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Catholic Parish Hosts Conversion Therapy Group Accused of Abuse

Conversion therapy proponent Andrew Comiskey
Conversion therapy proponent Andrew Comiskey

Desert Stream/Living Waters Ministries has been accused of sexual abuse as well as the other harms associated with conversion therapy.

Some LGBTQ activists are incensed that a Catholic church within the Archdiocese of Philadelphia hosted a presentation by a conversion therapy group that has been accused of sexual abuse -- and has admitted to it in at least one case.

Desert Stream/Living Waters Ministries, which claims to be able to turn LGBTQ people straight or cisgender, was part of a daylong conference on sexual and gender identity held at St. Katharine of Siena Parish in Wayne, Pa., in early September. While the Catholic faith considers same-sex relations a sin and gender immutable, it does not generally promote conversion therapy, which is more often associated with fundamentalist Protestant churches. But a few Catholic bodies in the U.S. have hosted conversion therapy groups.

The founder and director of Desert Stream/Living Waters is Andrew Comiskey, who created the group in 1980. He converted to Catholicism a few years ago. Comiskey wrote in a 2010 blog post, uncovered by the LGBTQ group Truth Wins Out, that "a longstanding staff person from Desert Stream had sexually abused at least one teenager who had sought help from us." The teen's family sought compensation from Desert Stream/Living Waters, and the group settled with the family after three years of investigations and negotiations, Comiskey wrote.

A Truth Wins Out press release notes two other accusations of sexual abuse by Desert Stream/Living Waters personnel. Also, in his book Anything But Straight, Truth Wins Out Executive Director Wayne Besen quotes a newsletter from the conversion therapy group that said, "At the end of 2000, we faced an unusual number of Desert Stream-related leaders who fell into sexual sin, or who at least demonstrated a colossal lack of wisdom in their social choices ... several were placed on different plans of discipline and restoration."

"It seems that the Archdiocese of Philadelphia has learned nothing from the pedophile priest scandals and continues to place vulnerable youth in inappropriate environments that could potentially lead to sexual abuse," Besen said in the press release. "The archdiocese should demonstrate moral leadership, rather than moral turpitude, and apologize for this grave and irresponsible error in judgment."

An archdiocesan spokesman told Besen the archdiocese was not a sponsor of the conference but "simply provided a forum for this event which aligns with our values." However, the website Catholic Philly, which is affiliated with the archdiocese, published a story listing it as cosponsor.

Whether or not it results in sexual abuse, conversion therapy certainly results in emotional and sometimes physical harm to LGBTQ young people, and it is associated with a heightened risk of suicide. Every major medical and mental health group has denounced it as both ineffective and hurtful, and activists have pointed out that being LGBTQ is not a disorder that needs to be "cured." Eighteen states have passed laws barring licensed therapists from subjecting minors to the practice, but some religious practitioners are not licensed and therefore fall outside the laws. Pennsylvania is not among the states with these laws.

The Philadelphia archdiocese, notably, is headed by Archbishop Charles Chaput, an ultraconservative cleric who has denied communion to people in same-sex relationships and blamed the sexual abuse scandal on liberal teachings about sexuality. Last year he infamously said, "There is no such thing as an 'LGBTQ Catholic' or a 'transgender Catholic' or a 'heterosexual Catholic,' as if our sexual appetites defined who we are; as if these designations described discrete communities of differing but equal integrity within the real ecclesial community, the body of Jesus Christ."

New Ways Ministry, which advocates for LGBTQ equality within the church, was also outraged that the Philadelphia archdiocese hosted a proponent of conversion therapy. Groups that endorse this therapy are "fringe LGBTQ-negative organizations who promote a practice not in line with church teaching," New Ways staffer Robert Shine wrote in a blog post this week. However, Catholic bodies in Denver and a few other cities have given platforms to conversion therapy groups, in addition to the Philly-area event, he reported.

"Conversion therapy is linked to high rates of self-harm and suicide, particularly among youth, thus the efforts to ban it in state capitols nationwide," Shine concluded. "Though it is only a fraction of the U.S. episcopate that collaborates with conversion therapy proponents, that fraction can cause real damage if Catholics believe church teaching supports such dangerous practices. It does not."

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