It’s more commonly considered an American phenomenon, and has been associated with US vice president Mike Pence – but gay conversion therapy is also being carried out here in Ireland. Hot Press has uncovered a disturbing case, which powerfully illustrates the potentially harmful nature of the practice. Report: Jack Maguire
Considering that homosexuality was decriminalised here as recently as the 1990s, LGBTQ rights in Ireland have progressed rapidly. The country made international headlines with the same-sex marriage referendum in May 2015, and the Gender Recognition Act two months later. This momentum continued into 2017, which saw the instatement of a gay Taoiseach and discussions on the legal recognition of non-binary citizens.
With the referendum to legalise abortion scheduled to take place next May, it would appear from a distance that Ireland has totally separated itself from its oppressive Catholic past. However, evidence also exists to the contrary. The stain left by Church power upon our country continues to show itself in ugly new ways. For instance, the attempts at ‘gay conversion therapy’, which are now taking place in an Irish context, have thus far fallen beneath the radar of the media.
This widely discredited treatment is generally associated with places where homophobia is rampant, including evangelical churches in Southern US states and Chechnyan torture camps. Attempts to alter sexual orientation through psychiatric treatments date back to the early 20th century, but lessened in frequency after homosexuality was removed from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) in 1973. After this landmark decision, electric shock therapy and ice pick lobotomies gave way to talk-therapy based endeavours.
Across Europe, this kind of conversion therapy remains legal in the majority of countries, including Ireland. The topic makes headlines every so often – for example, Brazil’s legalisation of the procedure this September and a report released lastmonth in China, which details 17 cases that took place
between 2009 and 2017. Barack Obama made a statement in 2015 which condemned such therapies, however US Vice President Mike Pence’s has controversially shared his support for the practice.
In the UK, several reports have emerged over the years of attempted conversions by Christian leaders, but nothing of the sort from the Republic of Ireland. Surely if conversion therapy happened anywhere, it would’ve been attempted by the Christian clergy in 20th century Ireland? If so, the coinciding silence would be unsurprising, taking into account the Church’s ability to conceal its countless scandals.
Despite Pope Francis’ best efforts to stress the ‘liberal’ values now expected of followers, fundamental Christian teaching on homosexuality remains rigid. The evangelist Christian community has a presence in modern Ireland, with the most visible evidence being the popularity of religious faith healers.
DISGUSTING AND SICK
According to Dr Bairbre Ní Fhloinn of the UCD School of Irish, Celtic Studies and Folklore, the earliest evidence of faith healers in Ireland dates back to medieval manuscripts. Until relatively recently there had been no distinction between the practice of healers and doctors. This only formally came about when medicine became available to study in Trinity College and the Royal College of Surgeons.
Nowadays, healers are colloquially known as those with ‘the cure’ and still tend to be popular in rural towns. While some have branched into Reiki and new age spirituality, most believe they can channel God’s will to cure everything, from cancer to blindness. Most of these healers advertise purely through word of mouth, adding – for anyone of a scientific leaning at least – to the dubious nature of their work.
No one is more familiar with the questionable activity of Irish faith healers than 21-year-old David Young (not his real name). David, who is gay, was forced by his parents, to go through the trauma of an attempted gay conversion therapy at the hands of a healer.
David recently emigrated from Ireland after completing an undergraduate arts degree. Previously, he lived with his family in the north Dublin suburb where he grew up. His parents were also raised in this predominantly middle class area and were very involved in their local Catholic Church community. They encouraged religious beliefs amongst their children, and often shared their dismay at the secularisation of modern Irish society.
During college, David worked weekend shifts in a city centre department store and spent his Saturday nights in The George bar. Much of the details surrounding his social life were kept hidden from his parents. He knew they were unlikely to approve.
Comments his mother made over the years about gay people being “disgusting and sick” stuck out in his mind. As a result, David struggled in his teenage years to “find self-acceptance and self-love in matters involving [his] orientation”. He hoped that the success of the Yes campaign in 2015 might have changed his mother’s attitude. On the other hand, he believed that his father was less judgemental, as he didn’t seem to share the intolerance of his mother. That might be something ne could build on.
