Jury finds JONAH is consumer fraud


Arthur Goldberg

After a three-week trial in a first-of-its-kind lawsuit, a jury today determined that Jews Offering New Alternatives for Healing (JONAH) violated New Jersey consumer fraud protections and committed unconscionable business practices by telling clients and potential clients that they were disordered and by offering “conversion therapy” services it claimed could turn their gay clients straight.

The seven-person jury deliberated for about three hours before delivering a unanimous verdict on nearly all counts in the trial overseen by Superior Court Judge Peter F. Bariso Jr.

JONAH was founded by Arthur Goldberg. In 1987, Goldberg was indicted on 52 counts of bribery, conspiracy and fraud. Facing life in prison, he pleaded guilty to just a few counts and was sentenced to 18 months in federal prison and five years’ probation and was also fined $400,000.

The plaintiffs were three young men and two mothers. The jury ruled that the New Jersey-based JONAH violated the state’s Consumer Fraud Act through its marketing and performance of conversion therapy, a practice that has been discredited by virtually every major U.S. medical and mental health association.

In a landmark pre-trial ruling on Feb. 5, Bariso excluded several leading gay conversion therapy proponents, including Joseph Nicolosi and Christopher Doyle, from testifying as defense experts. He ruled their opinions were based on the false premise that homosexuality is a disorder. In a blistering opinion, the judge wrote that “the theory that homosexuality is a disorder is not novel but – like the notion that the earth is flat and the sun revolves around it — instead is outdated and refuted.”

Trial testimony proved that JONAH counselors defrauded clients and used abusive and discredited techniques. According to testimony at the trial, the defendants’ counselors or their associates instructed young men to undress and stand naked in a circle with them; encouraged clients to undress in front of a mirror and touch their genitals while a counselor was present in a closed-door session, and organized group activities for clients to reenact past abuse and take part in violent role-play exercises. Male counselors also engaged and advocated “healthy touch” with young men, including cuddling sessions lasting nearly an hour.

Expert testimony showed that conversion therapy has been linked to increased anxiety, depression and suicidal ideation. It also has been criticized by the American Psychological Association for promoting a climate of bigotry and discrimination toward the LGBT community.

JONAH’s techniques sometimes alienated clients from their families and caused them to blame themselves or family members for their being gay.

“I was told from the beginning, gay to straight is possible,” plaintiff Benjamin Unger testified on the opening day of the trial. “Those are the words. That is what I was promised. I felt like I was being deceived.”

JONAH counselors coaxed Unger to beat an effigy of his mother with a tennis racket in one exercise. “I had a huge gash and my hands were actually bleeding from hitting it so much,” Unger testified. “People were standing around me and supporting me and kind of egging me on, and … that was probably the worst thing I did in the JONAH program as far as how it affected me and my family and how it affected me emotionally.”

After the verdict, 27-year-old Unger of Brooklyn, said he felt vindicated.

“I am so grateful that the jury has decided conversion therapy organizations do not have the right to lie to and deceive people,” Unger said. “It is a victory not just for me but for other victims of this harmful therapy. Thank you to all of our lawyers, friends and supporters who have been there for me throughout this difficult process.”

Plaintiff Chaim Levin, 26, whose mother, Bella, was also a plaintiff, said: “Seven years ago, I was subjected to abusive, harmful practices by JONAH that I thought would remain secret and unnoticed despite how destructive they were – in part because they thrived on this secrecy in their so-called therapy practice. Now the world knows about their destructive, refuted practices. I took part in this lawsuit to take a stand. I don’t want another person to endure the anguish and harm JONAH put my loved ones and me through.”

The jury ordered the defendants pay a total of $72,400 in damages to the plaintiffs. The damages were three times the amounts the plaintiffs paid for JONAH’s program and include the amount one plaintiff paid for subsequent therapy to repair the damage caused by JONAH’s program.

JONAH must also pay reasonable attorneys’ fees for plaintiffs. The lawsuit also seeks the cancellation of JONAH’s business license, among other remedies to be considered by the judge in coming weeks.

