— The French Catholic Church is facing new accusations of a sexual abuse scandal within Paris’s Foreign Missions Society, an organisation dedicated to spreading Christianity overseas. As a criminal investigation has been opened into accusations against three clergymen from the group, a FRANCE 24 investigation by journalists Karina Chabour and Julie Dungelhoeff sheds light on the allegations against the society.
The three men accused are all from the Paris Foreign Missions Society (MEP), an organisation founded in France in the 17th century to convert overseas populations in Asia to Catholicism. Today it claims to have 150 priests based in 14 countries across India, China, Japan and Southeast Asia.
Before the criminal inquiries were announced a FRANCE 24 team (in partnership with the Radio France investigations unit) was investigating the apostolic society to shed light on the inner workings of the prestigious institution suspected of covering up the acts of sexual predators working in its midst.
A series of scandals
The three criminal investigations now open in France concern two former missionaries in Japan, Father Philippe and Father Aymeric, as well as the bishop of La Rochelle, Georges Colomb, who is also the former superior general of the MEP.
They are respectively accused of rape, aggravated rape and attempted rape. They have not yet been charged with any crimes, and so are presumed innocent. Father Philippe and Georges Colomb deny the accusations against them. Father Aymeric did not respond to a request for comment made by FRANCE 24.
In a conversation recorded with Father Philippe’s permission by his accuser, the priest spoke of a “system” which he was introduced into when he was a seminarian with the MEP. He said his superiors initiated him into an active sex culture in which they held influence over him.
“I was a good new recruit… as a sexual object,” he said in tears.
The accusations against Father Philippe, Father Aymeric and Bishop Georges Colomb have all been made by alleged victims in France.
Yet accusations of sexual abuse against MEP members expand well beyond French borders.
FRANCE 24’s investigative team travelled to northwest Thailand, home to the Karen ethnic minority group, where it collected multiple witness statements accusing two priests of sexual aggression towards young children.
A code of silence
For more than 30 years, the village of Chong Kaep, close to the Myanmar border, was home to a boarding school run by Father Tygreat that housed up to 260 Karen children.
When Father Tygreat died in 2007, he left a complicated legacy. Residents in the region continue to celebrate the memory of the MEP missionary who, they say, came to bring knowledge and humanitarian aid.
But the priest’s sexual interest in young children also seems to be well known among locals. He is believed to have spent years offering the promise of a better future in exchange for sexual favours.
Father Tygreat was never investigated by police for his alleged crimes, but another MEP missionary in Thailand, Father Camille Rio, was perturbed by stories he heard about the late priest’s behaviour from a local who claimed to be one of his victims.
Camille Rio alerted his hierarchy within the MEP to the accusations in 2020.
“I was told that they had known about it for several months, that it was obviously all true, but that I had nothing to worry about,” he said. “As our lawyers had been consulted, the MEP was safe.”
Camille Rio said that his contact at the time was Gilles Reithinger, former superior general and current auxiliary bishop of Strasbourg.
Shocked by the response, the priest said he tried to raise the alarm again, multiple times, but to no avail.
At the same time, his relationship with the organisation began to deteriorate. Having returned to France, he is currently being prevented from returning to his mission in Thailand and his future within the organisation seems unclear.
Challenging the system
Asked about tensions between Camille Rio and the organisation, Superior General of the MEP Vincent Sénéchal said: “Father Camille Rio has led a number of projects. Unfortunately, the situation is tense and we hope that it can get better.”
Sénéchal maintained that the accusations against members were isolated incidents. “There is no culture of abuse within the Foreign Missions Society. We do not protect anyone who has crossed the red line of the law here.”
“The fact that one person or another has not respected their celibacy, or that another person has been caught up in individual failings, doesn’t make it systematic,” he said.
At the same time, there are a significant number of accusations that implicate the highest levels of the organisation, and the profiles of the alleged victims often point towards their vulnerability.
