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Licenses of Mental Health Therapists Targeted in Major Malpractice Case

Times Staff Writer

In what has become the longest, costliest and most complex psychotherapy malpractice case in California history, the state is seeking to revoke the licenses of 13 psychologists and other mental health practitioners after investigating complaints of fraud, sexual misconduct and abuse from more than 100 former patients at the now-defunct Center for Feeling Therapy in Hollywood.

The center--a once-trendy “therapeutic community” that in the 1970s attracted a host of young professionals seeking a fuller life--closed down five years ago and civil lawsuits filed by ex-patients have already been settled for more than $6 million, but the therapists have continued to practice elsewhere.

In a hearing that began March 3 and is expected to last another 12 weeks, five of the center’s leaders and key therapists are now defending their actions before Robert A. Neher, a veteran administrative law judge.

As former patients confront their therapists in a cramped hearing room in a downtown Los Angeles state office building, one central question permeates the proceedings: Are the complaints merely the distortions and fantasies of troubled patients, as the defense suggests, or was the center a cult run by greedy, manipulative therapists who “brainwashed” patients into subservience, as the prosecution contends?

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Deputy Atty. Gen. William L. Carter, who is prosecuting the cases, calls the case a tale of “brutality and fraud” made possible by brainwashing.

Defense attorney Thomas Larry Watts and the key defendants declined to be interviewed. However, in his opening arguments Watts portrayed his clients as innovative therapists who developed unconventional techniques to treat “lost souls”: young adults caught “between the radical peace movement of the ‘60s and the Yuppie generation of the late ‘70s and the ‘80s,” and consequently “uncertain of their place in society.”

Good Reasons for Techniques

He predicted that ex-patients’ testimony “as to certain alleged events will range from outright lies, we believe, to such extreme exaggeration as to be totally unreliable. . . .”

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Center psychologists had good reasons for their techniques, he said. For example, a psychologist might ask a female patient who was acting seductively in a therapy session to take off her blouse “as a technique to cause her to see her own behavior for what it is.”

It has been three years since the state, through four professional licensing agencies within the Department of Consumer Affairs, moved to revoke their licenses, but hearings did not begin until late last summer.

Prosecutor Carter said the long delays are the result of a combination of factors: the Board of Medical Quality Assurance’s initial skepticism about the bizarre allegations, stalling tactics by the defense, the difficulties of tracing witnesses years after the alleged violations, the scheduling problem posed by a series of hearings estimated to require a total of 61 weeks and the sheer volume of the cases--which involve 150 witnesses, 200 pages of allegations, 800 pages of affidavits and nearly 4,000 pages of documents.

The psychologists are accused of having “engaged in and/or aided and abetted the unlicensed practice of psychology, committed acts of dishonesty, fraud or deceit, committed corrupt acts, engaged in sexual misconduct and other physical abuse of patients, and committed numerous other proscribed acts constituting grossly negligent conduct. . . .”

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The accusation states that their techniques smacked of “cult brainwashing” and that “in order to break down and control center members (they) utilized racial, religious and ethnic slurs, physical and verbal humiliation, physical, especially sexual, abuse, threats of insanity and violence and enforced states of physical and mental exhaustion.”

The Center for Feeling Therapy, which opened its doors in 1971, grew out of the human potential movement of the ‘60s, when many in search of psychological fitness flocked to primal therapy or gestalt workshops. The center’s founders, some of whom trained at Los Angeles’ Primal Institute (which later disowned them), were hailed by their patients as “new Freuds” and trumpeted by an active public relations staff.

By the time the center closed in 1980 it had about 350 members--mostly college-educated men and women in their 20s and 30s who lived communally in a compound of Hollywood houses and operated a host of small businesses, such as car repair, construction and plant sales. It also established clinics in Boston, San Francisco, Montreal, Munich and Hawaii.

“Feeling therapy” combined the patients’ re-experiencing the past, expressing present feelings, dream analysis and behavioral conditioning in a rigidly structured setting and at a cost of thousands of dollars. The goal was to recognize and respond to one’s true feelings by working through “primal pain” caused by parental denial and discipline.

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Among the defendants are center founders and leaders Richard J. Corriere, now practicing in Aspen, Colo., and New York City, and Joseph T. Hart Jr., now director of counseling at California State Polytechnic University, Pomona. Both once taught at University of California, Irvine. The others are Stephen D. Gold of Mission Viejo, Michael R. Hopper of Fairbanks, Alaska, and Werner Karle of Corona del Mar. (Many states have reciprocal revocation policies that allow them to honor out-of-state license revocations.)

Karle, in an effort to keep his credentials, has admitted to many of the allegations against him and his colleagues and, in testimony and a signed stipulation, acknowledged that “feeling therapy” involved “patient brutality in a cult setting practiced largely by unlicensed individuals.”

He said he had ridiculed some patients, calling them “stingy Jew,” “nigger” and “crazy,” and abused, struck, threatened, pressured and had sex with others.

He asked Neher to recommend that he be suspended for one year while he performs community service, including lectures to professionals about the danger that group therapy can produce “group thinking or cult-like thinking.”

