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It's Called Change Counseling : Troubled Pioneer Maintains His Faith in Program

December 06, 1987|ANN JAPENGA | Times Staff Writer

Elden Buck dropped out of Cal State Los Angeles, said goodby to his mother, and headed east four years ago. His destination: Reading, Pa.

Elsewhere at the same time, Sam Giumento was bidding farewell to friends in Rochester, N.Y., and Tim Carpenter was packing his bags in New Orleans. They too were bound for Reading.

Buck, Giumento, Carpenter and dozens of other young men journeyed to Reading between 1980 and 1986, taking minimum wage jobs to support themselves and renting rooms at the YMCA. They made these big changes in their lives on the advice of hometown ministers who told them there was a man in Reading who could save them--a man who could change them from gay to straight.

Relies on Insights

Colin Cook, a former Seventh-Day Adventist minister, is the best-known figure in the gay-to-straight movement nationwide. Cook's renown has spread through his books, cassette tapes, and speaking engagements; dozens of change ministries, as they are called, have grown up around Cook's technique, which incorporates religious and psychological insights he claims to have used to deliver himself from homosexuality.

Upon their arrival at Cook's Quest Counseling Center in Reading, Buck and the others met a man much like their religious advisers had described, a man who did indeed seem to be changed. The formerly gay man now was a married man with a baby (today, Colin and Sharon Cook have two children).

But one by one, those who came for help found that Cook was not the man to heal them after all.

"Every private counseling session started with a hug," said Greg, one of Cook's former clients, who does not wish to be identified by his real name because his employer doesn't know he is gay. "Not a hug like when you say goodby to Uncle Bill, but a full body hug where you felt him (Cook) pressing against you."

Ron Lawson, a sociology professor at Queens College in New York, reported in a series of interviews with Quest counselees that Cook routinely engaged in erotic hugs and nude massages with his clients. The sessions sometimes resulted in mutual masturbation, according to those interviewed.

Eleven of the 14 former Quest members interviewed by Lawson said they had been the target of sexual advances by Cook. In addition, Lawson talked to change candidates who said they were molested by Cook when he was on his frequent out-of-town trips to speak to various groups about freedom from homosexuality.

When Lawson sent a 13-page letter on his findings to 28 leaders of the Seventh-Day Adventist Church last October, Cook, 47, confessed to the acts. Last December, Cook ceased counseling his clients. In June, the Quest Counseling Center closed.

"I have been very frank and very open about my failures," Cook said in a recent interview at his home near Reading.

Cook said he "fell into the delusion" that the nude massages and such were a legitimate component of his counseling activities.

"I allowed myself to hug and hold my counselees thinking I was helping them," he said. "But I needed it more than they did."

The counselor has since begged the forgiveness of his counselees and the Seventh-Day Adventist Church. The church, which used to contribute about $47,000 a year to his ministry, has withdrawn financial support from Cook, church spokesman Robert Dale said.

But, except for the withdrawal of funds, the Cook drama seemed to pass barely noticed by the church and the community.

In a letter to the Adventist Review, the major newsletter of the church, former Quest client Greg castigated the editor for not reporting Cook's downfall and thus failing to warn others away from the counselor. "Church monies were used for the rape of individuals," he wrote. Greg said later that the clients each paid $30 for weekly sessions.

'He's Been Disgraced'

William Johnsson, editor of the Adventist Review, said they did not cover the story because they had never reported on Cook in the past and they did not wish to harm him further. "He's been disgraced, really," Johnsson said.

In addition, the secular media didn't appear interested in what had happened in Reading, either, Greg said. "It seemed like it was big enough to be on the evening news, but I guess there's a double standard," he said. "We (gays) seem to be a little less human."

The fact that the Cook matter caused so little stir except among those immediately involved seems to have set the stage for Cook's return.

"He has been slowed, but not diverted," said sociologist Lawson, who presented a paper on the issue called "The Quest Learning Center/Homosexuals Anonymous: Trouble in an 'Ex-Gay Ministry' " at a meeting of the American Sociological Assn. in Chicago last August.

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