In France, one victim was said to have been forced into nonconsensual sexual acts for financial reasons. A victim in Japan who claims to have been raped is on the autistic spectrum.
Attackers allegedly used the homosexuality of some victims – still a potent taboo in the Catholic Church – to their advantage. “If you are Catholic and gay there is shame, so we hide it,” said one whistle-blower. “Making a complaint would mean coming out as gay to everyone.”
Testimonies also claim that MEP members were able to take advantage of the prestigious reputation of their organisation in the eyes of its followers and the church hierarchy.
“At the heart of the Vatican, priests who work for the Paris Foreign Missions Society are given an attentive ear because they operate in areas that are difficult to reach. They are the messengers,” said Sophie Lebrun, journalist for French Christian publication “La Vie”. “They have an aura about them.”
The MEP said it is taking the accusations, which are now the subject of an internal inquiry, very seriously. Sénéchal announced in May 2023 the launch of a vast independent inquiry led by a private external company into abuse at the heart of the MEP since 1950.
Multiple sources in Thailand that spoke to FRANCE 24 indirectly incriminated a second MEP priest, as well as Father Tygreat, who used to work in the country and is still practicing in Asia. Father Camille Rio also reported this priest to the MEP.
The organisation said that an investigation into the priest led by the local superior “had interviewed 11 people and did not establish a credible claim for assault”.
The documentary reveals the limits of this internal inquiry: facing the camera, the superior general of the MEP admits that it has not actively sought out victims due to a belief that doing so would risk forcing them to relive their trauma.
“There’s a difference between going out to find people and saying, ‘you were alive in this year, did anything happen?’ That is a proactive approach,” Sénéchal said. “What we have done is work with the information that we have available to us.”
The accumulation of accusations against the MEP has also not prevented two members climbing the ranks within the French Catholic Church.
Despite multiple warnings sent to his superiors, MEP priest Georges Colomb became bishop of La Rochelle in 2016. He is currently under investigation in France and in June asked to retire from his position during the police investigation.
His successor as superior general of the MEP, Gilles Reithinger, became auxiliary bishop of Strasbourg in June 2021. Reithinger has denied any role in the sex scandals currently affecting the MEP and is not the subject of any legal investigations.
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— Over 100 Catholic schools in Cleveland will no longer tolerate LGBTQ+ affiliation or behaviors.
The changes came from new guidelines on sexuality and gender issued by the Catholic Diocese of Cleveland at the close of last month. In a press release, the diocese clarified that the guidelines were a formal policy version of existing church teachings on the subject.
“Since questions of sex, sexuality, and gender identity have become increasingly prevalent in our society, it is our hope that the policy will help to ensure these matters are addressed in a consistent and authentically Catholic manner across our diocesan institutions and diocesan Catholic schools, and that those we serve will have a clear understanding about expectations and accommodations related to those matters,” stated the diocese.
The policy requires parental notification in the case of minors experiencing gender dysphoria or confusion; declares that parental rejection of a child’s preferred pronouns don’t constitute grounds for nondisclosure; bans use of preferred pronouns; restricts bathroom and facility usage to biological sex; prohibits admission of students to institutions, programs, and activities like sports designated for the opposite sex; bans same-sex dates to school dances and mixers; requires students to comply with dress codes aligning with their biological sex; bans any celebration or advocacy of LGBTQ+ ideologies or behaviors, such as Pride flags; and bans gender transitions of any degree, whether social or medical.
The policy acknowledged the existence of gender dysphoria, but rejected the modern belief that feelings determine truth.
“This understanding erases those intentional, embodied distinctions between men and women. As such, this view is contrary to the divinely revealed reality of our true, God-given human nature,” stated the policy.
Under the policy, individuals experiencing gender dysphoria or same-sex attraction would be admitted into their schools and allowed to participate in activities, with the contingency that they don’t openly express their disagreement with Catholic teachings on sex, sexuality, and gender.
