Catholic Church Sponsors Conversion Therapy

Despite admissions of teen sex abuse, trend continues

James Finn
Oct 1 · 5 min read
Teenage boy praying with a rosary. Photo by Ben Gingell on ShutterStock.

Conversion therapy gaining support among American Catholic leadership

Despite laws prohibiting disproved “conversion therapy,” Catholic leaders in the United States are partnering with an organization that offers it to youth, even though the group has admitted its counselors have sexually abused teen boys. The Church is doing this despite laws prohibiting conversion therapy, taking advantage of religious-liberty exceptions. The Church is opposing bans of conversion therapy in at least one state, claiming that counselors should be allowed to attempt to change sexual attraction in young people.

The Archdiocese of Philadelphia offers the most recent example

In early September, the Archdiocese of Philadelphia’s Office for Life and Family co-sponsored a daylong workshop presented by Desert Stream/Living Waters Ministries, which has been accused of sexual abuse — and has admitted to it in at least one case.

Desert Stream claims to be able to turn LGBTQ young people straight or cisgender, and they are actively partnering with several Catholic dioceses. They work with individual churches by invitation, offering counseling services to youth, and training counselors to transform LGBTQ teens into “mature heterosexuals.”

Catholics in Denver run a conversion-therapy network

The Archdiocese of Denver is partnering with Desert Stream despite a state law outlawing the practice. Details first surfaced at an Archdiocese conference called “Gender Matters: Fighting for a New Generation.” The program trains parishioners to set up groups in their local churches to “heal” LGBTQ youth who are “sexually and relationally broken.”

The group claims to accomplish this “healing” through prayer and therapy centered around “reparative and developmental psychology.”

More Catholic bishops encouraging Conversion Therapy

According to New Ways Ministry, a Catholic organization that advocates for LGBTQ tolerance in the Church, other dioceses are also partnering with Desert Stream. In March of 2019, Bishop Carl Kemme of Wichita invited the ministry to present there. Crux reported that Desert Stream provided a keynote speaker at a July conference for ChristLife, a “Catholic ministry for evangelization” endorsed by Baltimore’s Archbishop William Lori.

Kansas City’s Archbishop Joseph Naumann is also on the record explicitly endorsing Desert Stream Ministries/Living Waters. He and other bishops have appeared in the group’s promotional materials. Denver’s Aquila has sent priests from his archdiocese for training with Desert Stream and has encouraged Catholics to start local groups for helping the allegedly sexually broken.

Massachusetts Catholics explicitly endorse conversion therapy

In opposing a proposed law banning conversion therapy for minors, the Public Policy Office of the Roman Catholic Church in Massachusetts sent a letter to the state legislature making clear that they believe conversion therapy is effective, that licensed mental health professionals should have the right to practice it, and that parents should have the right to subject their children to it.

Verbatim excerpt from the letter

If a minor is struggling with unwanted same sex attraction or gender identity, this law would prevent a licensed professional from counseling the minor towards a resolution to those unwanted urges. A counselor would hesitate to provide such therapy for fear of losing his or her license to practice. These professionals, with years of education and experience dealing with mental health issues, would be removed from the process of helping a young client struggling with these highly personal issues.

Parents have the primary responsibility for the welfare and education of their children. Parental rights would be completely eroded by this Bill. This fact is particularly true if their child is struggling with feelings that are unwanted or causing the child confusion and the parents want and need the help and guidance of a professional.

Catholic leaders are “dead” wrong

Conversion therapy is deadly

Conversion therapy is dangerous as well as ineffective. Harm to LGBTQ youth is severe. New data from the Trevor Project, a suicide-prevention agency for LGBTQ young people, examines the damage experienced by queer youth who undergo conversion therapy. Researchers surveyed more than 34,000 queer young people in the US and found that 42% of those who have undergone conversion therapy had attempted suicide compared to just 17% of those who have not. The numbers were even worse for trans and gender non-conforming youth — 57% of those who had undergone conversion therapy reported attempting suicide.

Conversion therapy doesn’t work

  • The American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry: “finds no evidence to support the application of any “therapeutic intervention” operating under the premise that a specific sexual orientation, gender identity, and/or gender expression is pathological. Furthermore, based on the scientific evidence, the AACAP asserts that such “conversion therapies” lack scientific credibility and clinical utility. Additionally, there is evidence that such interventions are harmful. As a result, “conversion therapies” should not be part of any behavioral health treatment of children and adolescents.”
  • American Academy of Pediatrics: “Therapy directed at specifically changing sexual orientation is contraindicated, since it can provoke guilt and anxiety while having little or no potential for achieving changes in orientation.”
  • American College of Physicians: “The College opposes the use of “conversion,” “reorientation,” or “reparative” therapy for the treatment of LGBT persons… Evidence shows that the practice may actually cause emotional or physical harm to LGBT individuals, particularly adolescents or young persons… The American Psychological Association literature review found that reparative therapy is associated with the loss of sexual feeling, depression, anxiety, and suicidality.”

Catholic leaders are inviting sexual abuse

The founder and director of Desert Stream is Andrew Comiskey, who created the group in 1980. He converted to Catholicism a few years ago. Wayne Besen of the LGBTQ group Truth Wins Out, uncovered a blog post Comiskey wrote in 2010 admitting 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 them after three years of investigations and negotiations.

A Truth Wins Out press release notes two other accusations of sexual abuse by Desert Stream/Living Waters personnel.

Religion is no excuse for hurting people

The Catholic Church is encouraging conversion therapy in the United States, which we know from decades of clinical experience is ineffective and very dangerous. Church leaders are ignoring human knowledge and failing to inform their faith with empirical evidence of the world around them. Teens are suffering for it.

The Church is holding up hope that people can change the way they experience sexual attraction, plunging blind into a medical debate that ended conclusively by the 1980s.

The Church’s blind faith is killing LGBTQ youth. Of that, we can be sure from empirical evidence.

Catholics of good conscience must act now

Are you a member of the Catholic Church? Do you contribute money or other material support? Have you investigated to determine if your leaders are partnering with practitioners of a dangerous, debunked practice that’s killing queer kids?

What can YOU do today to advance decency and love? What can you do to rescue LGBTQ teens? Will you write a letter of protest to your bishop? Will you inform your parish priest that you’re withholding financial support until the diocese stops hurting kids?

If not, why not? What’s stopping you from taking positive moral action?

Will you join me in action? Will you work with me and other people of good will to pressure the Church to stop hurting people? We need you! The time to start is now!

James Finn is a long-time LGBTQ activist, an alumnus of Act Up NYC, an essayist occasionally published in queer news outlets, and an “agented” novelist. Send questions, comments, and story ideas to

James Finn - The Blog

Collected Writings. Stories and ramblings from a long-time LGBTQ thinker and activist.

James Finn

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Writer. Runner. Marine. Airman. Former LGBTQ and HIV activist. Former ActUpNY and Queer Nation. Polyglot. Middle-aged, uppity faggot.

James Finn - The Blog

Collected Writings. Stories and ramblings from a long-time LGBTQ thinker and activist.

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