My diocese’s seminarians went through conversion therapy, and didn’t know it
A look at the work of Dr. Bob Schuchts, founder of the John Paul II Healing Center.
Earlier this week, I wrote about the difference between “conversion therapy” and “reparative therapy,” and the work of a reparative therapist who currently serves as the Director of Psychological Studies at the major seminary for the Archdiocese of New York. Today, I’ll explore the work of another reparative therapist and his influence on the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis.
Rather than seeking knowledge through the ascetical life of prayer and charity, some Christians take the approach of modern marketing, viewing life through flashy shallow insights.
Bob Schuchts and other Catholic reparative therapists do this, pushing clients to view sexuality through oversimplified narratives.
Schuchts insists that same-sex attractions (and other forms of “sexual brokenness”) come from childhood wounds, and he gaslights his clients until they agree. His approach, which sees an “unmet need” underneath every “disordered desire,” distorts Catholic theology by replacing concupiscence and original sin with neo-Freudian theory.
Schuchts has pushed this approach for years upon seminarians for the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis, subjecting them to ex-gay theories and modified forms of reparative therapy without them realizing it.
Dr. Bob Schuchts is the founder of the John Paul II Healing Center, an organization closely aligned with the work of Christopher West. The Center provides conferences, trainings, and retreats related to sexuality, clerical life, marriage, and healing. They can range from $150 (weekend women’s retreat) to $1,100 (weeklong priest and seminarian training) per participant.
Schuchts is also a writer on same-sex attraction who has presented at Courage Conferences and was a contributor to the book, Living the Truth in Love: Pastoral Approaches to Same-Sex Attraction. The book, published by Ignatius Press, purports to “lay out the Christian view of the human person and of human sexuality.” Schuchts’s essay in the collection is titled, “Restoring Wholeness in Christ.” (The book and subsequent conference celebrating it have been endorsed by many Catholic institutions and individuals, including Courage International, Ignatius Press, the Napa Institute, Robert George, Donald Cardinal Wuerl, and Sean Cardinal O'Malley.)
Baxter on Christian Insight
Before I dig into the work of Schutchs, however, I’d like to turn to the work of Minnesota novelist and essayist Charles Baxter. Baxter provides a helpful lens to identify problems in Schuchts’s work. Baxter’s essay “Against Epiphanies” bemoans modern marketing. In our supposedly secular age, we have a tendency to imbue products with a sort of religious significance. Baxter writes:
“I once knew an ex-Catholic, a former altar boy, who was capable of lecturing me, and almost anyone else, at length about the benefits of cold-pressed salad oils… The feeling for proportion was off. (Also a characteristic of television commercials, where love songs like ‘Nobody Does It Like You’ are applied to Hoover vacuum cleaners.)”
Modern marketing largely functions through the use of epiphany. It convinces the viewer that a cleaning product, oil, dietary regimen, or skin care line, once purchased and applied, will immediately transform one’s life. The discovery of the product, often framed within its advertisements, is supposed to facilitate lifestyle transformation and the realization of one’s best self. Epiphany becomes synonymous with “insight.” This use of epiphany, Baxter argues, is also an important part of modern literature. He tires of the now-common plot where the protagonist has a great discovery that all of a sudden makes the story come together and resolves all problems, where “the actions are less important than what is made of them in the protagonist’s consciousness.” (This is relevant to the clergy abuse crisis, where reparative therapists like Richard Fitzgibbons placed the focus upon healing the “pathologies” of abuser-priests, rather than upon their objective actions and the harms caused to victims.)
If we think about recent years, the modern obsession with epiphany also helps explain our interest in conspiracy theories: we want to see the shining secret behind the mundane, and we believe that once we possess the secret, we will have what we need to achieve a full humanity. The YouTube conspiracy theorist is not just a thinker; he is a prophet. (Indeed, the less he is a thinker in the philosophical sense, the more he is a prophet.) Baxter writes, “Conspiracy theorists thrive on epiphanies, insights, and revelations.” This may be why our age of mass media and mass advertising clambers after them, and also why MLM advocates tend to promote conspiracies.