Reverend Edward Malesic, the Bishop of Cleveland, stated in an accompanying letter that biological sex coincides with God’s divine plan.
“The human person is a unity of body and soul; we experience the world through our bodies, and it is through the virtuous expression of our bodies that we reveal God,” said Malesic. “Through times of questioning and confusion, we must accompany our brothers and sisters in Christ with compassion, mercy, and dignity so that we might lovingly help them navigate the confusion and arrive at truth.”
Malesic directed those with further questions or concerns to contact the diocese’s Marriage and Family Office. He also noted that the guidance page would be updated regularly with additional information and resources on the subject.
Cleveland Mayor Justin Bibb posted on X (formerly Twitter) that he believed the policy represented a “shocking betrayal” of church teachings. Bibb offered his own definition of Christian faith, sans Scripture.
“For me, faith is about universal love and acceptance,” said Bibb. “Instead, the new policy forces LGBTQ+ kids to hide their authentic selves and attend schools in fear of persecution for who they are.”
Ohio’s Democratic minority leader for the Senate, Nickie Antonio, said the diocese should not be given school choice funds over the policy.
“I am extremely disappointed that the diocese has chosen to focus on policies of exclusion over acceptance,” said Antonio. “State taxpayer dollars should not subsidize exclusionary education, and if these policies stand, then the diocese should not accept state-funded vouchers.”
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— Guidance includes outing trans students to parents, banning pride flats and preferred pronouns that don’t match sex assigned at birth
The Catholic Diocese of Cleveland has issued a sweeping policy statement on sexuality and gender identity in parishes and schools which LGBTQ advocates have called “chilling” and “draconian.”
Among the items, it requires faculty and staff to out students to parents should they witness any signs of “gender dysphoria,” bans gender transitions and the display of pride flags, and will outlaw same-sex couples from attending school dances. It does not recognize sexual orientations or identities like lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender and instead refers to people “experiencing gender dysphoria or gender confusion”.
“The standards really take to a new low some of the policies we’ve seen coming out of state houses around the country, as well as coming out in proposed bills out of the Ohio legislature.” said Dr. Ben Huelskamp, executive director of LOVEboldly, a nonprofit dedicated to developing spaces where LGBTQ+ people can thrive in Christianity.
Across the United States, more than 500 anti-LGBTQ+ bills have been introduced in state legislatures in 2023, according to the American Civil Liberties Union. In Ohio alone, 10 bills targeting the LGBTQ+ community have been introduced through bans on trans women in sports, gender-affirming care, drag performances and more.
“These acts, whether we’re talking about public schools or private schools, or in this case, again, the Diocese of Cleveland, really are aiming to erase LGBTQIA+ students and staff and faculty members, both from their schools and, frankly, just out of existence,” Huelskamp told Scene.
It comes as Pope Francis made headlines after criticizing the “very strong, organized, reactionary attitude,” of some American Catholics who have replaced faith with ideology at a meeting in Portugal on August 28.
According to the policy statement: “A person experiencing gender dysphoria or confusion will not be denied admission to an institution or be excluded from an institution’s life and activities…However, those persons who choose to openly express disagreement with Church teaching on matters of sex, sexuality, and /or gender in an inappropriate or scandalous way, or who act in ways contrary to the teachings of the Church, may be subject to restrictions on his or her participation in the life of the institution or, in appropriate cases, to disciplinary action.”
The formal policy, which affects all diocesan institutions, including offices, parishes, parish schools, and diocesan schools, was developed by a team of experts chosen by Bishop Edward Malesic and released on August 30.
As of September 1, the policy:
- Requires faculty and staff to notify the parents of minors “experiencing gender dysphoria or gender confusion”. In cases where notifying a parent could result in physical abuse of the minor, faculty and staff are to instead consult the Diocese Legal Office. The release does not address other forms of abuse but specifies that refusal to “to treat their child in any manner inconsistent with their God-given biological sex is not abuse and is not a compelling reason to not disclose”.