“This is not a freedom of religion case,” said Southern Poverty Law Center staff attorney Sam Wolfe. “It is unlawful to defraud vulnerable individuals and lure them with false promises of orientation change. The lie that individuals can change their sexual orientation if only they work hard enough and pay for enough ‘therapy’ has harmed individuals, families, and religious communities for far too long.”

The case has helped spark legislation in Congress to ban conversion therapy nationwide. New Jersey, California, Oregon and the District of Columbia have already banned the practice for minors, and a number of states are considering similar laws. The SPLC lawsuit was the first in the nation against conversion therapy providers under a state consumer fraud statute.

—  David Taffet

BREAKING: NJ judge rules JONAH can’t call homosexuality a disorder


Judge Peter F. Bariso Jr.

New Jersey Superior Court Judge Peter F. Bariso Jr. ruled today (Tuesday, Feb. 10), that marketing so-called “conversion therapy” by misrepresenting homosexuality as a disorder violates New Jersey’s consumer protection laws.

Bariso issued the ruling in the lawsuit filed by the Southern Poverty Law Center on behalf of former clients against against Jews Offering New Alternatives for Healing (JONAH), a New Jersey-based organization that purports to convert gays and lesbians to heterosexuality.

According to an SPLC press release, Bariso’s ruling marks the first time a court in the United States has found that homosexuality is not a disease or a disorder and that it is fraudulent for conversion therapists to make such a claim. SPLC also says that as the trial progresses, they will present evidence to establish that JONAH repeatedly made such misrepresentations.

The lawsuit suit claims the group used deceptive practices to lure plaintiffs into their costly services for gay-to-straight therapy that can cost in excess of $10,000 a year.

David Dinielle, SPLC’s deputy legal director, said: “This ruling is monumental and devastating to the conversion therapy industry. For the first time, a court has ruled that it is fraudulent as a matter of law for conversion therapists to tell clients that they have a mental disorder that can be cured. This is the principal lie the conversion therapy industry uses throughout the country to peddle its quackery to vulnerable clients. Gay people don’t need to be cured, and we are thrilled that the court has recognized this.”

SPLC co-counsel James L. Bromley, a partner at Cleary Gottlieb Steen & Hamilton LLP, added, “The harmful myth that gay people are sick or damaged belongs in the dustbin of history.”

Bariso also ruled that JONAH is in violation of the Consumer Fraud Act if it offers specific success statistics for its services when “client outcomes are not tracked and no records of client outcomes are maintained” because “there is no factual basis for calculating such statistics.”

Last week, the judge ordered that several prominent conversion therapy proponants, including National Association for Research and Therapy of Homosexuality (NARTH) founder Joseph Nicolosi, could not testify as defense experts in the upcoming trial, scheduled for this summer.

—  Tammye Nash

Conversion therapy proponents won’t be allowed to testify in lawsuit against JONAH

The judge in the Southern Poverty Law Center’s consumer fraud lawsuit against Jews Offering New Alternatives for Healing — JONAH, a so-called reparative therapy group based in New Jersey — ruled Thursday, Feb. 5 that several prominent gay-to-straight conversion therapy proponents will not be allowed to testify as defense experts.

New Jersey Superior Court Judge Peter F. Bariso Jr. will be presiding over the trial, set to begin in early summer. In New Jersey courts, scientific expert opinions must be based on premises and methodology generally accepted within the relevant professional field. And Judge Bariso said Thursday that the conversion therapy proponents’ opinions are based on the false premise that homosexuality is a disorder.

Bariso wrote: “The theory that homosexuality is a disorder is not novel but – like the notion that the earth is flat and the sun revolves around it – instead is outdated and refuted.”

Joseph Nicolosi

Joseph Nicolosi WON’T be testifying in court in New Jersey

SPLC’s lawsuit — Michael Ferguson, et. al., v. JONAH, et. al., filed in November 2012 — alleges that JONAH counselors used abusive and discredited techniques, with counselors instructing young men to undress and stand naked in a circle with a counselor. The lawsuit alleges that JONAH counselors organized group activities in which clients were directed to re-enact past abuse, and engaged in violet role-play exercuses and “therapeutic techniques” that alienated some clients and taught them to blame their family or themselves for making them gay.

