Psychologists in 'Feeling Therapy' Lose Licenses

Times Staff Writer

The state on Tuesday revoked the licenses of two psychologists who headed the once trendy Center for Feeling Therapy in Hollywood, ending the longest, costliest and most complex psychotherapy malpractice case in California history.

Richard J. (Riggs) Corriere and Joseph T. Hart Jr., who during the 1970s billed themselves as "the Butch Cassidy and Sundance Kid of psychology," were found guilty of acts of gross negligence, incompetence, patient abuse, aiding and abetting the unlicensed practice of psychology and false advertising after a 94-day hearing before Administrative Law Judge Robert A. Neher.

Corriere was also found guilty of misrepresenting his professional qualifications and of fraud and deception at the center, which closed in 1980.

"This is a classic case that illustrates the need for consumer protection, and the decision scores a major victory (for consumers)," said Tom O'Connor, executive officer of the eight-member Psychology Examining Committee, which is part of the Board of Medical Quality Assurance, the state agency that licenses and disciplines health professionals.

Former patients of Corriere and Hart, who once hailed the two men as "the new Freuds," had testified during the hearing that the therapists seduced them and gave them sex assignments, publicly ridiculed and humiliated them and then charged high fees for such treatment.

One ex-patient testified that she was pressured to have an abortion, and another told of witnessing a woman being ordered to take off her blouse and crawl on the floor, mooing like a cow. Others described being beaten during therapy.

The licensing committee adopted recommendations made by Neher, who said he believed the patients' allegations and did not accept the psychologists' explanations for their unorthodox actions.

Neher found that while some legitimate psychotherapy was practiced at the center, the therapists preyed on "young and credulous persons who were in a unique position to be misled," and that no patient who testified at the hearing could be deemed "to have consented to or anticipated the almost Gothic maelstrom that they were being drawn into."

Neher said the center purported to offer treatment "by all of the world's eight or 10 premier psychotherapists" in a set-up that allowed them "to solicit money, sex or free labor from patients" and to coerce them into "obsessive devotion."

"By any definition it was a cult," Neher wrote of the center.

Placed in Dark Room

For example, one charge against Corriere was that in early 1974--while still a psychology assistant--he engaged in unlicensed therapy sessions in which he verbally humiliated, blindfolded and gagged one young man, bound him in cords and plastic wrap and left him in a dark room with a tape recorder playing his own voice until he "realized how much help he needed." He "gave in" and said he would do whatever Corriere asked, it was alleged.

"Corriere's assertion that this never happened, but that (the patient) had had a 'hallucination' that it happened and now believes the hallucination is found to be untrue, and to be a recently concocted alibi on the part of Corriere," Neher wrote in his 23-page report.

The committee also revoked the license of a third center psychologist, Stephen David Gold of Mission Viejo, and placed a fourth, Michael Roy Hopper of Fairbanks, Alaska, on conditional probation for five years.

No Longer Licensed

In all, 12 therapists associated with the center--one physician, five psychologists, five marriage, family and child counselors and one psychiatric technician--have lost or surrendered their licenses since 1980, when the "therapeutic community" disbanded and state professional licensing agencies began legal action against its leaders. A 13th therapist, psychologist Werner Karle, was charged but died earlier this year.

Deputy Atty. Gen. William L. Carter, who prosecuted the cases, said he is pleased at Neher's "truly remarkable findings" and the resulting license revocations "because they mean that the public will be protected from these sorts of abuses in the future."

Defense attorney Thomas Larry Watts, who represented the four psychologists, said he would not comment until he sees the state's written decision. The defense had claimed that complaints from more than 100 former patients were either false or, in some cases, the delusions of troubled people.

'Personal Coach'

Corriere, who now practices in Aspen, Colo., and New York City as a "personal coach" and "counselor," did not return calls from The Times.

"I imagine we will appeal," Hart said when informed of the decision Tuesday. He said his job as director of counseling at California State Polytechnic University, Pomona, would not be affected by the loss of his psychologist's license.

The now defunct Center for Feeling Therapy, which opened its doors in 1971, grew out of the "human potential" movement of the 1960s, when many in search of psychological fitness flocked to primal therapy or gestalt workshops.

Corriere and Hart's "feeling therapy" was a mix of psychological theories that combined re-experiencing the past, expressing present feelings, dream analysis and behavioral conditioning in a rigidly structured setting, at a cost of thousands of dollars.

Feeling 'Primal Pain'

The goal of the therapy was said to be the recognition and response to one's true feelings by working through "primal pain" caused by parental denial and discipline.

During the 1970s, the center became a magnet for hundreds of young professionals seeking a fuller life, patients who would later claim they had been been manipulated and brainwashed into a psychological cult. By the time the center closed in 1980, it had about 350 members, most of whom lived communally in a compound of houses in Hollywood and operated several small businesses in the Los Angeles area and clinics in other cities.

Since then, civil lawsuits filed by ex-patients have been settled for more than $6 million, although some litigation is still pending. Attorney Paul Morantz, who represented many of the patients, said that although he agrees with Tuesday's revocation decision, "it's sad that our system is so inefficient that it has taken seven years to halt these people's ability to harm others."

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