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JONAH loses

Jurors say ‘gay conversion’ group defrauded clients

Plaintiff Michael Ferguson, right, and his husband, Seth Anderson, after Mr. Ferguson testified against JONAH during the Jersey City trial.
Plaintiff Michael Ferguson, right, and his husband, Seth Anderson, after Mr. Ferguson testified against JONAH during the Jersey City trial.

After deliberating for just two and a half hours, six Hudson County jurors awarded $72,400 on June 25 to three religiously observant men who claimed they were defrauded by a Jersey City-based organization that said it could “cure” them of their homosexuality.

Two of the men are Orthodox Jews, and the organization is called JONAH, which stands for Jews Offering New Alternatives for Healing.

The jury sided with the plaintiffs’ allegation that JONAH engaged in “unconscionable commercial practice” under New Jersey law by claiming that same-sex attractions can be reduced or eliminated through therapy.

Plaintiffs Chaim Levin and Benjamin Unger — both formerly Orthodox Jews — and Michael Ferguson, who is Mormon, along with Mr. Levin’s mother and the mother of another JONAH client, Sheldon Bruck, sued the group under a tough New Jersey consumer protection statute. (Because Mr. Bruck was only 17, he was not permitted to be a party to the suit.)

JONAH’s co-directors, Arthur Goldberg and Elaine Berk, and a consultant and fellow defendant, Alan Downing, argued that one-third of the clients with whom they worked since 1999 have overcome same-sex attractions. They argued that homosexuality was a “disorder” that could be overcome with an amalgam of religious and scientific techniques, although they acknowledged that none of their staff was a licensed psychiatrist, social worker, or therapist.

Their methods included such unusual therapies as screaming and hitting pillows used to symbolized their mothers; the assumption is that sons’ homosexuality grows from their mothers’ failures.

The jury heard testimony from a former president of the American Psychiatric Association, Dr. Carol Bernstein, who said that “generally, it is unethical to engage in gay conversion and reparative therapies because of the potential of harm to patients.”

During the trial, Mr. Goldberg, a disbarred lawyer who had been convicted of felony mail fraud more than 20 years ago, said that JONAH’s success rate was somewhere between 65 and 75 percent. Later, when he was cross-examined, he conceded that his statistics were anecdotal.

One juror who spoke with the media after the verdict said, “The defense just wasn’t there. [The type of therapy] just wasn’t right. It’s just not something that’s therapy.

“Mr. Goldberg was a salesman. He lured them in, and they were very weak and vulnerable, and he took them from there…. It was pretty cut and dried.”

Reacting to the verdict, Charles LiMandri, chief of the defense team, said that his group hopes “to be able to rectify this injustice on appeal.”

Mr. LiMandri is president and chief counsel of the California-based Freedom of Conscience Defense Fund, a public interest group that takes cases consistent with its “family values” philosophy.

As the defeated party, the defense will be compelled to pay three times the amount for which the plaintiffs filed suit, and it will have to compensate the plaintiffs’ attorney for all legal fees associated with the case.

This story was first printed in the New Jersey Jewish News; it was prepared with the assistance of Hella Winston of the New York Jewish Week.

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