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Accused Counselor Suspended

A woman says the psychologist, under contract at L.A. Unified, wrote to apologize for molesting her son two decades ago.

September 23, 2006|Garrett Therolf | Times Staff Writer

A prominent educational psychologist who provided counseling to students in Los Angeles Unified schools was suspended by the district Friday after a woman alleged that he molested her son more than a hundred times two decades ago in Colorado.

An attorney for psychologist Peter J. Ruthenbeck said last month that his client was cooperating with an investigation by the California Board of Behavioral Sciences, which licenses educational psychologists, but declined to comment on the allegations. The board has a policy of not confirming that it is investigating a licensee.

Paula Morgan Johnson said that after her son broke his 20-year silence earlier this year about the alleged molestation, she confronted Ruthenbeck in a pained phone call. She said that he then mailed her a handwritten three-page apology. She provided copies of that letter to The Times and the Board of Behavioral Sciences.

Ruthenbeck's attorney, B. Robert Farzad, said his client would neither confirm nor deny that he molested the boy or wrote the letter.

Eileen Skone-Rees, administrative coordinator of the school district's Nonpublic Services Department, said she received a complaint Friday from Morgan Johnson and immediately suspended Ruthenbeck pending an investigation.

The district said Ruthenbeck worked an average of three days a week, providing counseling to deaf and hard-of-hearing children identified as needing psychological help. The sessions were conducted one-on-one or in small groups.

A bill for services Ruthenbeck submitted to the district in June showed that he worked at Gardena and Fairfax high schools, Carnegie Middle School in Carson, and El Sereno Middle School and Robert Hill Lane Elementary School in Monterey Park.

The unsigned letter, sent in an envelope bearing Ruthenbeck's name and return address in Huntington Beach, expresses great remorse, although the writer never explicitly admits molesting a child.

"I am so, so very sorry," it says. "Whenever I think about that period in my life, I wonder what was wrong with me.

"You asked me what I was feeling. Since your call I have felt overwhelming shame, guilt and sadness."

The writer says that after leaving Colorado, he changed.

"You asked if there had been others. Somehow after leaving Boulder, and then going away to school, I developed the strength and self-control necessary to make sure it never happened again.

"What was wrong with me back then is still a part of me today, but it is buried very deeply. I have learned to not allow myself to indulge in conscious fantasies, but I still sometimes have dreams that I remember when I wake up. I don't know that there is a way to control this. However, I assure you that I have not acted on these thoughts since I left Colorado."

Morgan Johnson, 56, said that she and her 35-year-old son first reported the alleged molestation to police in Boulder, Colo., but were told that the 10-year statute of limitations for prosecution had passed.

Ruthenbeck, who is married and has two children, left Colorado in 1985. Until recently, he served as president of the California Assn. of Licensed Educational Psychologists. He has worked for the Los Angeles Unified School District for at least 12 years. Ruthenbeck's 2005-06 contract allowed him to bill the district up to a maximum of $212,000 per year depending on his client load.

Ruthenbeck, 47, does not undergo performance evaluations. Skone-Rees said that her department, which oversees his contract, had never received a complaint about him until Morgan Johnson's phone call. His contract could be terminated depending on the results of school district and state investigations, Skone-Rees said.

Scott Johnson, now a carpenter in Boulder, said he met Ruthenbeck in 1978, when the older man was assigned to him in a Big Brother program. Johnson was 8; Ruthenbeck was 19. Johnson said Ruthenbeck began molesting him several months later and continued until he was 15.

Morgan Johnson, who raised her son alone, said she viewed Ruthenbeck as a surrogate father to her son.

Her son said in an interview that Ruthenbeck "was real outgoing. He's one of those guys where everybody says they just love Pete."

After becoming his Big Brother, Johnson said, Ruthenbeck became his Little League coach, then his soccer coach, then leader of his Boy Scout troop. Johnson said he saw Ruthenbeck one to three times a week over those seven years. The two took camping trips, went on skiing weekends and made visits to Ruthenbeck's family in Minnesota. Ruthenbeck also took him to church.

Morgan Johnson said her son's Big Brother once took her to dinner for Mother's Day.

"I'm very liberal and lived a more bohemian lifestyle," said Morgan Johnson, who was then a social worker and is now a psychologist. "I really sought out someone that would give a straighter, more conservative perspective, to introduce him to things that I wouldn't introduce him to. Pete was squeaky clean. I mean obnoxiously clean."

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