But before modern marketing and literature, epiphany as a moral force had a religious background. Baxter writes:
“The language of literary epiphanies naturally has something in common with the rhetoric of religious revelation. The veil of appearances is pulled aside and an inner truth is revealed. A moment of radiant vision brings forth the sensation if not the content of meaning. An epiphany, in a traditionally religious context, was the showing forth of the divinity of the Christ child. It was, quite literally, an awful moment. To adapt this solemn moment for literary purposes, as James Joyce wished to do, was a Promethean gesture: It was an attempt to steal the fires of religion and place them, still burning, in literature.”
What’s important about epiphany in the classically religious context, however, is that the unveiling does not happen all at once. As both Joyce and Baxter understood, “it can only be achieved through a sort of intellectual and spiritual discipline.” When epiphany is reduced to a shining moment where the realization is complete right at that time, Baxter recognizes that epiphany can become an addiction. I have found myself at times subject to these dynamics, always wanting sessions with my therapists to culminate in the unveiling of a large truth about myself that will solve all my problems.
But true Christian epiphany doesn’t occur in a flashing moment. The shining forth of the light of Christ comes about over the course of a lifetime, through an ascetical process that can look very un-sexy to outsiders. Recognition of Christ the Truth (and recognition of ourselves) does not come about full-formed in a miraculous realization, but over the course of a life transformed in the ascetical workings of prayer and charity. Keep in mind that, for many saints who experienced ecstatic prayer, initial reactions were not of excitement and full-formed mission but of fear and anxiety and just the hint of a calling. Christian epiphany can look much less like a Mr. Clean Magic Eraser commercial and more like getting a Ph.D. in philosophy or feeding poor people in a soup kitchen every day. In a world where “the production of epiphanies has become a business,” as Baxter argues, Christians in particular would benefit from slowing down.
When we recognize this, we can see the many ways that epiphany can be misused. We can fail to really experience the slow gradual unveiling of epiphany because of our addiction to flashy advertising and YouTube conspiracy videos. We can also fail to recognize its significance. We can irresponsibly anticipate it, placing it where it doesn’t belong. This is a fundamental problem for Schuchts and others.
Schuchts on Same-Sex Attraction
In “Restoring Wholeness in Christ,” Schuchts lays out his view of same-sex attraction, and sexuality generally. For Schuchts, to speak of sexuality is to speak of psychological brokenness. He says that terms like “gays,” “lesbians,” “bisexuals,” and “straights” are labels that “describe certain elements or traits of brokenness.” In particular, same-sex attractions are “really symptoms revealing a more fundamental brokenness, one we all share in some way.” For Schuchts, this brokenness consists in a failure of identification. We have wounds from our childhood that prevent us from placing our identity in Christ, but through a “painful process of restoration” we can realize this identity.
Schuchts gives the example of “Jim,” a grown man who came to him because of his attraction to twelve-year-old boys. Schuchts assured Jim that these “‘disordered desires’ were more likely a symptom of unhealed injuries in his development.” Schuchts writes:
“Within a relatively short time, the Holy Spirit revealed to him in prayer a connection between his attractions and his own sexual and physical abuse at the age of twelve. He began to realize that his fantasies were an unconscious attempt to reconnect with the lost part of himself at that age, where he lost his innocence. In my experience and study, I have found that this desire to reconnect with a lost part of one’s masculinity or femininity is present in most if not all of those persons experiencing SSA, even when there is no sexual abuse present. SSA can be thought of as a kind of suppression or partial rejection of one’s own gender identity and a desperate attempt to reconnect to one’s lost or disowned identity.”
According to Schuchts, Jim then engaged in the “work of addressing the underlying causes of his symptomatic desires.” He connected with his inner child and let go of his shame. Afterwards, as Schuchts puts it, Jim’s “countenance became bright and cheerful” (perhaps like the Christ child of the epiphany). Jim let go of his identity as “gay,” and “his sexual desires became rightly ordered.” The “right ordering” of desire is achieved through an acceptance of the inner child.
