LOS ANGELES - I did not have sex with that rent boy; God's honest truth. That's the line being heroically maintained by George Rekers, the Baptist minister and vocal critic of gay rights, who was photographed returning from a 10-day European vacation with a male prostitute. It's his story, and he's sticking to it.

In an exclusive interview with The Independent, Dr Rekers, 61, who has three children and believes that homosexuality is a "disease" which can be cured, has explained the misunderstanding which saw him accidentally hire a blond Puerto Rican sex worker to help carry his bags during a trip to London and Madrid last month.

The prominent evangelical conservative, who co-founded the influential right-wing Family Research Council, became an international punch-line earlier this week when it emerged that his travelling companion was a 20-year-old escort who works under the aliases "Lucien" and "Geo" and advertises at www.rentboy.com.

Comedians including David Letterman and Jay Leno have gleefully joked about the exact nature of the baggage that Dr Rekers needed carrying. They have also pored over "Lucien's" profile on the exotic site, where he's described as "un-cut" and has listed his hobbies as "vanilla, leather, shaving, spanking, role-play and go-go dancing."

Yet Dr Rekers vehemently denies any sexual relationship with the perfectly proportioned youth. Instead, he claims to have hired "Lucien" on doctors' orders, after surgery left him unable to lift heavy objects. He only discovered the true nature of "Lucien's" profession halfway through the foreign trip, when it was too late to dispense with his professional services.

"I still needed a travel assistant to assist me for the remainder of the trip and did not have time to find someone in Europe," Dr Rekers insisted yesterday.

"My travel assistant was well behaved and never made any sexual advances to me. He was actually gone much of the day and night anyway, touring himself, when I did not need him. While the situation was certainly not ideal, I could adjust to it."

Dr Rekers was speaking from the University of South Carolina School of Medicine, where he describes himself as a "distinguished professor of neuropsychiatry and behavioural science emeritus" who is an expert lecturer on childhood and teenage sexuality.

A somewhat damning photograph of the duo at Miami International Airport published by the Miami New Times showed Dr Rekers arranging heavy bags on a luggage trolley, while "Lucien" stood decoratively to one side. However he insists that it does not undermine his version of events.

"Pushing a trolley is not a problem for me," he said.

"My surgeon's instructions are that I should not lift any object more than a few pounds because lifting is what would do damage to my body. My travel assistant lifted our suitcases from the conveyor belt and placed them on the trolley for me. He volunteered to push the trolley, which was nice but not necessary."

The big question now revolves around how exactly "Lucien" was hired.

The New Times has quoted the sex worker claiming that Dr Rekers - who has appeared in court as an expert witness opposing gay adoption - had initially contacted him through www.rentboy.com.

But Dr Rekers strongly disputes this "slanderous" version of events. Although he refused to confirm or deny that he had ever visited the explicit website, which contains hundreds of pornographic images of men, he claims to have employed the travel assistant "by interviewing different people who might be able to help".

In fact, Dr Rekers maintains, he "did not even find out about [the] prostitution activity until after the trip was in progress. There was nothing inappropriate with this relationship."

When the scandal first broke, Dr Rekers compared himself to the son of God, who is said to have broken bread with the prostitute Mary Magdalene.

"Like Jesus Christ," he told a reporter, he liked to spend time "with sinners with the loving goal to try to help them."

As to a leaked email he sent to "Lucien" discussing a second trip to Rome, which read: "Wow! I'm so glad I met you!" and announced that they would be sharing a twin bedroom, Dr Rekers claimed to again be the victim of "misleading innuendo".

That message, he said, was sent "before the 30 March departure to Madrid on which he assisted me, and before I found out about his internet advertisements offering prostitution activity, which I discovered after the trip was in progress".