By the time he reached his twenties, David felt he had acquired a strong network of friends and a support system to fall back upon. As a result, he became confident in his sexuality and found the courage to come out to his parents in August 2016.
The way that his mother reacted was more sensational than anything he could’ve anticipated. She flew into a flurry of “confusion, fear and self-blame” and claimed it wasn’t possible as “she had never questioned [his] sexual orientation.” David now believes this state of denial disabled her from seeing the permanency of the situation.
During his mother’s distress, David recalls that his Dad “consoled and comforted” him. He was supportive. But, beyond that immediate fatherly display of love was the hard reality that this new twist to their relationship conflicted with his beliefs. He struggled with the fact that David was gay and he now “had a face to put to this ‘sinful’ act.” His support dwindled as he began to worry about his wife’s mental health.
David Young believes that his parents’ inability to process the truth about his sexuality stemmed from the fact that they are “old time traditional Irish who suppress their emotions and keep any issues to themselves.” Their failure to express, or to comprehend, feelings was an indictment of the staunchly Catholic environment in which they were raised – and which they attempted to maintain in a changing Ireland.
Mrs Young sought solace from her sadness in religion and confided in the local priest. He referred her to a faith healer in Portlaoise named Joe Conroy for healing sessions to aid her depression. When Conroy discovered that her son’s sexuality was the crux of the matter, they decided that David would benefit from an appointment with Conroy, who had similar views on the subject. Perhaps the priest had anticipated this. Perhaps not.
David’s parents told him that they wanted to bring him to someone to “help the situation at home” – an opportunity he hoped would rebuild his now defunct relationship with his mother. At this stage, he was under the impression that Conroy was “a therapist with a somewhat religious influence,” and was unaware that Joe Conroy thought he was able to ‘solve’ things, by re-converting David to heterosexuality.
The following weekend, Mr Young drove his son to Portlaoise and sat with him in Conroy’s waiting room. Having already become suspicious as to what kind of therapy might be involved, David’s suspicions were heightened by the religious iconography on display. Just before the appointment began, a bewildered David decided to record the session.
During the first few minutes of the recording, David and his Dad can be heard chatting casually about mundanities, the garden, their extended family etc. David believes this was a coping mechanism, to “completely avoid and deny the obvious reason why [they] were both there.”
Joe Conroy eventually welcomed David into his office, and told him to close the door behind him. Over the course of one gruelling hour, Joe tried his utmost to convince David that his sexuality can be ‘cured’ if he turns back to the lord and asks for God’s forgiveness through confession and prayer.
The meeting started with Joe introducing himself and explaining how his business came to be. He had previously been a successful businessman, until a visit to a healer named Eddie Stone in Clonfert changed everything.
Whilst there, he was called upon to serve God, he explained. He swiftly gave up his eight shops, six vans, an arcade and construction business to work for the Lord. For 12 years he spent his time praying, penniless and dependent upon Jesus. Eventually, they reached a closeness which allowed him to begin healing.
MESSAGE FROM GOD
Joe explained that his work usually involves discussions with ‘clients’ about their feelings and difficulties. Sinful behaviour entices the devil to possess the body, which can only be rid through exorcism. Joe’s hands ‘heat’, he explained, from the Holy Spirit’s power as he lays them upon a healing client’s body.
Joe assured David of his confidentiality and added that “the last thing [he tries] to do is to hurt anyone”, before getting straight to the point.
“Your Mam was saying you’ve a tendency toward… men?” There’s a pause before he continues. “Let’s deal with that, that’s an issue in itself,” he adds.
On a number of occasions David told Conroy that his parents had made him visit, and that his sexuality wasn’t an issue. The healer refused to listen and continued with his tirade of anti-gay rhetoric. David said it took a lot of effort not to “storm out of the room sobbing” – but he is proud now of the resistance and resilience he showed that day.