- Bans the designation of preferred pronouns that do not “accurately reflect a person’s God-given biological sex”. Nicknames other than abbreviated versions of one’s legal name can be used to address “a person experiencing gender dysphoria or gender confusion” only if they do not “obscure or contradict the person’s God-given biological sex, promote the idea that one’s gender is different than one’s God-given biological sex,” or cause scandal.
- Requires people to use bathrooms and facilities that “correspond to their God-given biological sex”. Individual institutional leadership has the discretionary power to accommodate the use of single-user bathrooms upon request.
- Restricts admittance to single-sex institutions and institutional programs–like extracurriculars, athletics or ministries–consistent with his or her God-given biological sex. Institutional leadership has discretionary power to allow “biological females competing on athletic teams designated for biological males when deemed appropriate”. Other exceptions have to get approval from the bishop.
- Bans attendance to institutional events with a “date of the same God-given biological sex or publicly express and/or display sexual attraction to or romantic interest in members of the same-sex at such event.” The institution has the discretion to allow attendees to attend alone, with a platonic friend or with a group of platonic friends.
- Requires people to “present and conduct themselves in a manner consistent with their God-given biological sex” and bans “acting in a manner the purpose of which is to hold themselves out as being a sex or gender that is inconsistent with the person’s God-given biological sex” or would cause confusion or scandal about the “person’s sex or gender relative to the person’s God-given biological sex.” Examples given include dressing “consistent with their God-given biological sex” and complying with sex-specific dress codes.
- Bans “publicly advocate or celebrate sexual orientation or identity” in ways that are contrary to the Catholic Church’s teaching and that could cause disruption, confusion, or scandal regarding the Catholic Church’s teachings.
- Bans symbols like, “‘LGBTQ pride’ rainbows or ‘LGBTQ pride’ flags or other symbols that can be construed as being opposed to Church teaching” on institution property or at events the institution is participating in or sponsoring.
- Bans gender affirming medical care and social transitioning, which it defines as “the adoption of pronouns, clothing, haircuts, and other social expressions of gender or sex for the purpose of holding out oneself as being a sex or gender different than one’s God-given biological sex.” It allows for medical treatment of “true genetic or physical anomalies, disorders, or medical conditions” but does not detail what would qualify.
- Requires institutional records and documents to use “person’s God-given biological sex and legal name” and bans the alteration of existing records following a legal name change.
“First, it’s going to have a chilling effect on what students, staff, faculty and others, how those groups can express themselves, how they can dress, how they can just simply act in ways that are authentic to them based on their own gender identity, or their own gender expression” Huelskamp said. “Further, it really takes another chilling effect for people who want to be allies to those folks.”
The full policy statement and a corresponding cover letter by Bishop Malesic is available on the diocesan website.
The Diocese did not respond to questions from Scene but issued the following statement:
“In response to societal trends and at the request of church and school leadership, the Catholic Diocese of Cleveland has taken existing guidance and practice in matters of sex, sexuality, and gender identity and developed them into a formal policy, rooted in scripture and Church teaching, to help ensure that these matters are addressed in a consistent, pastorally sound, and authentically Catholic manner across our diocesan and parish institutions and schools.
“Each and every person is welcome and invited to be a part of the Church. Each one of us brings our own struggles and questions, and the Church, like Christ, meets each one of us where we are. It is our hope that this policy, in tandem with the pastoral and theological resources found on the diocese’s website, helps each person to live more fully in the truth of their identity as a son or daughter of God who is made, body and soul, in His image.”
“There’s still hope available. There are still people in their parishes in their schools who will support them…We know that there are good and well meaning Catholics out there who either are themselves queer, or who totally support the queer community,” said Huelskamp. “That support does not go away because one bishop or one diocese says that they’re going to embrace these, frankly, draconian policies.”
