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New seminary president's gay-conversion past catches school by surprise

The revelation that the Rev. Dr. Theresa F. Latini once served as director of OnebyOne, a Pittsford,N.Y.-based advocate of so-called conversion therapy, is roiling the usually placid seminary, an LGTBQ-affirming school with campuses in Philadelphia and Gettysburg.

A view of The Wiedemann Center on the campus of United Lutheran Seminary in Mount Airy, formerly the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia.
A view of The Wiedemann Center on the campus of United Lutheran Seminary in Mount Airy, formerly the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia.Read moreMark C. Psoras

Students and faculty at United Lutheran Seminary are demanding administrative changes following the revelation that the divinity school's new president once headed a group that equated homosexuality with "brokenness" and promoted ministries purporting to turn gay men and women straight.

The disclosure that the Rev. Theresa F. Latini once served as director of OneByOne, a Pittsford, N.Y.-based advocate of so-called conversion therapy, is roiling the usually placid seminary, an LGBTQ-affirming school with 325 students on campuses in Philadelphia and Gettysburg.  One member of the board of trustees has quit in protest, and the chairman — who knew about Latini's past but told no others on the committee that selected her — has stepped down from the post.

Conversion or reparative therapy is a treatment program that attempts to change a person's same-sex orientation. It has been repudiated by major mental health organizations as not only ineffective but also psychologically harmful, potentially leading to depression and even suicide. Several states and municipalities, including Philadelphia and New Jersey, have banned the practice for minors.

Latini, 47, was involved with OneByOne for five years beginning in 1996. Afterward, she disavowed conversion therapy, and in a blog posted in February, she apologized to those who had been hurt by her previous work and explained the transformation of her views — that she no longer believes sexual orientation should be changed or can be.

She referred requests for comment to her lawyer, Kevin Toth, who wrote in an email that she has never denied her affiliation with OneByOne, and had disclosed it to a seminary board member before the vote. He also said she has in recent years actively promoted inclusion for LGBTQIA+ people in the church.

Latini's former leadership of OneByOne is not the only source of anger for many in the seminary community. They've also made clear their displeasure with the administration's handling of the presidential selection process in 2017 and the secrecy shrouding it. Students, faculty and alumni first heard rumors of Latini's past earlier this year, and the story circulated without an official statement from the school until last month.

"I was devastated" by the news, student leader Carla Christopher, 39, said. Christopher, who identifies as lesbian, underwent reparative therapy. The seminary's reputation as a welcoming institution for LGBTQ people allayed her initial fears about entering divinity school. But learning of Latini's background brought back every wound the church has inflicted, she said.

Within the last three weeks, seminary officials have held meetings on both campuses to discuss the matter with the school community. The board of trustees issued an apology last Wednesday and is scheduled to meet Wednesday to consider further action and future leadership of the seminary.

The Rev. Lisa Leber, pastor of First Evangelical Lutheran Church in Carlisle, Pa., and a board member, resigned, citing her disgust with conversion therapy. In a letter dated March 2, she called for Latini's resignation and an acknowledgement of what she described as the board's failures during the selection process and subsequent handling of the issue. Leber also urged the Rev. J. Elise Brown, trustee chairman during the hiring process and a member of the selection committee, to quit.

Last April, Latini told Brown about her connection to OneByOne, which began when she was fresh from college and attending a conservative Presbyterian church that had "an ex-gay support group."  During the recent campus meetings, Brown said she had attempted to learn more about OneByOne but came up empty. Brown did not share her knowledge of Latini's past with the rest of the selection committee, which subsequently recommended her for the job. She took the helm in July.

Brown has apologized for what she described as an "error in judgment that ultimately caused pain for LGBTQIA+ and other members of the [United Lutheran Seminary] community." She has stepped down as board chair.

The Rev. Charles Miller, head of the selection committee, acknowledged that the panel did not sufficiently research Latini's background.

Jeff Winter, chairman of  OneByOne, wrote in an email that the group is aware of the seminary controversy but declined further comment.

Students, alumni, faculty, and staff have organized as the United Lutheran Seminary Action Group in response to the controversy and are expected to submit a letter outlining their demands for personnel and policy changes. They say that administrators' apologies and explanations have little meaning unless such changes are made and that they understand the deep pain caused by conversion therapy.

Christopher remembers the feeling all too well. She describes the experience as "soul-devastating."

As a freshman at Columbia University in the mid-1990s, she was invited to a Christian retreat without being told she would be subjected to conversion therapy.

She said she was sequestered from friends, and for a day was deprived of food, water and use of a bathroom, all the while being berated with nonstop "prayers" about her identity as a lesbian. She wasn't allowed back into her cabin until she denounced her sexuality. The encounter, she said, left her spiritually broken, depressed, and suicidal. She turned away from the church for 10 years.

"I wasn't worthy of God's attention," she said. "That experience confirmed my feelings that I was despised by God. I was unworthy of God's grace, healing, and redemption."

United Lutheran Seminary's board and selection community didn't understand the deleterious effects of conversion therapy, said the Rev. John M. Longworth, an adviser to the student group and a graduate of the former Lutheran Theological Seminary in Philadelphia. Longworth sent a letter to school officials about his concerns and recounted the suicide of a high school friend after being subjected to reparative therapy.

Christopher decided to return to the church and enter the ministry after caring for a friend with terminal cancer. Her friend's faith in the face of death helped her realize that there was a place for her in the church.

"Right before she died, she had this expression of peace on her face," Christopher said. "Seeing that, it hit me. God was not about abuse or pain or disgust. That woman's peaceful expression knowing that without a doubt she was loved, that was God." .

Christopher then realized she was "made by God," she said. "If I'm gay, it's because God made me this way, and there are things I'm supposed to do, and people I'm supposed to help."