Three former leaders of Exodus International, often described as the nation's largest ex-gay ministry, publicly apologized Wednesday for the harm they said their efforts had caused many gays and lesbians who believed the group's message that sexual orientation could be changed through prayer.
Speaking at a Hollywood news conference, the former leaders of the interdenominational Christian organization said they had acted sincerely in their years of work with Exodus. But they said they had all, over time, become disillusioned with the group's ideas and concerned about what they described as the wrenching human toll of such gay conversion efforts.
The news event, in a courtyard outside an office of the Los Angeles Gay & Lesbian Center, was timed to coincide with the opening of Exodus' annual conference, which is being held this week at Concordia University in Irvine. A competing "ex-gay survivor" convention is to begin Friday at UC Irvine.
Exodus' president, Alan Chambers, reached by phone at the meeting in Irvine, said he disagreed with its critics, adding that its methods have helped many people, including him.
"Exodus is here for people who want an alternative to homosexuality," Chambers said. "There are thousands of people like me who have overcome this. I think there's room for more than one opinion on this subject, and giving people options isn't dangerous."
The former leaders from Exodus cast its work in grim terms.
"Some who heard our message were compelled to try to change an integral part of themselves, bringing harm to themselves and their families," the three, including former Exodus co-founder Michael Bussee, said in a joint written statement presented at the news conference. "Although we acted in good faith, we have since witnessed the isolation, shame, fear and loss of faith that this message creates."
Now a licensed family therapist in Riverside, Bussee left Exodus in 1979 after he fell in love with a man who was a fellow ex-gay counselor with the group. He speaks out frequently against ex-gay therapies.
"God's love and forgiveness does indeed change people," said Bussee, who remains an evangelical Christian. "It changed me. It just didn't make me straight."
Others speaking at Wednesday's news conference included Jeremy Marks, former president of Exodus International Europe, and Darlene Bogle, the founder and former director of Paraklete Ministries, an Exodus referral agency based in Hayward, Calif.
All three said they had known people who had tried to change their sexual orientation with the help of the group but had failed, often becoming depressed or even suicidal as a result.
"We are committed Christians, but we're still gay," said Marks, who heads Courage UK, a gay-affirming evangelical ministry based in England.
Among those at the news conference was the Rev. Mel White, founder and president of a faith-based gay rights group called Soulforce. White, who was the ghostwriter for the Rev. Jerry Falwell's autobiography and later came out as gay, praised the former Exodus leaders.
"It's a major moment, a paradigm shift," White said. "They're saying this doesn't work, and that's incredibly important."
The Exodus meeting is expected to attract about 1,000 people, Chambers said. Chambers, who is married and has children, said he and other current Exodus officials are careful to warn those who seek help that such a path is not easy.
Sexual orientation "isn't a light switch that you can switch on and off," he said.