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Inquiry Targets Disputed Psychotherapy Methods

September 21, 1986|LOIS TIMNICK | Times Staff Writer

A charismatic psychotherapist who attracted thousands of patients to the Hollywood Center for Feeling Therapy during the 1970s--although he and most of his colleagues were not licensed as psychologists until years later--contends that multiple complaints filed against him are false and, in some cases, simply delusions.

The patients' allegations of beatings, seductions, humiliation and financial coercion, the therapist testified, come from troubled people who have faulty recall, a tendency to exaggerate or a lack of insight into the unorthodox techniques of his "feeling therapy."

Richard J. (Riggs) Corriere, 39, is fighting to retain the license to practice psychology in California that he received in 1978, seven years after founding the center with several other therapists. He currently makes his home in Aspen, Colo., and New York, however, where he bills himself as a "personal coach" and "counselor."

Corriere is one of 13 people, including his wife, Konni Pederson Corriere (a psychiatric technician), and four other psychologists, who are defending their actions in license revocation hearings before administrative law judges here. The proceedings--the biggest psychotherapy malpractice case in California history--began late last summer and are expected to last through the end of this year.

In an accusation filed by the state Board of Medical Quality Assurance, the psychologists are charged with violating the state Professions Code by "(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. . . ."

After an earlier, separate hearing, the license of psychologist Gerald Binder was revoked. A recommendation that the license of physician Lee S. Woldenberg be revoked but that he be given 10 years' probation instead is under final review by the board. Hearings for other defendants are still not completed.

Deputy Atty. Gen. William Carter said the state's investigation was triggered by complaints from more than 100 former patients about their treatment at the now-defunct center.

Earlier this year, a civil lawsuit against the center by former patients was settled, reportedly for about $6 million.

In presenting the state's case against the psychologists, the prosecution portrayed the center as a cult run by greedy, manipulative therapists who "brainwashed" patients into subservience.

The defense, however, in hearings that are now nearing an end, has painted a very different picture of an innovative "therapeutic community" that troubled young adults seeking a fuller life freely chose to join.

Corriere testified that the idea of forming such a community had grown out of "how lonely (therapy clients) were" and that it had evolved as "a group of people who had access to each other, gave each other support and help, who were dependable--(it was) probably more akin to a small town mentality of the 1950s. . . ."

Defense attorney Thomas Larry Watts refused a reporter's request to interview Corriere but said his client has refuted each charge.

In some instances, the defense contends, the recollection of a complaining witness may have been colored by a personality that tends to exaggerate and over-dramatize. In others, the person may be simply unable to face painful problems from the past. Sometimes, there may be very little disagreement over what was said or what happened but a great difference in each side's interpretation. And in some cases, the alleged events just didn't occur, Watts said.

Corriere was one of several founders and therapists at the center. But over the years he emerged as its leader, and when it fell apart, was the prime target of many former patients' anger.

Patients Testified

Former center patients testified that Corriere persuaded one woman to have an abortion, had sex with another, repeatedly struck several, made ethnic and religious slurs, pressured patients to donate large sums of money and controlled their personal and professional lives.

But the psychologist denied many of the charges and explained others to Administrative Law Judge Robert A. Neher during a week on the witness stand. For example, he said:

- A patient who testified that he was beaten and taunted by Corriere was in fact a depressed alcoholic with schizoid tendencies and no direction in life. During a 1974 therapy session, after he had complained of being bored, Corriere grabbed and pushed him from room to room where other patients were crying or acting out anger, asking, "Is that boring?"

Left Alone

The therapist then left the young man alone with instructions to start feeling instead of intellectualizing; when he returned a short time later, the patient was crying very deeply and feeling better.

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