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Catholic college course scrutinized for calling homosexuality deviant

Three weeks ago, an alumnus of Franciscan University of Steubenville was researching online a rape that had occurred years ago near the campus.

One of the search results upset the alum: A social work course on deviant behavior offered by the Catholic university that lumped together “murder, rape, robbery, prostitution, homosexuality, mental illness and drug use.”

Franciscan University

The alum, a member of a Facebook group for gay graduates of Franciscan University, posted the course description, and members of the group contacted the sole accrediting agency for social work education to examine the university’s program.    

"The fact that homosexuality was identified in the course description as a deviant behavior raises a flag," Stephen Holloway, director of the accrediting agency, Council on Social Work Education, told National Public Radio.

The group, meanwhile, has asked that “homosexuality” and “mental illness” be removed from the description.

Mental illness is not a deviant behavior but a condition, noted Elizabeth Vermilyea, a psychology professional who founded the Facebook group, and homosexuality was removed from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders in 1973.

“I’ve talked to people who took the course and judging from the textbook, it seemed pretty harmless,” she said. “But that description sends a message in an atmosphere that’s already sending messages.”

Plus, she said: “They didn’t put pedophilia in that description and that would have been a no-brainer.”

Franciscan University defended itself in a statement to NPR, saying the university “follows Catholic Church teaching in regard to homosexuality and treats homosexual persons with “respect, compassion, and sensitivity” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, No. 2358) while holding homosexual acts as “intrinsically disordered” (Catechism, No. 2357).

But Vermilyea argued the course description doesn’t follow Catholic teachings.

“The Catholic Church says that being gay is not sinful but that the actions are disordered,” she said. In other words, it’s OK to be gay, just not to act on those feelings.

Gregory Gronbacher, a member of the Facebook group who graduated from Franciscan in 1990, said he doesn’t believe administrators are evil – “They mean well but they live within a bubble.”

“If you live in that sort of intellectual isolation where gay people are hidden, it’s easy to wander down that path where gay people are rapists and murderers – that scary 'other,'” he said.

In college he was a serious Catholic who dated quietly – speaking out could have gotten him booted from school, he said. He went on to become a theology and philosophy professor but has since left academia and the church, in part because of its stance on homosexuality.

Other members of the Facebook group – there are 105 – have posted memories of being ridiculed, shamed and sent to recovery groups for being gay.

“I didn’t start it for activism,” Vermilyea said. “It was community for people who understand the lesbian gay experience but also who went to that university. A lot of people in the group needed their wounds to heal.”

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