Realising that he was failing to connect, Joe attempted to get David’s attention with a message supposedly from God. First he mumbled frantic prayers under his breath. Then he relayed the news that there was “a spirit of intrusion leading you in that direction coming from the bucko [devil].”
And then he made a dramatic declaration.
“You are in fact a heterosexual,” he stated bluntly.
David’s insistence that he could not, or did not have the power to, change his sexuality was constantly interrupted by Joe. “You do, David,” he argued. “You do. As God is my judge, you do. You have a choice and you can change this. We can change this here.” The young man’s assertion that he didn’t choose to be gay was used as proof by the healer that this was planted.
Listening to the encounter, as taped by David, it is clear that Joe turned everything David said into further ‘evidence’. David’s certainty that he was born gay was dismissed as proof of the devil’s intelligence, as “he just keeps on manipulating you and you need to break the manipulation.”
What is clear also is that Joe Conroy believes homosexuality comes from the devil, as what God put together was a man and a woman – and anything else has never been part of the plan.
It is a view that has a familiar ring, for anyone who read the views expressed by the Roman Catholic Primate of Ireland, Eamon Martin, in a Hot Press interview earlier this year, when he said that being homosexual in itself is not a sin, but that carrying out homosexual acts is.
After a lengthy discussion on sexuality, Joe Conroy prescribed a ‘cure’ for David. He needed to go to mass every Sunday and confess his homosexual tendencies at confession to “keep the door closed to the bucko” (that’s Lucifer aka ‘the devil’). The reason why David likes men, according to Joe, is because he failed to do these things previously and therefore had no protection.
Conroy emphasised how easy it would be for David to change. “All I can say, David, is that he has you brainwashed into homosexuality. Jesus is telling you that if you do as I’m telling you, you will return completely to heterosexuality.”
David’s continued scepticism was met with frustration, and Joe attempted to prove his validity by recounting examples of successful conversion therapies. He mentioned a friend of his who went to London at the age of 18 because “he had that feeling as well.” While there, “he was prayed upon by a priest who knew what he was doing and he’s married with 8 children now.”
Another case was a drug addict, homosexual and alcoholic who was ‘healed’ of all these things at once by a priest. Nowadays, he’s also – allegedly – married with six children. Joe claimed that “it’s not the first time [he’s] dealt with this.” The clear implication is that he has attempted to change the sexuality of young people before. These past clients proceeded to be “free of all that now and have gone on happy.”
In the middle of his verbiage, Joe suddenly cut off and claimed to be receiving another message from Jesus. God, he said, wanted David to know that “you’re going to get married to a lady and have three children.” Joe seems excited by this supposed revelation. “You can definitely pull away from this David,” he said. “I told you. I need you to listen to me here and not fight me.”
When it became obvious that the promise of conventional heterosexual life didn’t resonate for his client, Conroy reverted to scare tactics. He described visions of God, of heaven and of hell – and seemed to suggest that David’s sex life would guarantee eternal damnation.
Joe’s vision of hell involved “an orgy of assault” where sinners were continuously sexually attacked by human and animal hybrids, while surrounded by burning flames and a suffocating stink of sulphur.
Through all of this neo-Redemptorist fire and brimstone stuff, David remained defiant. At one point, he told the ‘healer’ that “this is who I’ll be when I die and this who I’ll be next week. I know that for a fact. It’s the same as my brother having a girlfriend. You know who you are attracted to and it’s a natural thing.”
The healer made one last attempt to guilt-trip David into repenting. He told him to “think about your marriage and your three children” – and informed him that he was “going to put an awful lot of hurt on [his] mammy.” Not only would David be letting all his family down, but also Jesus who “loves you too much to see you go down that road.”
Upon that provocation, David’s unphased front finally broke. Audibly irritated, he told the man that trying to change would only make him depressed and unhappy. “When I was younger I felt wrong and depressed but I’ve come to terms with myself now and don’t want to go back down that road,” he said.
In the end, Joe was forced to accept that David hadn’t caved in. As a goodbye, he informed him that a group will be praying for him. He requested that David return in three months’ time, as his door will always be open for a visit.