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— America’s largest Christian denomination continues to cause controversy
By Devika Rao
The Catholic Church is not new to controversy. The institution’s actions prompted The Boston Globe’s Pulitzer-winning spotlight investigation detailing the pedophilic transgressions of Catholic priests and enabling evasive maneuvers of their bishops. However, there are many other scandals involving the church, including more instances of sexual abuse, privacy violations and discrimination against the LGBTQ+ community.
1 Child sex abuse in Pennsylvania
In 2018, a Pennsylvania grand jury issued a 900-page report detailing 70 years of child sex abuse by the Catholic Church in the state. The report found 300 priests involved in the sexual abuse of more than 1,000 identifiable victims and likely many more that went unreported. The grand jury said the church followed a “playbook for concealing the truth,” The New York Times reported.
“Despite some institutional reform, individual leaders of the church have largely escaped public accountability,” the grand jury wrote. “Priests were raping little boys and girls, and the men of God who were responsible for them not only did nothing; they hid it all. For decades.” The investigation was led by then-Attorney General Josh Shapiro, who is now Pennsylvania’s governor. He said the cover-up “stretched in some cases all the way up to the Vatican,” adding that the church “protected their institution at all costs” and “showed a complete disdain for victims.” The report also prompted investigations in other states, many of which uncovered similar findings.
2 Sex, drugs and nun control
The Bishop of Fort Worth and 10 cloistered nuns in Arlington, Texas, have been at odds in a convoluted scandal, Slate reported. The head of a local convent, Mother Teresa Agnes Gerlach, had a seizure in 2022 requiring medical intervention. While medicated, Gerlach admitted to committing online “sexual sin” with a priest, a violation of her vow of chastity. The information was reported to Bishop Michael Olson, who began a crusade against the nuns, interrogating them and confiscating their devices. Soon, the nuns refused to cooperate, claiming Olson was “traumatizing” them.
Things escalated further, with Olson threatening to dismiss the nuns from their Carmelite order, and the nuns then suing Olson for violating their privacy and defamation. The nuns’ lawyer also called in the police to investigate Olson, prompting Olson’s office to release photos by a “confidential informant” taken in the nuns’ monastery showing “marijuana edibles, a bong and other drug paraphernalia.” The nuns claimed that the photo was staged and that Olson was trying to shut the monastery down to seize their property.
The conflict is still ongoing and the nuns have rejected Olson’s authority over them, despite Vatican intervention. “Every action he has taken with regard to us has proven to be devious and deceptive, marked by falsehood and an intent to persecute us,” the nuns wrote.
3 Art, abuse and Marko Rupnik
Slovenian priest Marko Rupnik was expelled from the Jesuits in June 2023 for “sexually, spiritually and psychologically abusing women” for decades, The Associated Press reported. However, Rupnik is also a famous Catholic mosaic artist whose work is in chapels all over the world, including the U.S. This has sparked debate as to whether his art should be removed or whether people should separate the art from the artist.
“The good of art is in the work of art itself,” argued the Rev. Patrick Briscoe in Our Sunday Visitor. “If we say anything else, we concede that art is, of itself and in fact, ideological.” On the other side, the victims of Rupnik’s abuse and other abuse survivors are calling for the art to be removed. “His artwork should be removed, as a testimony to the entire church, and as a witness, that there are consequences to perpetrating abuse,” clerical abuse victim Gina Barthel told The Pillar.
4 Child sex abuse in Baltimore
In April 2023, Maryland’s attorney general released a report outlining the sexual abuse of children and teenagers over six decades by clergy in the Archdiocese of Baltimore, The New York Times reported. The 463-page report identifies 156 abusers (10 of whose names are redacted) connected to the church, mostly men who served as priests, who abused more than 600 children dating back to the 1940s.
