Controversial international ministry operates from Campbellsville

Central Kentucky News Journal/July 2, 2003
By Jan Fletcher

A $2 million-plus Taylor County business that sells books and videos teaching a new form of Christian therapy in more than 100 countries is generating cries of miracle cures and of criticism to its controversial therapeutic approach.

Theophostic Ministries, founded by Ed Smith of Campbellsville, teaches that inside memories of past traumatic events are lies embedded by Satan that create emotional distress in a person's life. A Theophostic facilitator encourages the person to go back to the memory, and then allows God to reveal the lie. Proponents claim immediate relief from a variety of emotional problems.

A growing group of vocal critics, however, claims that efforts to deal with current abuse by resurrecting memories can lead to the creation of false memories during Theophostic sessions, which can sometimes result in false allegations.

One critic, Thomas Wright, of Yarmouth, Maine, saw Theophostic ministry tear his church apart when his former pastor, Wesley Harris, traveled to Campbellsville in 1998 to learn Theophostic techniques from Ed Smith. Wright was arrested in April 2002 and charged with sexual abuse after a church member's memory surfaced, during Theophostic sessions, of Wright allegedly abusing a child.

In June 2002, Cumberland County, Maine, District Attorney Stephanie Anderson dismissed the sexual-abuse charges against Wright. Evidence against Wright would be hard to prove in court because it was based on Harris' unconventional and biased therapeutic methods, said Anderson, adding that the American Psychological Society considers Harris' brand of therapy to be unreliable.

"Harris had previously done at least some counseling in the area of repressed memories of sexual abuse before going to the training in Campbellsville," said Wright. "However, after the training he had a new and very dangerous belief, that it was actually God himself who was uncovering the memories."

Smith says critics are small in comparison to the vast number of Theophostic supporters.

"Go to a Web browser and search on Theophostic," said Smith. "You'll see 500 sites and 495 of them are positive and only five are negative."

Although Smith developed Theophostic Ministries in Campbellsville in 1996, few Taylor County residents are familiar with the concept. Smith refused to disclose the total income from sale of Theophostic materials, but said the operation sells 1,000 basic training packages a month. Each package costs $165.

"You can do the math on that," said Smith. "It's a substantial amount of money."

The operation also holds in-person training seminars at a cost of more than $800 per trainee.

Smith birthed the idea for Theophostic, which means "God light," while operating Family Care Christian Counseling in Campbellsville.

"My primary clientele were female survivors of sexual abuse. I pretty well burned out locally on trying to help these ladies," said Smith, who has a doctorate in pastoral ministry.

Once Smith put together the ideas for Theophostic, he said he "suddenly got incredible results."

Smith said the local community has expressed little enthusiasm for his ideas.

"No interest, zero, nada," said Smith. "It's kind of like a prophet in his hometown. Five or six years ago, I quit trying."

Smith's church, New Covenant, is the only one in Campbellsville using Theophostic ministry materials, he said.

"Based on our database, 38,000 to date have bought materials in the U.S.," said Bill Renn, ministry operations director for Theophostic Ministries.

"It's actually like a runaway train. We're currently in all 50 states. Probably, in the next three to five years, we'll focus very heavily on the international market."

Hundreds come to Taylor County every year from around the world to be trained in advanced Theophostic counseling techniques at the Alathia Equipping Center, a conference center which sleeps 45, located on Raikes Hill Road in Mannsville, said Renn.

Kim Clough, of Sun Prairie, Wis., first heard of Theophostic when a friend gave her one of the 500 free introductory tapes distributed by Smith's operation each month.

"It seemed too good to be true," said Clough, who has suffered panic attacks for years. She had no trouble finding a Theophostic minister in her area, since there were around 50, she said.

"It's real widespread."

Clough describes Theophostic sessions as private meetings where the facilitator prays and asks Jesus to take the person back to "another memory when you feel the same feeling," that is considered part of the current distress.

"You talk about it, get stirred up and go back to three or four memories. The facilitator helps you discover the lie. When Jesus brings the truth, the pain is gone. It's like a miracle. It's usually pretty intense. There's horrible pain in these memories. Some of the memories are some things I remember, some are things I haven't remembered before."

When she leaves for a session, said Clough, "sometimes I feel like I'm walking to the guillotine. Then I walk out really a different person." She said a relative, now deceased, sexually abused her.

"Forgiving him is kind of a process. It's hard to forgive something you don't know about," said Clough.

Martin Bobgan, of Santa Barbara, Calif., co-author with his wife Deidre, of "TheoPhostic Counseling: Divine Revelation? Or PsychoHeresy?" (1999), said he is most concerned about Smith's use of regression therapy.

"You're dealing with memories that are so fragile," he said. "The weight of scientific evidence would be in opposition to what he is doing. People are naively pursuing this based on testimonies."

"Martin Bobgan, PsychoHeresy, attacks everyone," said Smith. "They also attack other people like James Dobson."

Dobson is founder of Focus on the Family.

Meanwhile, Clough is so excited she's encouraging her 800-member church to embrace Theophostic.