For Schuchts, every person must undergo a similar sort of healing process. He takes his approach to “healing” same-sex attractions, and then universalizes it. The process occurs in three stages: (1) “envisioning our wholeness in Christ,” (2) “shedding our false identity,” and (3) “embracing our true identity in Christ.” At the root of disordered desires, according to Schutchs, is attachment theory. Schuchts says that in prayer, he had a “revelation” that wholeness in Christ is like a rooted tree. Heincludes a diagram of this tree in his essay:
Aside from this “revelation,” at the root of this theory of sexual development is the work of reparative therapists and their advocates. Schuchts cites as contributors to his developmental model ex-gay advocates such as Christopher West, Elizabeth Moberly, Andrew Comiskey, and Alan Medinger. He cites the work of reparative therapists Joseph Nicolosi and Leanne Payne as confirmation for his claim that “attachment problems are often at the root of SSA.” Schutchs draws almost exclusively on reparative therapists and ex-gay advocates (including also Richard Fitzgibbons) to universalize the story of Jim: same-sex attractions arise because of issues related to attachment in childhood, where a child becomes insecure in relation to a same-sex parent, and the insecurities result in seeking affirmation from same-sex others and the development of pathological homosexual desires. A child who “develops and matures in a healthy way… will naturally gravitate to opposite-sex attractions during the stage of sexual exploration.” But for a child who fails to develop in this way, “disordered desires are frequently expressed compulsively in fantasy, masturbation, pornography, sexual promiscuity, or isolation.”
This approach diverges significantly from the Catholic moral tradition’s treatment of “disorder” in a couple of ways. First, when the Catholic moral tradition speaks of “objective disorder,” it does not speak of pathology, but of a particular act that is not performed as the Creator God intended. Masturbation is “disordered” in Catholic moral theology, not because it is a sign or result of a pathology, but because it isn’t sex within marriage. The insistence of Schuchts and other reparative therapists to treat “disordered” within a pathological lens may help explain why they continue to rely on outdated and even retracted studies to support their mental illness claims related to same-sex attractions. Relying on more recent and stronger research would suggest a different story.
Second, Schutchs’s insistence on treating “disorder” in terms of pathology excludes the role of concupiscence and original sin. Schuchts writes, “I have come to discover that underneath every disordered desire, whether toward the same or opposite sex, there resides a healthy need that remains unmet.” In Schuchts’s world, concupiscence doesn’t seem to exist. The unexplainable tendency towards sin that is part of our fallen nature becomes an easily explainable pathological theory that boils down to an issue of identification. (Christopher West, who promotes and subscribes to these ex-gay views, has been criticized for similarly failing to understand concupiscence and its role in the moral life.)
The issue comes into sharper relief in Schutchs’s argument: “The secure and mature person, living in the wholeness of his sexual identity as God intended, is able to live in purity in whichever vocation is chosen.” This view treats purity through the lens of the modern epiphany, where the realization makes all things right. A more classical treatment of purity, on the other hand, understands it as a virtue which develops slowly over the course of one’s life in the context of relationship, and is often only fully achieved (if it is so achieved) after many years of slow consistent growth. Rather than integrating the findings of neo-Freudian psychology with the Christian moral tradition, Schuchts seems to replace the latter with the former. Whatever he is doing, he is not working within a Christian anthropology.
Further, for Schutchs, growth in maturity and purity is dependent upon the work of the psychologist. He writes, “Those who suffer with same-sex attraction, as well as many with opposite-sex attraction, often have developmental injuries that prevent them from fully entering into this stage of maturity and purity.” Maturity and purity is not dependent upon a response to one’s vocation lived out in the present, but upon one’s ability to scrutinize the past and identify a wound that Schutchs insists must be present.
This disposition became especially clear recently when his work was criticized by a former client. In America Magazine, a former client said that Schuchts had relied on misinformation about the nature and origin of homosexuality, falsely trying to tie the client’s same-sex attractions to “problems in family relationships, sexual trauma including use of pornography, the lack of proper development of masculinity and other ‘wounds.’”
The response of Schuchts is telling:
“Dr. Schuchts... disagreed with the labeling of his work as of ‘misinformation,’ stating that all of the materials from the John Paul II Healing Center have approval from the local bishop and his books have obtained an imprimatur... He said that often the work can be emotionally difficult and when people ‘react against that, they’re reacting against those areas of abuse or trauma that they haven’t yet faced, and then it becomes politicized rather than what the intent [is], which is for people to be loved and accepted and healed, healed in their person, healed in their chastity, healed in their integrity.’”