The report “illustrates the depraved, systemic failure of the archdiocese to protect the most vulnerable — the children it was charged to keep safe,” Attorney General Anthony Brown said. Archbishop William Lori, head of the Baltimore archdiocese — the oldest diocese in the U.S. — said in a statement he sees “the pain and destruction that was perpetrated by representatives of the church and perpetuated by the failures that allowed this evil to fester, and I am deeply sorry.”
5 The outing of a top priest
Monsignor Jeffrey Burrill, secretary-general of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, was forced to resign from his position in 2021 because he was found to have downloaded the gay dating app Grindr and frequently visited gay bars. However, there was controversy in the the way this information was discovered. Catholic news site The Pillar outed Burrill using “commercially available data to trace his calls, movements and behavior since 2018,” The Atlantic reported.
The manner in which The Pillar outed Burrill bothered many people more than his evident breaking of his vow of celibacy. “The use of app-based location tracking data to make public that which someone assumed would remain private should be chilling to any American with a smartphone,” remarked Catholic journal America Magazine. In addition, The Pillar “missed no opportunity to mention … charges that Grindr and other ‘hookup apps’ are used to facilitate sex with minors,” The Atlantic added, essentially conflating homosexuality with pedophilia, despite an acknowledged lack of any evidence that Burrill was in contact with any minors.
6 The prosecution of McCarrick
The Vatican expelled former U.S. cardinal Theodore McCarrick from the priesthood in 2019 for sexually abusing minors. In 2021, he was officially charged in Massachusetts with sexually assaulting a 16-year-old boy in the 1970s, making him “the highest-ranking Roman Catholic official in the United States to face criminal charges in the clergy sexual abuse scandal,” The Boston Globe reported. McCarrick pleaded not guilty.
However, McCarrick, now 93, had the charges dismissed in August 2023 due to “age-related incompetence,” with the judge determining he was not mentally fit to stand trial, CNN reported. “In spite of the criminal court’s decision today, many clergy sexual abuse victims feel as though former Cardinal Theodore McCarrick is and will always be the permanent personification of evil within the Catholic Church,” said the victim’s lawyer, Mitchell Garabedian.
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— Now He Explores How It Changed an Aspiring Nun Who Died by Suicide
“It’s really given me the courage to tell my own story, which has been an incredibly healing process for me,” Simon Kent Fung — host of the ‘Dear Alana,’ podcast
by Brian Brant
As a teenager growing up in Colorado, Alana Chen — known by loved ones for her generosity and kindness to others — dreamed of becoming a nun.
But Alana’s life came to a tragic end on Dec. 8, 2019, when she died by suicide at just 24 years. Now a new podcast, Dear Alana, explores the diaries she wrote as a young woman trying to reconcile her strong Catholic faith with her sexual identity — an exhausting challenge that drove her to conversion therapy.
According to the podcast, Alana attended two church summer camps in Boulder when she was 13 years old: Sacred Heart of Mary Catholic Church and St. Thomas Aquinas Catholic Center on the University of Colorado Boulder Campus, where she met and soon entrusted a priest at St. Thomas Aquinas, who would eventually become her spiritual director.
With the help of her best friend, Alana began sneaking behind her mother’s back to attend early evening mass at St. Thomas. Then, one day, she told her mom the truth.
“She just said, ‘I’m sneaking out. I lied. I’ve been going to mass every day at 5:30, taking the bus,'” her mother, Joyce Calvo, tells PEOPLE.
“I just remember saying, ‘Why? Why are you doing that?’ She said, ‘I love it,'” adds Calvo, who was shocked by her daughter’s goal of nunhood. Although she hadn’t been a religious person in her youth, Calvo’s sobriety journey sparked the search for a spiritual home for family.
But Alana was hiding another secret: she was struggling with her sexual identity. At 14, Alana came out to the priest, who instructed her not to tell anyone, not even her family, according to the podcast.
“[He] noticed me. He knew me. He knew I loved God. He knew I did not want to marry a man,” Alana wrote in one of her journal entries. “He forgave my unspeakable sin. He took my defilement and buried it. ‘You ought to pray the rosary everyday.’ Later, he said, ‘I better pray it five times per day to keep temptation away.'”
