this counsel​,​” the archbishop said.

• Cheryl Wetzstein can be reached at cwetzstein@washingtontimes.com.

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