Criticizing the distribution of condoms in seven Baltimore public schools as "ineffective and even counterproductive," Roman Catholic leaders have challenged Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke to address moral values instead.
"This policy serves to weaken the family by having a public agency intervene between parents and children in the moral decisions which face our young people," said the open letter sent Tuesday to the mayor.
"We seek and invite a new partnership with city and school officials to develop a community approach to this pressing problem which is both morally sound and humanly effective."
The clergy wrote in response to the city Health Department's decision to distribute condoms and birth control pills at seven middle and high schools. City officials said last month the program is intended to reduce teen-age pregnancy rates as well as to halt the spread of sexually transmitted diseases and acquired immune deficiency syndrome.
Mayor Schmoke defended the city's decision to distribute condoms and other birth control devices in the city schools, saying it was "appropriate and ethically and morally defensible." He also said city Health Department officials would meet with the religious leaders.
The religious leaders, avoiding confrontational language, did not call for an end to the city program. Rather, they said the city's approach, which ignored moral growth and decision-making, was doomed.
"There's a deeper question of young people getting into a whole area of activity they are not able to deal with," said the Rev. Edward Miller of St. Bernadine parish. Father Miller said his inner-city church offers workshops and seminars on the importance of abstinence.
City officials said that the school clinics also stress abstinence and that teen-agers do not receive birth control without counseling.
In 1988, Baltimore led the nation's large cities in the percentage of babies born to teen-agers. Last year, 30 percent of the city's gonorrhea cases were teen-agers, too, according to Health Department statistics.
City educators, who said they encountered no opposition to the program, defended it as an effort to prevent pregnancy. But church leaders said the tactic will fail.
"My fear is as we get deeper into these budget crises at the city, state and federal levelthere will be more pressure for quick-fix solutions," said Auxiliary Bishop John Ricard, urban vicar of the Archdiocese of Baltimore. "But those solutions just don't work.
"The church can be most effective in providing some partnership with the city in looking at root causes among young people."
Bishop Ricard said the archdiocese had support from some Protestant and Jewish clerics but acted alone to get the statement out quickly.
A spokesman at the city Health Department said staff would be available to discuss the program with representatives of the archdiocese.