The Catholic Church has been told to act swiftly to shut down groups across Scotland promoting gay conversion therapy after local community, school and university priests were linked to an international anti-LGBT organisation.
Priests have come under heavy criticism for their promotion and management of branches of Courage International, a Vatican-approved anti-LGBT programme which campaigners claim has long-standing links to so-called ‘cure therapy’.
Since 2017 the church in Scotland has strengthened its connections to the programme, with half of Scotland’s eight dioceses and archdioceses now hosting meetings run by local priests.
Across Europe only Italy has more chapters of Courage than Scotland.
According to LGBT rights charity Stonewall, conversion therapy, ‘cure’ therapy or reparative therapy refers to any form of treatment or counselling which aims to change or suppress a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity.
All major psychological, psychotherapeutic and counselling organisations in the UK consider conversion therapy in relation to gender identity and sexual orientation as unethical, potentially harmful and not supported by evidence.
Earlier this month the Conservative government confirmed it would shortly be bringing forward plans to ban the practice across the UK.
While Courage claims it does not officially endorse the use of conversion therapy by its branches, its teaching and insistence LGBT people must remain chaste falls within Stonewall’s definition of these conversion techniques.
A spokesperson for Stonewall Scotland told The Ferret: “The promotion of the idea LGBT people can and should be cured or changed, is extremely dangerous, particularly for impressionable young people who may be seeking answers about themselves.
“These so-called conversion therapies have been condemned by all major UK health organisations as they try to shame a person into denying a core part of who they are.
“Same-sex attraction is natural and normal. Lesbian, gay, bi and trans people are not ill. LGBT people seeking support need to be accepted for who they are, not subjected to prejudice and these harmful practices.”
Campaigners and politicians have now said the church must act to end all links with Courage International.
Scottish Greens co-convener and equalities spokesperson, Patrick Harvie MSP, said: “I wish I could say I was shocked this cruel and dangerous practice is taking place in Scotland at all, but the fact it appears to have grown in recent years is a moral stain on Scotland’s ambition to be an inclusive and welcoming country.
“Even the Tory government in Westminster has recognised this should be illegal. The Catholic church in Scotland must act swiftly not only to publicly condemn conversion therapy but to put an immediate stop to their members’ promotion of it.”
Courage’s branches in Scotland launched almost three years ago after a UK tour by Courage director, Father Philip Bochanski.
The Diocese of Paisley was the first area of Scotland to launch a Courage chapter in late 2017, organised by Bishop John Keenan.
Bishop Keenan has travelled across the world for conferences linked to conversion therapy techniques, including with a delegation of young people from Scotland during a July 2019 trip to Courage International’s annual conference in the United States.
The former Glasgow University chaplain gave the closing speech at the gathering last year, where he said he had “admired Courage for decades”, before acting as the keynote speaker at an online conference run by Courage during lockdown in April.
LGBT Catholic advocates have said the continued promotion of conversion therapy within the church is “cruel”, warning it causes long-term harm to the health of gay and queer people.
Francis DeBernardo, executive director of New Ways Ministry, said: “We have heard from people that some leaders and local chapters have recommended it to people.
“Recommending this kind of therapy, especially when it is connected to religious ideas of repentance and prayer or is conducted under religious auspices, is psychologically and pastorally harmful.
“Catholic Church officials, at all levels of governance, should roundly denounce and forbid the practice of so-called conversion or reparative therapy for LGBT individuals.”
Following the launch in Paisley, two groups – in Glasgow and the Diocese of Motherwell – were started by local priests in 2018 as part of a Scottish expansion.
Bishop Keenan’s successor as University of Glasgow chaplain, Father Ross Campbell, also set up his own Courage chapter in Scotland, before joining him on the journey to Courage’s conference in July 2019.
Father Campbell reportedly carries out his ministry off campus to avoid confrontations with LGBT campaigners. He says his work as Courage chaplain for the Archdiocese of Glasgow is done separately from his work as university chaplain.
A priest working with schools and youth groups in North Lanarkshire also continues to operate a Courage branch, launched in 2018.
