Beth Rutherford said she never knew she had a tormented childhood until she went to a church therapist for counseling.
But under the counselor’s guidance, she recalled how her minister father repeatedly raped her, got her pregnant and then performed a painful coat-hanger abortion.
In truth, Rutherford was still a virgin and her father had had a vasectomy many years before.
Now Rutherford and her father have settled a defamation and malpractice lawsuit against the church and the counselor for $1 million--and they plan to use the money to travel the country, warning others of the dangers of recovered memory therapy.
“Had I only known that this type of thing could exist, I think it would have saved our tragedy,” Rutherford, 23, said by telephone from her home in Tulsa, Okla.
Donna Strand, the counselor at Park Crest Village Assembly of God Church, and her husband, Pastor Robert Strand, admitted no wrongdoing in their settlement. Through their attorney, they declined comment.
The story began in the fall of 1992 when Beth Rutherford, then 19, was having trouble sleeping because of work-related stress in her job as a nurse’s assistant. Her father suggested she talk to Donna Strand.
After three sessions over four months, Rutherford reported that her stress was relieved, but she mentioned having dreams in which she and friends were being raped in the presence of her father.
According to the lawsuit, Donna Strand told her those dreams were an indication of early childhood sexual abuse.
Without her parents’ knowledge, Rutherford returned for at least 64 sessions during which the church counselor taught her how to enter a trance-like state through self-hypnosis.
Under the woman’s encouragement, the lawsuit alleged, Rutherford recalled a string of vile false memories dating back to ages 7 through 14: being raped by her father with a curling iron, having a clothes-hanger abortion by her father and being raped by her father while her mother watched.
To this day, Rutherford says she is not certain where the thoughts came from. “I can tell you one thing for sure, they did not come from my mind,” she said. “There are times in my therapy sessions that I have no memory of what happened.”
The lawsuit said two younger sisters also were interviewed by the counselor but had no memories of abuse.
Nearly two years passed, and the Rutherfords still had no knowledge of their daughter’s allegations. But the Strands had informed the General Council of the Assemblies of God, where the father, Tom Rutherford, worked. He was confronted with the allegations and forced to resign Oct. 14, 1994.
“We were just blown apart, in shock,” said his wife, Joyce Rutherford. “You think they have the wrong name, the wrong family.”
But it soon grew worse.
Tom Rutherford, now 46, took any job he could find--from seasonal postman to janitor. Many friends turned away. Yet he never revealed to the church that he had had a vasectomy when Beth was 4, making her pregnancy allegations physically impossible.
“I never told them because I was so personally outraged,” he said. “I thought I’m going to preserve a little dignity of my own and not tell them. I knew my innocence.”
It took nearly another year of being away from home--and away from the hypnosis counseling--for Beth to know his innocence, too, the family said.
In October 1995, at the insistence of the family’s attorney, she underwent a gynecological exam. It showed she was still a virgin.
Beth Rutherford, now a registered nurse, fully recanted her story. But she still feels terrible about her parents.
“I love them with all my heart,” she said. “It’s sometimes hard to look at them because of what I accused them of. I struggle a lot with the guilt of it all. They always tell me, ‘Beth, we knew that wasn’t you.’ ”
Months after she recanted, the church reinstated Tom Rutherford as a minister and he said his family’s torment should serve to alert others of the dangers of repressed memory counseling.
As for his relationship with his daughter, he said: “We’re closer than we’ve ever been.”