I will return shortly to his reference to the imprimatur. But what is especially significant here is how Schuchts publicly gaslights his former client. Schuchts says that people who resist his approach to homosexuality are just reacting to abuse or trauma that they haven’t yet faced. When Schuchts is criticized, he defends his theory by reference to his theory. He suggests that the issue is actually that the client is crazy, that the client fails to see his pathology. This public response is astounding for a practicing psychologist. He essentially admits that, when a client comes to him with same-sex attractions, he has already decided on the source of those attractions, and any client who fails to recognize this source is just refusing to let go of a pathology. His practice seems grounded in gaslighting, a grounding which he then passes on to those whom he trains (which might explain why gaslighting is so common towards LGBTQ+ people in the Church).
The work of Schuchts should be extremely concerning. His practice seems to involve making assumptions about clients, and then getting them to agree to those assumptions, regardless of whether the client finds this helpful. As Harvard psychology researcher Payton Jones has said, “From a clinical lens, you should never do anything that doesn’t work, period, even if it doesn’t do harm. If it’s not actively helping, encouraging its use would essentially be engaging in clinical pseudoscience.”
The Imprimatur and Religious Authority
In defending his approach, Schuchts also refers to an imprimatur, which he seems to treat as a general blessing of his work. But an imprimatur is not an endorsement. It is simply a declaration that a particular publication does not have immediately obvious theological errors noticed by the reviewing authority. The imprimatur doesn’t apply to Shuchts’s work as a psychologist, but only to the theological claims made in his books. Schuchts shouldn’t bring it up in this context, because it’s not relevant.
But his reference to the imprimatur does seem consistent with his use of religious authority in his work generally. One will notice that a central feature of Jim’s origin story above is how it comes to the reader through the Holy Spirit: “the Holy Spirit revealed to him in prayer a connection between his attractions and his own sexual and physical abuse at the age of twelve.” According to Schuchts, it is not human knowledge which makes this connection, but divine knowledge. Also notice above how Schuchts says that his view of wholeness came to him as a “revelation” from God. Thus, Schuchts does not see this approach to homosexuality as one that comes from his own work as a psychologist, but one that comes to him directly from the divine. This creates a context for spiritual manipulation, where Schuchts’s clients who reject his theories can be accused, not only of pathology, but of rejecting the voice of God.
In his Living the Truth in Love essay, Schuchts also shares the story of “Tom,” a man who was humiliated in his community after it was revealed that he was looking at homosexual pornography. Schuchts writes:
“I verbally asked the Holy Spirit to make it clear how this memory was related to Tom’s shame.”
Notice how Schuchts is verbalizing to Tom what he wants the Holy Spirit to say. Schuchts continues:
“The answer came quickly and powerfully to Tom’s mind and heart: ‘As a boy, I wanted my dad’s love and when I didn’t get it, I felt like something was wrong with me. I felt completely ashamed of me and my masculinity. The Holy Spirit is showing me this is the root of my attractions to men. I have rejected my own masculinity and therefore seek it in other males. I am still hungering for the love of a man because I didn't receive love and affirmation from my dad. Deep down in my heart, I believe I am not worthy of a man’s love, so I have to grasp for it in pornography and fantasy.’”
Again, Schuchts gives us a divine revelation that fits exactly the theory he has been proposing for years (and is presumably why the client has come to Schuchts). It is certainly possible that God gives us these sorts of messages, but I’ve discovered in my personal life that it’s very easy to mistake theories we’ve heard or desires we have for the voice of God. Schuchts has no restraint, however, in characterizing his theories as blessed by God (which he gives us through the voice of the pseudonymed client). One is left wondering whether Schuchts is playing the role of mental health professional, or of spiritual director tasked with the discernment of spirits. His work with seminarians suggests the latter.