Father Martin Delaney, who works at St Aloysius’ Catholic Church, Chapelhall and Sacred Heart, Salsburgh, works as chaplain for schools in Motherwell and is in charge of youth ministry for the diocese.
Father Delaney has also repeatedly used his social media platform to promote chastity as the only option for people ‘suffering’ from same-sex attraction, including sharing posts by Courage International on Twitter.
Patrick Harvie added: “Let’s be very clear about this. So-called ‘conversion therapy’ is not therapy. It is abuse. No one should be told their sexuality is a disorder, or that it can or should be ‘cured’.
“Instead of showing leadership and eradicating this cruelty from its midst, the Catholic church in Scotland has allowed it to grow and connect with homophobic groups in the US.
“There are also serious questions for Glasgow University and for a number of schools – will they now sever their ties with individuals connected with this abusive practice?”
The University of Glasgow told The Ferret this was a matter for the church and Father Campbell, and did not confirm whether it would end its links to the priest.
Meanwhile, North Lanarkshire Council, which is responsible for schools where Father Delaney works with children and young people, did not respond when asked whether it had concerns about the priest’s promotion of Courage.
Instead the council highlighted his duties as “preparation for the sacraments of reconciliation, holy communion and confirmation, as well as celebrating mass with the school and year groups”.
Scotland’s newest Courage chapter is run by Father John McInnes, based at Our Lady of Lourdes and St Bernadette in Larbert.
Father McInnes acts as the Courage chaplain for the Archdiocese of St Andrews and Edinburgh, and has written in his parish newsletter pleading with his congregation to oppose the Gender Recognition Bill consultation.
This law change, which has since been put on hold, sought to improve the existing “humiliating, offensive and expensive” process for a trans person changing their legal sex.
The UK Government’s 2018 National LGBT Survey found two per cent of those questioned had undergone conversion therapy, with five per cent having been offered it. This figure rose to four per cent and eight per cent respectively for trans people.
Those working with young people in Scotland have said cure therapy should not be accepted, urging those who have been “negatively affected” by the practice to reach out for support.
A spokesperson for LGBT Youth Scotland said: “We would like to be very clear, no form of ‘conversion therapy’ for LGBT people should be considered ethical or acceptable in a modern Scotland or throughout the UK.
“Conversion therapy has damaged generations of LGBT young people and adults and continues to do so.”
The Catholic Church has previously been forced to distance itself from Courage after guidance and advice documents were uncovered in 2018.
Materials published on the Paisley chapter website describes those suffering from ‘same-sex attraction’ as having a “disorder”, claim child sex abuse can lead to homosexuality, and offers advice for those seeking reparative therapy.
This also includes a paper which warns those running Courage branches that other gay people may have a “corruptive influence” on those trying to “break free from homosexual temptations”.
These documents have remained in place and are now widely available from various Scottish Courage chapters online.
In the Paisley Diocese’s latest accounts from 2017-18, “tacit support for homosexuality and homosexual unions” is identified as a problem and one of the reasons for loss of support for the church locally.
Bishop Keenan has long been opposed to the same-sex relationships, telling a BBC Frontline Scotland programme in April 2000 there was something not ‘absolutely right’ about the “genital homosexual act”.
The Catholic Church refused to confirm it would shut down Courage chapters across Scotland, either immediately or when a ban on conversion therapy is implemented in Britain.
When asked whether the church had any concerns about the potential harm of gay conversion therapy and the running of Courage branches, a church spokesperson told The Ferret: “Courage provides pastoral support for those experiencing same-sex attraction who want to grow in holiness by living chaste lives.
“The Catholic Church does not advocate or support so-called gay conversion therapy.”
A Courage spokeswoman said the organisation is not concerned about planned new legislation as it “doesn’t apply to their work.
She stressed Courage does not “provide, refer for, or require therapy of any kind” for their members, including conversion therapy, and offers “pastoral support and community to adults who experience same-sex attractions”.
Photo thanks to iStock/nito100
This article was published in tandem with the Sunday National on 28 June.