The priest did not return PEOPLE’s request for comment, but the Archdiocese of Denver — where he is now a diocesan hermit, a monk-missionary, per his blog — says in a statement: “Commenting on specifics regarding Alana Chen is improper, but as the Archdiocese of Denver has previously stated, conversion therapy was never practiced. Trying to explain Alana’s story with a simplistic explanation is unfair to her memory. We reject any practices that are manipulative, coercive, or pseudoscientific. Alana, and every person, is beloved by God and deserves to be treated with mercy, dignity, and reverence. We continue to pray with and for everyone who is affected by Alana’s untimely death.”
St. Thomas Aquinas Catholic Center says in a separate statement: “Our deepest prayers and condolences continue for the Chen family, who experienced the tragic loss of their daughter, Alana. The St. Thomas Aquinas Catholic Center does not practice conversion therapy and remains against any form of coercion or manipulation. As Catholics, we reverence the dignity and free will of each and every human person and view every person’s life as a beautiful gift from God. We strive to live and preach the Gospel of Jesus Christ and embrace the teachings of the Catholic Church.”
Reflecting on the revelations in her daughter’s journals, Calvo tells PEOPLE, “I love the Saints and Mary and Jesus, but [in] a lot of churches, I didn’t like the language and how strict it was. That’s why I was always church-hopping. But I was shocked [by] this, what he was doing, seeing her in private.”
The journals and podcast claim Alana spent years seeking pastoral counsel and receiving conversion therapy treatment, practitioners of which “commonly use an array of psychosocially harmful techniques,” according to the American Psychological Association.
Her nearly two-dozen journals explore the pain she experienced as a result of conversion therapy, which she publicly opened up about in The Denver Post in August 2019.
“I felt a lot of shame and anxiety,” Alana told the Post. “I couldn’t sleep. I couldn’t stop thinking about it. Was I going to hell? But I was still extremely faithful, and I felt like the church and the counseling was the thing that was saving me. The worse I got, the more I clung to it.”
Alana said she eventually broke free from conversion therapy after a suicide attempt that led to her receiving professional mental health treatment.
“I was feeling so much shame that I was comforted by the thought of hurting myself,” she told the newspaper of her heartbreaking mindset. “I’ve now basically completely lost my faith. I don’t know what I believe about God, but I think if there is a God, he doesn’t need me talking to him anymore.”
Four months after the Post interview, she vanished and was found dead by suicide. Nearly four years later, her life is the basis of the eight-episode podcast. In the series, host Simon Kent Fung explores his personal connection to Alana’s story, the origins of conversion therapy and the death of a young woman who, according to Fung, “had it all.”
“I learned about Alana’s story in the news, like a lot of people did,” Fung, a gay Catholic man, tells PEOPLE. “I think what stuck out to me was how devout and religious she was and her family’s suspicion of the role that that community played, as well as the role that conversion therapy played in her disappearance and death.”
Fung — who has worked in tech at Patreon and Google and as a designer at Time — says he “recognized very similar experiences in my own life with my faith community and with the subculture of the American Catholic Church that I was a part of.”
Ashamed of his sexual identity, he spent “all of my twenties in various forms of conversion therapy in my attempt to become a priest,” Fung says. During this period, he was taught that his sexuality was “the result of an underdeveloped bonding with my father and male peers and encouraged to deconstruct his attractions in order to connect them to trauma.”
“I remember I was in a coffee shop and I just read [her story], and I was just sobbing in the corner by myself … I couldn’t believe that somebody had an almost identical story, at least from the way it was reported,” Fung says. “I didn’t know all the details.”
Fung was then inspired to reach out to Calvo. “A couple of months later, we had our first phone conversation,” he says.
He soon began traveling back and forth between Colorado and California to speak with Calvo, Alana’s sisters and her friends, ultimately deciding to create the podcast.