Dr. Paul Simpson, of Tucson, Ariz., an accredited Christian family counselor, and author of "Second Thoughts: Understanding the False Memory Crisis and How It Could Affect You" (1996), calls Theophostic "pretty dangerous stuff."

"While recovered memory therapy has been completely debunked in the professional community, you've got this springing up from Ed Smith. And that's what it is: a dressed up version of recovered memory therapy," said Simpson.

Clough's Theophostic facilitator is Steve Freitag, a full-time missionary with CrossCounsel in Middleton, Wis. He has 4,000 hours of experience with Theophostic, in sessions with 200 people.

"It was unbelievable at the beginning," said Freitag. "I couldn't believe it was that real. The Lord continues to prove it over and over. I believe in it 100 percent."

Freitag said the goal is for the facilitator to bring the client into a strong emotional reaction, called abreaction in psychotherapy.

"It's right after that that we ask the Lord to bring his truth. The way I explain it, I tell them first it's not my job to make them feel better. My job is to make them feel worse, to hold onto their pain."

Simpson's book cites a review of repressed memory claim referrals, initiated by the Washington State Department of Labor and Industries, as part of a report to the Mental Health Subcommittee, Crime Victims Compensation Program, on the effectiveness of regression therapy (1996). Thirty cases were randomly selected from a total of 187 for review. Among the findings: Prior to recovered memory therapy, only 10 percent had suicidal thoughts or attempts; after therapy began, this jumped to 67 percent.

Pamela Freyd, executive director, False Memory Syndrome Foundation in Philadelphia, Pa., said the foundation has been contacted since 1992 by more than 22,000 families in which the report of an allegation of sexual abuse was based on a claim of recovered repressed memories, The foundation currently receives inquiries from between 10 and 20 families a month.

Frank Kane of Acton, Mass., was "devastated beyond words," when his 25-year-old daughter accused him in 1991 of sexually abusing her when she was aged 2. A Christian therapist encouraged Kane's daughter to believe in recovered memories.

"It was sleepless days and nights for me, with a lot of crying and anger and despair. How does one combat something like this? How does one prove a negative, that something didn't happen?"

In 1993, Kane's daughter, with the help of a pastor's wife, recognized the memories as false. Kane has researched Theophostic, and listened to the free introductory tape.

"Smith doesn't seem to recommend confrontation of the perpetrator, in order to heal. But, how does this new-found knowledge of having been abused by Dad or Uncle Joe, some 20 years before, time and time again, work into a comfortable home-life, and family reunions and holiday cookouts, on the part of the accusing daughter and Dad or Uncle Joe? Such an accusation is no small thing."

"Theophostic doesn't put a lot of emphasis on validating memory," said Smith, "but rather the belief in that memory. When they think about that memory, the memory itself is not the problem. Why do you feel dirty and shameful? Because grandpa molested you. We identify the lie, and then the spirit of Christ brings healing. The memory is the container of information. Whether it's true or not we can't prove that. We don't camp there. Once they find the truth, the pain immediately leaves. The memory is important because it's a container. But whether it's true or not, the interpretation of that memory is causing the pain."

One of the books listed on the Theophostic Web site is "Keeping Your Ministry Out of Court."

It may be a serious concern for anyone who deals in the gray area of childhood memories. In Missouri in 1992, Beth Rutherford, a pastor's daughter, recovered memories of her father raping her between the ages of 7 and 14. Rutherford subsequently believed her father had twice impregnated her and forced her to abort the fetus herself with a coat hanger.

The father was forced from his job when the allegations were made public.

Later medical examination, however, revealed that the daughter, then age 22, was still a virgin and had never been pregnant. Rutherford filed a $12-million lawsuit against the therapist. According to the Associated Press, in an article published Nov. 18, 1996, Park Crest Village Assembly of God church counselor Donna Strand and her husband, church pastor Robert Strand, agreed without litigation to surrender the maximum benefit, $1 million, under their insurance policy. They admitted no wrongdoing.

Smith, on the Theophostic Web site counters the claims of those who discount the validity of repressed memories.

"I have worked with several different ladies who surfaced horrific memories of sadistic sexual abuse, which if the content of their stories was true, there would have to be internal scarring on the inside of their vaginal cavities. I sent each of them to a medical doctor and lo and behold he found scar tissue that he attributed to abuse. The scar tissue was there without their consciously knowing it and the abuse memories had been repressed prior to their receiving ministry. So much for the denial of repressed memories."

Mark Pendergrast, author of "Victims of Memory: Sex Abuse Accusations and Shattered Lives," believes Smith's approach in Theophostic offers a dangerous combination of secular and religious approaches.

"First, he says that we shouldn't trust logic or rationality, but must rely on feelings and intuition," said Pendergrast. "Then he talks about how you must 'receive truth from God.' When preachers or therapists start telling you that they have a direct pipeline to God, watch out! God moves in mysterious ways, all right, but history should have taught us to beware of such false prophets, particularly when they have dollar signs in their eyes."

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