The former president of the American Psychiatric Association told a Jersey City jury that “generally, it is unethical to engage in gay conversion and reparative therapies because of the potential of harm to patients.”
“Any treatment that is based on the assumption that homosexuality is a mental disorder or is based on the assumption that the patient should change his or her sexual orientation is by its nature unethical,” said Dr. Carol Bernstein.
She testified June 10 as an expert witness on behalf of former clients of JONAH, a Jewish-affiliated organization that promises to provide “research and clinical strategies for growth out of homosexuality.”
Her assertions bolstered the contentions of the six plaintiffs who are suing JONAH under New Jersey’s consumer fraud statute. They allege the organization – originally named Jews Offering New Alternatives for Healing — engaged in “unconscionable commercial practice” by claiming that same-sex attractions can be reduced or eliminated through therapy.
All of them were raised in religious households where homosexuality was believed to be an “abomination.”
The lawsuit is the latest court battle over “conversion therapy,” a practice gay rights groups are trying to ban it in more than a dozen states.
“Homosexuality is one normal approach to sexuality,” Bernstein testified.
Asked by plaintiffs’ attorney James Bromley, “Would it be a big deal for you if someone under your supervision told a patient that homosexuality is a disorder?” she said, “It most certainly would be.”
In further questioning, Bromley asked the psychiatrist to comment on various treatment techniques his clients allege they were subjected to by counselors and life coaches affiliated with the JONAH program.
She said instructing someone to beat a pillow with a tennis racket while pretending to attack his mother was not an acceptable treatment manner “in my experience” and had the potential to harm a patient. She said it would “most certainly” lead to disciplinary action by the APA.
Asked whether “directing clients to hurl homophobic insults at one another” was an appropriate treatment, she said, “it would be potential grounds for expulsion” from the professional organization she once headed.
Questioned as to whether directing clients to remove clothing during an individual or group session was acceptable therapy, Berkowitz said, “most absolutely not.” She said it could also harm patients, “and would be grounds for expulsion.”
On cross-examination, she was asked by defense attorney Charles LiMandri, whether an “unlicensed counselor –say a minister or a priest or a rabbi” is bound by the APA’s code of ethics.
“No, but I hope they would be,” she responded.
LiMandri also asked whether offering counseling to “someone seeking out counseling based on their religious view wouldn’t necessarily be violating any ethical rule,” Berkowitz said “I assume not, but in terms of conversion therapy it is quite explicit.”
“Doctor, do you believe patients have a right to self-determination of the type of treatment they get?” he asked.
“Certainly,” she responded.
“If they were to come to you and say they want to overcome conditions in their lives and say they want to get married and have a family, you wouldn’t try to deter them from those goals? asked LiMandri.
“No, of course not,” she answered.
“Do you believe if someone wants to change their identity from homosexual or heterosexual or heterosexual to homosexual, they should have the right to do so?”
“I don’t know that I look at it so much as a right, but I would say those things are possible,” she said.
A day earlier, plaintiff Chaim Levin told the jury that at a weekend therapy session JONAH participants “reenacted a scene from my childhood abuse,” in which an older cousin demanded oral sex.
Levin said rabbis and representatives of JONAH told him that the abuse had caused him to become gay.
“How was it explained that the process of reenacting your childhood sexual abuse would change your orientation from gay to straight?” he was asked
“Something about getting in touch with my real emotions,” he answered.