“In the two years of making this, I had this incredible privilege of being able to read about Alana’s inner life through the journals that her family provided me,” he says.
As Fung learned about Alana’s life outside of what was reported, the host began to understand who she was and the inner turmoil she went through.
“She had many friends [and] was kind of this all-star child and young person,” the host says. “She was an ultimate frisbee champ. She was a top student, getting all the best grades. She was this extremely active kid in her church, but it was really when she was a teenager, an early teenager, that she became more serious about her faith and met a priest who offered to be her spiritual director.”
Alana “sought out conversion therapy” for the next seven years under the guidance of the priest and other spiritual leaders, hoping to “fix herself” to become a nun, according to Fung.
In addition, Alana pursued two years of individual counseling from the ages of 18 to 20 with a therapist she sought through her spiritual mentors and provided by the Archdiocese of Denver, Fung tells PEOPLE in a statement.
Alana attended meetings with Courage International, a Catholic ministry “whose founder explicitly encouraged conversion therapy and whose writings are based on conversion therapy theorists,” he adds. Throughout her treatment, she was “consistently” directed to conversion therapy resources, blog posts and spiritual programs by spiritual mentors like priests and nuns, he claims.
Alana was even referred to a conversion therapist who was formerly on the board of the National Association for Research and Therapy of Homosexuality, the largest clinical network of conversion therapy practitioners, Fung says. In 2014, the organization rebranded as the Alliance for Therapeutic Choice and Scientific Integrity, which did not return PEOPLE’s request for comment.
The American Psychiatrist Association said it has been “opposed” to “any psychiatric treatment, such as ‘reparative’ or conversion therapy, which is based upon the assumption that homosexuality per se is a mental disorder or that a patient should change his or her homosexual orientation,” since 1998.<
Colorado is one of the 22 states, in addition to the District of Columbia, to ban conversion therapy for minors, per the Movement Advancement Project, an LGBTQ think tank.
However, Colorado’s 2019 law, which was passed months before Alana died, may not have fully protected her — not only because she was over the age of 18, but also because the law doesn’t touch pastoral counseling and only prohibits state-licensed medical or mental health care providers from the controversial practice, the Post noted.
Fung says “a lot of people are unaware” that conversion therapy is happening and that what’s depicted in Hollywood is often far from the reality of what people experience.
“I think the podcast shows the ways in which conversion therapy doesn’t have to look like a very Hollywood, physically violent form or very dramatized way,” he adds. “It can look like talk therapy. It can look like it happened in a clinical setting.”
“A lot of us go down the rabbit hole of believing these ideas and really struggling with what I call a triple shame,” Fung continues. “First of all, the shame of being gay or feeling different in this way, the shame of feeling like you’ve had something horrible happen to you that makes you damaged in this way. Then the shame of not being able to change.”
“I just felt so damaged and broken,” he shares of his experience with conversion therapy. “I think that’s the impact and the harm that it has on people.”
In order to stop conversion therapy, the host argues, it’s important to foster conversations within churches in a “compassionate and sensitive way rather than an antagonistic, accusatory way.”
Alana’s story has paved the way for a new mission: the Alana Faith Chen Foundation, launched by her family to provide “financial support to LGBTQ+ [people] who are at risk of suicide so that they can receive the mental health treatment and therapy they need on their path to healing,” per their website.
Though Calvo says a priest and people at church would come up to her to tell her Alana was a “saint,” she never wanted to put that pressure on her daughter.
Still, Alana “always wanted to help people,” she says, and the foundation is a “beautiful tribute to Alana and keeps Alana’s desires going.”
Meanwhile, Fung hopes Alana’s story and the podcast help others as much as they’ve helped him.
“It’s really given me the courage to tell my own story, which has been an incredibly healing process for me,” he adds. “I hope in hearing that, other people will feel similarly and will feel they’re not alone.”
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