'Conversion therapy', by its nature, is a practice that is concealed from public view. Suppressing someone's sexuality or trying to make them "convert" to heterosexuality is widely regarded as morally wrong. Anyone promoting it is likely to be doing so in secret, which makes it hard to determine how widespread it is.
In 2018, research by BeLonG To found 90pc of young LGBT+ people struggled with their sexuality. One of the biggest concerns about conversion therapy is the harm that it can do to teenagers who are pushed into such courses by their families.
The new Government has vowed to legislate against so-called conversion therapy, following a 2018 bill from Sinn Féin senator Fintan Warfield that had the same aim.
There have been sporadic reports over the years of individuals who claim to be able to offer conversion therapy in Ireland. Up until now, the largest and best-known organisation accused of being associated with it is the Catholic Church.
In an interview with Seán O'Rourke on RTÉ Radio 1 in March 2018, Mary McAleese said that conversion therapy courses were being run in Ireland "with the full knowledge and consent" of senior Vatican officials such as Cardinal Kevin Farrell. She said that she had been told in 2012 that a young legionary priest had been running courses in Dublin attempting to "convert" people from homosexuality to heterosexuality.
"Young people, particularly young gay men, regrettably, are told there is no such thing as homosexuality, there are just people who are confused about their sexuality," McAleese said.
She singled out one Vatican-approved organisation, Courage International. This group strongly rejects any claim that it runs "conversion therapy" courses. Rather, it claims that it is offering pastoral support to gay people who want to live "chaste lives". It is based on the Catholic Church's teaching that being homosexual is intrinsically disordered behaviour, and Courage International subscribes to an ethos that suggests homosexuality is not real.
Over the years, its website has boasted about having a presence in Ireland, but the organisation says that it does not currently have an Irish chapter. Courage was founded by Father John Harvey, who wrote a document full of homophobic tropes that has been used as a resource by the organisation.
The document suggests that few homosexual people "come from homes where the parents, by mutual love, have created an atmosphere of caring for each child". It suggested that gay men hate themselves, that they have unmet needs, that men experience same-sex attraction because of poor relationships with their fathers or because they suffered sexual abuse.
The same organisation has been criticised for its involvement in Catholic parishes in Scotland. Courage International is understood to be linked with half of Scotland's eight dioceses. Stonewall Scotland, a gay rights group, said Courage International was "a form of" conversion therapy and was "extremely dangerous". The Scottish Catholic Church claimed that Courage International was only providing "pastoral support" for people who wanted to live "chaste lives". It said that "the Catholic Church does not advocate or support so-called gay conversion therapy".
The Irish Catholic Bishops' Conference has never publicly condemned or distanced itself from Courage International or any similar practice which is carried out on behalf of the Church. The Catholic Church sometimes defends Courage by pointing out that many LGBT+ Catholics attend the programme of their own free will. But McAleese has pointed out that these may be devout people who only believe their sexuality is wrong because of the church's teaching.
In 2018, Warfield introduced a bill to seek to ban conversion therapy. Rónán Mullen, the independent senator, claimed that conversion therapy should not be banned if there is not conclusive proof that it harms people. "If it cannot be shown to be harmful to people, we are back into the realm of individual choice," he told the Seanad.
The comments were criticised, and Fine Gael senator Jerry Buttimer called on Mullen to apologise to the house. The Iona Institute was also quick to claim that any legislation which would ban Courage International could be unconstitutional. If and when Ireland criminalises conversion therapy, it is likely that the debate around the legislation will become embroiled in questions about religious freedom.
Under Warfield's bill, programmes such as Courage International would have been included in any legal ban on "conversion therapy". Earlier this year, he clarified that his bill would include any practice that seeks to "change, suppress and, or eliminate a person's sexual orientation, gender identity and, or gender expression". While the Programme for Government has promised to ban "conversion therapy", it is not clear if it would include organisations like Courage International, which deny that they are involved in any conversion therapy courses.