Saint John Vianney Seminary
This brings us to Saint John Vianney Seminary in the Archdiocese of Saint Paul and Minneapolis. Especially in the wake of the clergy abuse crisis, the seminary has been concerned about forming men with healthy and integrated sexualities. Schuchts has been brought to the Archdiocese to run a required annual “Freedom and Victory” workshop for freshmen in the undergraduate seminary. Schuchts was first brought to the seminary by Father William Baer, who served as its rector from 1999 to 2010. Father Michael Becker, who served as rector until 2020, also recommended the work of Schuchts to others, praising his work with seminarians in assisting “in the full integration of sexual desires, emotions and bodily urges, with the virtue of chastity.”
In Commonweal Magazine and an interview with NPR, former seminarian Paul Blaschko shared his own experience as a seminarian in Schuchts’s workshop. (Blaschko’s account has been confirmed to me as accurate by multiple former seminarians.) In the interview, Blaschko described the opening of the workshop:
“You know, we started off by having kind of an open mic, where seminarians were encouraged to get up in front of like a hundred of their peers and kind of detail past indiscretions and their sexual history or things that they currently struggled with sexually.”
Participants were invited to do this throughout the workshop, “if you feel called by the spirit to do so.” This activity (having freshmen get up in front of a large group and share sexual secrets and stories) should be concerning. Even if such stories are not sexually explicit, this is exactly the type of activity which would be attractive for a person like former Cardinal McCarrick. Sexual abusers often will acquire secrets to use as leverage at a later time. And so this activity, when done by a predator, would be considered grooming. Further, the sharing of sexual sins and secrets is something that should be processed in therapy, spiritual direction, and close friendships, not something done in front of dozens of people at the start of your first year of college.
Blaschko goes on to describe another activity that was part of the workshop:
“The strangeness culminated with a workshop session devoted to reenacting the ‘spiritual warfare’ that goes on when a young man watches pornography. Each of us was given a nametag with the name of a demon on it. These demons, we were told, were the principalities most closely associated with sexual temptation. We were then gathered around the chosen man and told to hiss and curse at him, trying to entice him to ‘watch pornography’ and ‘masturbate.’ Afterwards, the priest came around with a coffee tin, collecting the nametags—he had to burn them, he told us, while reciting prayers of exorcism.”
This activity is remarkably close to an activity that Schuchts has his client Tom participate in, as a way to heal his same-sex attractions:
“Moving back into prayer, Tom renounced the lies he believed about himself, such as: ‘I am not worthy of my father’s love’; ‘I am not worth any man’s love’; ‘I will never receive pure love from a man so I have to grasp for it through lust and pornography’--lies connected to his use of pornography, fantasies, and homosexual attractions. Tom stood in his authority and identity in Christ as a beloved son and renounced ‘perversion’, ‘lust’, ‘homosexuality’, ‘hopelessness’, ‘abandonment’, and false ties to other men. Seeing how these had previously filled his empty heart, Tom turned to Jesus to fill the emptiness with God’s love. We ended by asking the Father to bless Tom as a boy and as a man and to fill him with the Holy Spirit in all the places that were devoid of the Father’s love.”
When Blaschko expressed discomfort about the workshop’s activities, he was told to “defer to the authority of the workshop leader.” But he had good instincts in questioning. What the seminarians had participated in was actually a modified form of reparative therapy. Neither the seminarians nor the seminary probably realized this. But what they were taught was actually an ex-gay theory, and what they had participated in was an activity developed to facilitate overcoming same-sex desires. They were made to pathologize and spiritualize sexual desire in the context of the reparative therapist’s origin story for disordered desire. In a condensed format, they were made to undergo what Schuchts does with his clients seeking to “overcome” homosexuality.
It’s also worth noting that such an activity is entirely inappropriate in the setting of a required seminary retreat for new college freshmen. I imagine a gay student who felt insecure about his past pornography use having his peers and friends “trying to entice him to ‘watch pornography’ and ‘masturbate.’” Such an activity actually sounds likely to induce trauma.
Conversion therapist Leanne Payne
Other parts of the workshop focused on “legitimate human needs and father/mother wounds,” and interpreted sexual desire through the lens of pathology and spiritual possession. The workshop manual outlines how sexual fantasizing is engaging in idolatry, and that “unpleasant consequences” of this idolatry include “demonic oppression and generational curses.” Schuchts’s treatment of these dynamics relies primarily on the work of Protestant conversion therapist and “spiritual healer” Leanne Payne.