Rather than becoming ashamed, as Joe would have wanted, David said he left Portaloise that day “feeling confident and empowered by my sexual identity – an identity I ignored and struggled to accept throughout most of my teenage years.”
In the months which followed David’s encounter with Joe Conroy, his relationship with his parents completely deteriorated. He was furious at them for what they put him through and made this very clear. Mr and Mrs Young never spoke of Joe Conroy with their son again, nor did they speak about his sexuality. In a telling anecdote, David said they probably still “struggle to even mouth the word gay.”
Since he left Ireland in May, David has had absolutely no communication with his parents and doesn’t expect to in the foreseeable future. When he briefly returned to Ireland for his college graduation this month, Young stayed in his brother’s house and attended the ceremony alone.
When he speaks about the effect that his parents and Joe Conroy had upon him, the now 21-year-old says that today “coming out to new people is sometimes nerve-wracking and difficult, as I fear the same rejection my parents gave me.”
In the aftermath, when at home or out in public alike, he began to “check or correct [his] mannerisms, in the fear of coming across as ‘too gay’.” Being visibly queer didn’t seem like an option after facing this level of hatred. Despite his new found empowerment, this triggered residual, intense symptoms of anxiety and depression.
David has tried to put his past behind him and start a new life. Speaking about it now, he seems collected, focused and hopeful. “As human beings we naturally seek approval from our parents,” he told me. “However, I’ve learned that my self-love, self-worth and self-approval is more important than anyone else’s opinion or validation.”
He has come to see Ireland as a safe place for self-expression once again and is proud of how much the country has progressed. Nowadays, he thinks of his parents and Conroy as “a small hiccup along the road to greater equality in Irish society” and “a minority in their views and opinions.”
However, David does think that conversion therapy should be made illegal in Ireland. He considers himself lucky, in that he had already developed some degree of confidence before coming out to his parents and had engaged with LGBTQ networks.
He worries that the same ordeal could lead a vulnerable younger teenager to take their own life, as “in a time of development and great confusion, it could have a long-term damaging effect on one’s mental health.”
The psychological experts agree with David, and the statistics back up his claim. Surveys done in the US show that those who receive the therapy at a young age are eight times as likely to have attempted suicide, six times as likely to experience high levels of depression, three times as likely to use illegal drugs and three times as likely to be at high risk for HIV.
Dr Peter Hyland is an advocate for a ban to be placed upon this activity. He is a member of the British Psychological Society, a lecturer in NCI and a member of the European Society for Traumatic Stress Studies (ESTSS) and the International Society for Traumatic Stress Studies (ISTSS). As an expert in acute stress disorders, he talked about the shame, self-disgust and loathing that arises from childhood sexual abuse. He theorised that in attempting to adjust a child’s sexuality, one is causing as much psychological harm as a sexual assault most surely would. Dr Hyland said that if children feel as though their parents, religion and State all believe they’re inherently wrong, their worldview is shattered. Once they start to believe that they’re broken or flawed, a door is opened that can lead to psychosis, schizophrenia or PTSD in later life.
Despite recorded evidence that Joe Conroy’s meeting with the individual in question took place, the healer denied that he had ever met him and refused to comment upon his work. He said that it would not be how he would deal with the topic. The conversation finished by him saying “as far as I’m concerned I never prayed with that man, I don’t even know the man”
David Young is surely not the only young LGBTQ person who has experienced this kind of treatment in 21st century Ireland. Joe Conroy claims that other queer teens were brought to him; and others may have received similar therapy from any of the other faith healers littered across the country. For example, Hot Press presented as a potential client to Conroy’s mentor Eddie Stone, who duly confirmed that this was something that he had “dealt with” at his own healing practice in Clonfert before.
By having no legislation in place, Ireland is failing these young people and leaving them vulnerable to psychological torment. The unregulated industry of faith healing allows totally unqualified people like Conroy to present themselves as saviours – and as a channel for “the saviour” – to parents like the Youngs who wish to enforce the same oppressive expectations as were placed upon them in their youth.
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