This month, the Archdiocese of Philadelphia hosted and co-sponsored a conference "to address the challenges of gender and sexual identity problems" featuring an anti-gay group focused on conversion therapy and "curing" homosexuality.
The conference, "Gender Matters - Fighting for the Integrity of Persons," featured Desert Stream Ministries (DSM), run by "ex-gay" leader Andrew Comiskey, who refers to himself as a former and healed homosexual in his books and ministry.
The Archdiocese promoted the conference on Catholic Philly’s news site, Facebook, Eventbrite and websites of individual parishes, including the one at which the day-long conference was held, St. Katherine of Siena Parish. The Philadelphia Archdiocese is the fourth largest in the United States with a total of 219 parishes and headed by Archbishop Charles Chaput, who on Sept. 19 criticized Jesuit Father James Martin’s LGBT-inclusive approach to the LGBT community. Among other criticisms of Father Martin, Archbishop Chaput argued against the idea that sexuality is biological and said, “Father Martin partners with organizations like New Ways Ministry that oppose or ignore the teaching of the Church, and he endorses events, such as PRIDE month, that cause confusion for the faithful.”
DSM is a former minister of the notorious ex-gay group Exodus International. In 2012, Alan Chambers, then president of Exodus International — which had nearly 500 ministries in the U.S. and other countries — denounced conversion therapy, asserting that it not only didn’t work, but "was harmful to participants." Chambers closed the organization and apologized for the "pain and hurt" participants of its programs caused.
Other ex-gay leaders within Exodus, like Comiskey, formed new ministries promoting the same theories of "curing" homosexuality. Comiskey describes himself as committed to ending the "scourges of gay marriage and trans rights." Comiskey refers to homosexuality as "spiritual disfigurement" in his books on sexual identity and sexual health. DSM focuses on "healing sexual brokenness" and Comiskey said, "My delight in healing others grows out of an ongoing commitment to overcome homosexuality."
Truth Wins Out (TWO), the local Philadelphia organization that fights anti-gay extremism and does exposés of the ex-gay movement, called on the Archdiocese to apologize, disband the Office for Life and Family and fire director Steven Bozza for hosting Comiskey and promoting conversion therapy.
In an interview with PGN, TWO Executive Director Wayne Besen called the event "a disgrace."
Besen said, "It’s an embarrassment for a sophisticated city like Philadelphia to have an Archdiocese with a medieval mindset."
Calling the long-debunked practice of conversion therapy "torture against children that can’t be justified," Besen said it was "reckless and irresponsible" for the Archdiocese to sponsor a group like DSM.
While conversion therapy was banned in Philadelphia in July 2017, and is also banned in Allentown and Pittsburgh, it is not illegal in Pennsylvania. The conference was held in Wayne, 20 miles outside the Philadelphia city limits, but within the Archdiocese, which covers Bucks, Chester, Delaware, Montgomery and Philadelphia counties.
Besen explained one of his many concerns with the Archdiocese sponsoring Comiskey and his group. DSM has had scandals involving sexual abuse of minors in "treatment" with the ministry during "pray away the gay" programs. Accusations were reported in the Los Angeles Times in 1998 and others by Comiskey himself in a blog post in 2010. These accusations — against staff members of DSM, not Comiskey himself — led to the ministry’s move from California to Missouri.
The extent of the priest sex abuse scandal in Philadelphia should have, Besen says, made the Archdiocese acutely sensitive to such an event and a controversial figure like Comiskey.
"If the Office for Life and Family can’t take 15 minutes to vet the organizations they are putting their name to and sponsoring at the Archdiocese’s churches, they should disband," Besen asserted. "They’ve learned nothing from these [priest sex abuse] scandals. Where is the personal responsibility?"
Besen said, "The Archdiocese should be ashamed. This was a dogmatic anti-gay attack." He noted that "Pope Francis says of gay people ‘Who am I to judge?’ yet they bring in this group with a history of abuse of kids and I have to ask — what century is this diocese in?"
Besen spoke with the Office for Life and Family. Besen told PGN that the spokesperson accused him of having a "gay agenda" and was told on Sept, 24, "We were not co-sponsors, we simply provided a forum for this event which aligns with our values."
PGN examined the many online references to the Philadelphia event for "Gender Matters - Fighting for the Integrity of Persons" and each listed the Archdiocese of Philadelphia and DSM as co-hosts. The article about the event in Catholic Philly explicitly states, "The Archdiocesan Office for Life and Family has partnered with Desert Stream for the event, which will explore the compassion and clarity Jesus extends to persons facing sexual identity problems." The same language appears on the Facebook page of the Archdiocese.
Besen said, "I was not expecting the dishonesty. Lying right to me. It was blatant and brazen."
The Archdiocese should reevaluate their positions on conversion therapy and anti-gay attacks, Besen said."It’s a disgrace what they’ve done. It’s not acceptable to say we agree to disagree." He said that conversion therapy is "a failed experiment" that even it's main proponents have abandoned.
He added, "The Archdiocese should be humiliated and embarrassed. They need to get their act together and protect kids and protect the church."
PGN reached out to Kenneth Gavin, Chief Communications Officer for the Archdiocese of Philadelphia as well as Bozza but received no comment by press time.