This spiritualizing is central to both Schuchts and the organizations with which he works. Schuchts draws on prominent members of the “spiritual healing” movement, and Courage International arises against the backdrop of the Catholic charismatic renewal, which framed much of its spirituality and the tenor of its founder and early conferences. The modern use of epiphany is central to large portions of both the spiritual healing movement and the charismatic renewal, seeking an “experience” of Christ in a highly emotionalized spirituality, where sessions of prayer are meant to result in a cathartic realization that becomes the basis for one’s identity. The “charismatic” movement and the “healer” movement, both of which sprung out of Evangelical Christianity, have become central in many Catholic circles as well and have provided frameworks for some Catholic approaches to sexuality.
Drawing on the spiritual healer Payne, Schuchts’s manual states:
“Particularly pertinent to those times when I’m asking the Lord to bring people out of sexual neurosis and/or perverted sexual lifestyles and teaching others how to minister to them, is the matter of renouncing Baal and Ashtoreth, the male and female idol gods of sexual orgy.”
In a diagram on the “progression of malignant infiltration of the soul,” Schuchts emphasizes how unrepentant sin leads “to a foothold of the evil agent in our soul. If this infiltration is not repelled, the influence of evil becomes a fortress which we cannot displace by our own effort or power.” Still relying on Payne, the manual pushes seminarians to tie sexual sins to particular demons:
The manual then goes from bizarre to deeply troubling. In a journaling exercise, the manual asks participants to circle “sins and traumas that occurred in the past 4-6 generations in your family.” They are told to identify by name people who have committed suicide, died “in tragic ways,” had an abortion or “repeated miscarriages,” died in prison, engaged in “homosexuality/lesbianism,” or who looked at pornography. Once the participant has made a list, he is directed to “include them in your prayer for renouncing generational sins” and resisting “generational curses.”
The manual goes even further than the pathologizing of homosexual desire and moves towards its demonization, which touches not only the person with these desires but also any children and grandchildren. It suggests that the mere presence of homosexuality in one’s family or “soul ties” (defined as “a spiritual connection between our soul and that of another person”) may be indicative of “generational curses” that need to be revealed in prayer.
But pathology is still brought in. The manual states: “Soul ties are important to address in sex addiction because they can hold us back from achieving complete victory over our addiction.” Such ties need not be limited to human persons. The manual states: “Looking at sex images, memories, objects, and fetishes… can establish a soul tie with an evil spirit.” It also states: “Sexual abuse/molestation… can result in soul ties between the perpetrator and the victim. If you have been involved in sexual abuse, please seek healing prayer and Christian counsel.” This may be the most shocking advice given by a manual prepared by a professional psychologist. Victims of sexual violence are not directed to mental health professionals, but only to “prayer and Christian counsel.” This is how our priests and seminarians have been trained to respond to abuse victims.
Many of my friends who attended those workshops described them, more or less, as “just a weird thing you have to get through and not take too seriously.” But I do worry about the seminarians who would have felt a need or desire to take it seriously (at the recommendation of their rector), who would have had personal traumas or insecurities triggered by the activities and materials, who would have relied on the theories presented to explain themselves, or who adopted those neo-Freudian perspectives and practices in place of an authentically Catholic approach to love, sexuality, desire, and sin. We have an entire generation of priests in my diocese who were subjected to Schuchts’s “divine understanding.” Those priests are now forming the laity and running our parishes and schools.
Others have shared the harm that these approaches to sexuality have caused. Blaschko spoke of former seminarians who had reached out to him:
“After I wrote about these experiences, I was contacted by quite a few seminarians - priests, ex-priests. And I was told, like, look. This captures my experience in the church or my experience with formation. And, you know, a lot of them told me stories about how they had expressed concerns and been totally shut down or even, you know, had their life messed up in sometimes really significant ways. So I get the sense from the people that I've heard that it's not an isolated thing and that human formation, especially with regard to sexuality, is still in crisis in the Catholic Church.”