The lawsuit, filed on behalf of former JONAH clients and two parents of former clients, charges that JONAH, its founder Arthur Goldberg and counselor Alan Downing violated New Jersey’s Consumer Fraud Act. It claims JONAH used deceptive practices to lure the plaintiffs into their services, which can cost some clients more than $10,000 per year.

David Dinielli, SPLC’s deputy legal director, said Bariso’s ruling is “a major development in our effort to show that conversion therapy is a complete sham masquerading as science.”

The views of the conversion therapy proponents are “so discredited that the supposed ‘experts’ are not even permitted to testify in a court of law,” Dinielli continued, adding that, “Proponents of this bogus therapy lack any valid basis for their opinions promoting the abusive practice, yet they continue to scam vulnerable gay people and inflict significant, long-term psychological harm.”

According to information from SPLC, “expert” witnesses who have been specifically excluded from testifying are Joseph Nicolosi, Christopher Doyle, Dr. James Phelan and Dr. John Diggs.

Nicolosi is a psychologist and author of A Parent’s Guide To Preventing Homosexuality. He is also a founder of the National Association for Research and Therapy of Homosexuality (NARTH), a discredited organization which claims homosexuality is caused by psychological trauma or other “aberrations” experienced in childhood.

Doyle is a conversion therapist who leads the International Healing Foundation, founded by Richard Cohen, who was permanently expelled by The American Counseling Association in 2002 for multiple ethical violations. His conversion therapies include violently beating effigies of parents and “father-son holding” between clients and their counselors, several of whom claim to have overcome homosexuality.

Phelan is a previous leader of NARTH’s “Scientific Advisory Committee,” which promotes discredited pseudo-scientific studies. The defendants planned for Phelan to testify that conversion therapy is effective based on a bibliography of studies, including ones where “treatments” included lobotomies and electro-shock. During his deposition, he testified he made no attempt to assess the validity of the studies he compiled but merely accepted their conclusions at face value.

The defendants wanted Diggs to testify that homosexuality is an “unhealthy lifestyle” of misery and disease.

—  Tammye Nash

Volleyball-et: From en pointe to point scorer, dancer Jonah Villegas enjoys being a DIVA diva

ARNOLD WAYNE JONES  |  Life+Style Editor

For Jonah Villegas, the most frustrating thing about being a dancer is convincing people that his talent has nothing to do with a pole.

“When I tell people I’m a dancer they always say, ‘Where? BJ’s? The Tin Room?’” says the classically trained terpsichorean, who has worked with the Texas Ballet Theater. Last year, when he put his dancing career on hold, he decided to look for something else athletic he could do to stay limber and active.

“That’s why I joined DIVA,” says Villegas, 22.

Other than summers spent hitting a ball over a net in the sand, Villegas has no experience at volleyball. But when he complained to the man he was dating that life in suburban McKinney, was stifling for a young gay man, his boyfriend recommended he join the Dallas Independent Volleyball Association.

“I’ve been out since my senior year in high school, but it’s hard to be proud and loud when you’re surrounded by nothing but restaurants and straight people,” Villegas jokes. “I think that DIVA and the gay sports of Dallas are overlooked — I have made some really great friends and feel more part of the gay community. After I heard about DIVA, I still didn’t join for more than a year — I regret that I didn’t join sooner. It’s a good way to meet quality gay people.”

Villegas’ first season with DIVA started last summer; right now, he’s gearing up for the spring season, which kicks off with new member orientation and clinics this week.

“There is a wide range of skill levels. When you do to the new member clinic, they figure what division you’re in: recreational, intermediate, competitive, advanced, power or open,” he says; intermediate is the largest, and the division he’s in. From then, captains conduct a draft to put you on teams.

So does his ballet training transfer to the volleyball court? Yes and no.

“They are very similar in the fact you need to be focused and there’s a specific way to do things. Your body tells you what come natural to you and you have to train yourself how to do it the right way. But there are differences in the way you move.”

There’s another way they’re alike, too.

“The dance world is very cutthroat — if you’re not practicing you’re already behind. I joined for friends but these people are competitive! There’s lots of slapping butts and laughing, but they don’t like to lose. Well, neither do I.”