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Corriere, 38, who has attended the hearings sporadically, conservatively dressed in gray pinstripes and aviator glasses, has yet to take the stand. Hart, a hulking, red-haired figure in corduroys, has completed two weeks of testimony in which he denied some of the allegations and attempted to explain others.

Tape of Session

For example, both the defense and prosecution played a tape recording of a therapy session conducted by Hart in which sounds of a patient apparently being beaten up are heard, and in which the therapist tells the man, “One more ------- time and I am going to rip you apart. . . . I’ll knock the ---- out of you.”

“I believe I said ‘kick,’ ” Hart testified. He explained that he was only “directly confronting” the patient, and that while he had poked him with a batacca (a padded bat) and slapped him several times, he had not caused injury.

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Several satisfied patients have testified that they were helped by center therapy, and last week defendant Hopper took the stand.

Earlier, 19 former patients testified about specific incidents on which the charges are based. A few examples:

- When one woman became pregnant, she testified, she was persuaded by Corriere and Hart to have an abortion for her therapy to be successful, although she very much wanted a child and had been trying for several years to conceive.

- Another woman testified that Gold “assigned” her to have sex weekly, despite her objections, and that Corriere helped her complete the assignment by becoming her partner.

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- Corriere repeatedly struck a male patient in the back, kidneys and stomach for more than 30 minutes, the man testified, because he complained of boredom. During the beating, Corriere taunted him, “Oh, the Harvard graduate is bored?”

- An overweight woman was told by Hart she was a “cow” and ordered to take off her blouse and crawl around on the floor, several witnesses testified. She complied, sobbing.

- A male patient was tied, wrapped in plastic, blindfolded and gagged by Corriere and left alone to hear a tape of his own voice, he testified, because he was “a nobody with no personality.”

- Patients said they were ridiculed for their religious beliefs or race. A Catholic woman testified that she was forced to make a mock confession, with Corriere as priest, in which she held a crucifix, saying “I refuse to give in to what you taught me.” Jewish patients were taunted as “kike” or “Jew boy.”

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- Other patients testified that they were pressured to donate large amounts of money to the center, administered “laughing gas” (nitrous oxide) in therapy sessions and instructed to fight other patients, lose unreasonable amounts of weight, avoid medical treatment, work for little or no pay, and not try to leave the center because they were too “crazy.”

They said they signed up for what they thought was a brief psychotherapy program run by licensed mental health professionals; instead they wound up rejecting their past lives, friends, families and often jobs for periods of up to nine years while receiving “therapy” from other patients and trainees.

As a result of an earlier, separate hearing, an administrative law judge has recommended that center psychiatrist Dr. Lee S. Woldenberg’s license to practice medicine be revoked, but that the physician be given 10 years’ probation on condition that he work only as a radiologist. He is said to be doing that in Toledo, Ohio. The proposed decision is still under consideration by the Board of Medical Quality Assurance.

The board’s psychology examining committee has adopted the recommendation of another administrative law judge that psychological assistant Gerald Binder’s license be revoked and that the Corona del Mar resident’s application for licensure as a psychologist be denied. The proposed decision will become effective Friday.

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A separate hearing on accusations against Corriere’s wife, Konni Corriere, a psychiatric technician, was interrupted and will be resumed this summer.

And accusations against five marriage, family and child counselors will be heard in September. They are Dominic L. Cirincione of Manhattan Beach, Carole A. Gold of Mission Viejo, Michael D. Gross of Pacific Palisades, and Patricia K. Franklin and Paul W. Swanson of Incline Village, Nev.

Moreover, the lengthy state hearings are only part of a series of legal actions involving the center. More than 50 former patients filed suit against the therapists; the therapists countersued those patients and others for libel, slander, and emotional distress.

The insurance carriers and defense attorneys are also at odds over who should pay the mounting legal fees.

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About 24 patients have settled out of court during the past two years for amounts ranging from $2,500 to $200,000 each.

And last January, a group of 31 former patients, represented by attorneys Tom Girardi and Paul Morantz, the anti-cult lawyer who was the victim of a rattlesnake attack by Synanon adherents in 1978, also reached a settlement, which is to be paid by several insurance carriers.

The terms of that settlement have been sealed, but sources close to the case say it is about $6 million.

The alleged victims of the Center for Feeling Therapy who have testified at the state hearings appear to be intelligent young professionals, hardly disturbed enough to remain immobilized for years in an atmosphere as destructive as their testimony would indicate.

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Anticipating such skepticism, prosecutor Carter called Berkeley psychologist and noted brainwashing expert Margaret Thaler Singer as his final witness. Singer, who has evaluated several former patients, testified that the allegations made at the hearing are “extreme departures from the standards of practice of psychology.”

“The goal of psychotherapy,” she testified, “is to help patients learn skills in thinking and in control and proper expression of feeling and in getting along with others so that therapy can end.”

Center therapists, however, used brainwashing techniques to manipulate and control patients for their own purposes, she said.

She concluded: “It was a cult.”

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