Blaschko shares how the seminary failed to train him and his peers on the basics of criminal sexual behavior, and insisted on treating sexuality through the lens of spiritual battle and victory. The Archdiocese had filed for bankruptcy as a result of the sexual abuse of its priests a month before Blaschko published his Commonweal essay. Three months after the piece, Ramsey County filed its lawsuit against the Archdiocese for its mishandling of sexual abuse.
Worries for the Church
After reviewing Schuchts’s workshop materials, his contribution to Living the Truth in Love, and his other work, I come away very concerned for the future of the Church. The over-spiritualizing and over-pathologizing of sexuality increases my concerns about many of the priests of our diocese and elsewhere. And Schuchts’s continued influence represents an ongoing institutional misrepresentation of both Catholic moral theology and the meaning of psychological help. He trains Catholics in bizarre views, coaching and conditioning his followers to gaslight LGBTQ+ persons, and creating opportunities for predatory grooming.
Schuchts may be well-intentioned. I’ve heard he’s a lovely guy. And it’s certainly likely he has helped many people on their journey towards healing. But one thing the clergy abuse crisis has made clear is our need, as a community, to grapple with the fact that a leader can both help and harm; we need to resist making the argument that, just because a Catholic leader has helped many people, that they should not be held accountable for harms caused to others. As a general matter, Schuchts’s work is far from harmless. You don’t need malice to cause harm. As one clergy abuse survivor told me, incompetence is enough.
In speaking with survivors of conversion therapy, I have found that their initial reactions to SOCE were relief, and a feeling of acceptance. For many, SOCE was the first time where they could be open about their attractions, and thus it was the first experience of a sort of psychological safety. What ensued, however, was that a layer of shame was placed over that sense of safety in the course of the therapeutic relationship, which compounded confusions and self-doubt. And it increased anxieties about trusting others, because this first relationship of trust ended up to be a relationship of psychological manipulation and harm. In some ways, the fact that the conversion therapist was “nice” made the relationship even more damaging.
When it comes to my own Archdiocese, I have concerns about our current generation of priests generally. Though I believe many of our priests are well-adjusted and interested in truly serving the laity, one can see how the imbalances of many of our priests can be connected to the perspectives of Schuchts. Secondly, though those well-adjusted priests may recognize problems related to Schuchts’s workshops, to my knowledge no priests have come forward seeking to address or acknowledge them publicly. The harms are ignored, overlooked, or treated as something that will just go away if we don’t look at it. This is exactly the sort of institutional disposition which facilitates the systemization of abuse. It is not my job to address these problems. If you are a Catholic leader in our Archdiocese, it’s your job. If were a seminarian and had gay peers subjected to this workshop, it’s likely that your brothers were harmed by it. It’s not too late to reach out to them, apologize for what they had to go through, and share what you are doing to make things better going forward.
The problems are serious. But grave concern need not lead to despair. I don’t believe that development is binary or linear, either for individuals or for the Church. Against the backdrop of falsehoods, confusions, and traumas, we are all called to constant renewal. What I hope this piece offers is context and understanding for seminarians and other Catholics who have been subject to harmful pseudo-psychology, and visibility into an important issue for the rest of the Church. If you have been subject to these harmful psychological practices, I hope that this piece can offer just a bit of accompaniment and acknowledgment. And I hope that it offers all of us some tools to recognize and address harmful practices in the Church. I want accountability. But I am also committed to hope.
A couple of requests:
Do you have experiences with SOCE in BIPOC Catholic communities?
I’d love for someone to write a piece on it for my site, and how it differs from SOCE in predominantly white communities. Conversations about SOCE tend to focus on the experiences of white Christians, and I’d love to broaden the conversation. I’d pay for accepted piece(s) (not a ton, but I do want to compensate for the work). DM me on Twitter or reach out via my contact page for details.
Priests/Seminarians: I need your help!
I’m currently evaluating materials from the Institute for Priestly Formation (IPF). If you’ve gone through their summer program in the last 1-5 years and have a copy of your “Christian Spirituality and Sexuality” student manual, I’d love it if you could send me screenshots of the table of contents! You can dm me on Twitter or reach out via my contact page. If your manual is from the last 3 years, I’m also willing to buy it from you and pay for shipping. Please also share this with anyone you know who may have a copy. Thanks so much!