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition Jan. 11, 2001.

—  John Wright

This JONAH has one whale of a story to tell

Jewish ‘ex-gay’ group is just another attempt to get money from conflicted gay men for ‘therapies’ that do nothing but let closeted gays get their jollies through others’ fears

Hardy Haberman Flagging Left

JonahWith all the hubbub of the Fred Phelps Cult making a visit here and the oil spill continuing in the Gulf, one story seems to have dropped through the cracks. Luckily, Wayne Besen at the blog Truth Wins Out (TruthWinsOut.org)  has been on it like a dog on a bone. It involves a group called JONAH.

Aside from the biblical acronym, the group’s full name is Jews Offering New Alternatives to Homosexuality, and it is part of the ex-gay industry.

Now before anyone corrects me and notes that it should be called the “ex-gay movement,” let me explain.

Not only has the whole “ex-gay” or “reparative therapy” thing been debunked by the scientific community, no major scientific group actually approves “treatment” to change sexual orientation. No one, from the American Psychiatric Association to the American Psychological Association, even considers homosexuality something to be cured.

So what you have with the ex-gay industry is a bogus cure in search of a disease, and more to the point, several organizations who have found that the whole useless endeavor can generate a lot of cash.

So, far from being a grassroots movement, the ex-gay scam is a business, albeit “non-profit.”

Meanwhile, back to JONAH.

The group was co-founded by a fellow named Arthur Abba Goldberg. Seems he was known 20 years ago in the financial community as “Abba Cadabra” for his apparent wizardry with money. That wizardry turned out to be a scam, and Goldberg was convicted of federal mail and wire fraud as well as a conspiracy to sell worthless bonds.

The guy is a real peach, and now he has reinvented himself as the leader of an “ex-gay” therapy group.

One of his “life coaches,” Alan Downing, recently has been implicated in something a bit more touchy-feely than you would expect from an ex-gay. According to men who went to Downing, part of his treatment involves having clients strip naked in front of a mirror while touching parts of their bodies, including their genitals.

The activity is observed by the “therapist” while he encourages the subject to “internalize his masculinity.” If this sounds like a voyeurs’ delight, you haven’t heard anything yet.

Downing and Goldberg are part of another bunch called “People Can Change.” A big part of their “therapy” is participating in a retreat near Phoenix, called “Journey into Manhood.” According to a writer, Ted Cox, who secretly attended one of the sessions, for $650 a pop you get to participate in a group grope for the weekend.

Now if this sounds homoerotic, what goes on there seems even less like therapy and more like just plain sex. Participants make the journey to manhood by hugging, touching and lying on each other in a “cuddle room.” Manly stuff!

If this were a Body Electric retreat I could understand it, but for something that is supposed to “cure” homosexuality, it seems to be far off the mark.

My whole point is that the “ex-gay” industry is rife with scandal. From George Rekers, the anti- gay activist who hired a “rent boy” for a European vacation, to John Paulk, former chairman of Exodus International who was photographed coming out of a gay bar in Washington D.C., the ex-gays just can’t seem to keep their gay from coming out.

I fully expect to hear about even more surprises from the reparative therapy scam in the future. But I shouldn’t be surprised.

It all stems from the greed of folks who see in gay men a vulnerability, especially if those gay men have not fully accepted their own sexuality. It is the worst kind of deceit, to prey on the psychologically vulnerable and manipulate them for cash.

It is unfortunate that they hide behind pseudo-religious organizations that protect their questionable programs as “free speech.” Maybe as more and more of these groups are exposed and debunked, their victims will see the futility of trying to change and embrace their sexuality.

That will also take society to change as well, but luckily it is already happening. Public opinion surveys show more and more Americans affirm the idea of equal rights including marriage for LGBT people.

It is my hope that some day those unhappy people who turned to groups like JONAH will emerge like the biblical Jonah from the whale into the sunlight. Then they can work on frying the bigger fish, accepting their sexuality and enjoying their lives.

Hardy Haberman is a longtime local LGBT activist and a member of Stonewall Democrats of Dallas. His blog is at http://dungeondiary.blogspot.com.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition July 23, 2010.

—  Michael Stephens