The dream turns sour

Fresh concerns are emerging about the controversial operation of a Dublin counselling centre.

Irish Times/October 27, 2007

By Róisín Ingle

Avril Bailey cried last Saturday when she picked up her copy of this newspaper and read allegations concerning the Roebuck Counselling Centre in Dublin. “After all this time the truth about that place was finally coming out. I cried all morning, tears of relief and vindication,” says Bailey, who in the early 1990s was a client at the centre, where she later trained as a psychotherapist.

Last Saturday’s story detailed how large payments had been sought by a counsellor at the centre from a number of people, including Dubliner John Hanrahan. After paying €3,300 upfront for a diploma in psychotherapy, Hanrahan was asked for €100,000 for what counsellor Claire Hoban and her boss Bernie Purcell, director of the centre, said were “life mentoring” services. Dozens of people have since contacted The Irish Times with negative stories about their experiences. One man, Des Martin, gave almost €250,000 over the course of a year. It was eventually refunded.

Over the past 17 years the centre has evolved from being purely a counselling provider to an organisation which also conducts financial deals with clients involving hundreds of thousands of euro.

Purcell, a former director of the Rape Crisis Centre, has always prided herself on introducing what she calls “cutting edge” therapies. When she set up Roebuck Counselling Centre in 1990, first in Clonskeagh and then Rathgar, she introduced Grof or holotropic breath work, a method pioneered in Ireland by Prof Ivor Browne at St Brendan’s Hospital in Dublin. The work involved clients lying on mattresses while engaged in deep and rapid breathing patterns so they enter an altered state during which they uncovered repressed memories.

At Roebuck, Purcell offered such “mattress therapy” sessions along with one-to-one counselling and a wide variety of group therapy work covering subjects such as sexuality and spirituality.

This week people have expressed concerns about their experiences of participating in the centre.

One woman who doesn’t wish to be named says she had moved to Dublin from a rural part of the country, escaping her dysfunctional family background. “I was 21 and totally alone. For nine years Roebuck became my family. Bernie reminded me of my mother and I wanted to please her. I was spending around £75 a week there, while earning £12,000 a year,” she says.

Her average week involved one-to-one counselling with Purcell, along with participation in group therapy and Grof sessions whenever she could afford them. “You kind of got addicted to Grof. We would come out of the session and then interpret the experience. It always seemed to centre around sexual abuse. I remember being in one group of around 15 people and everyone except myself and one other person had uncovered memories of having had babies in their teenage years. It didn’t seem possible but I was so messed up at the time that I didn’t trust my own judgment,” she says.

Sue Saunders and Avril Bailey attended the centre at the same time. It took years after leaving, they say, for them to recover. They maintain they were encouraged to break off ties with their families. The Irish Times has spoken to others who were encouraged to leave their jobs, becoming mired in debt and almost totally dependent on the centre. Saunders and Bailey say a culture of secrecy developed where they became afraid to question anything that went on in the centre.

“We had isolated ourselves so much from the outside world that the centre became the only place where we felt safe and understood,” says Bailey. Saunders claims some clients became “fragmented”. She says it appeared Roebuck’s philosophy was that, if clients broke down or left the centre, it was because they didn’t have the courage to face their issues. “A nervous breakdown was seen as some kind of cop-out,” she says.

Having built up a client base, Bernie Purcell had offered her inaugural Psychotherapy and Counselling Course in 1993. The first participants were all people who up to that point had come to her for therapy. Two of these, Claire Hoban and Ann Cahill, are now the main counsellors at the centre. Originally, Purcell was the only facilitator on the course and her husband, John Milton, was the only therapist available to participants at that time. “There were no assessments and no external assessor. The woman who had been your therapist was now your teacher,” says Bailey.

Over this period Saunders and Bailey became increasingly uneasy. “When I would tell John Milton these concerns, he was dismissive and turned the issues back on me. In my last session with him I said that the truth would come out about the place eventually and he said, well you know what happened to Jesus Christ when he told the truth,” says Bailey.

When the two women eventually plucked up the courage to leave Roebuck they found they needed medical support to cope with “life outside”. “I was shattered. My doctor at the time told me that I was displaying all the symptoms of someone who had just left a cult, I trusted nobody and had to leave the country to seek help,” Saunders says.

These days many people who attend Roebuck for counselling are offered a place on the psychotherapy training course, whether or not they are interested in becoming a counsellor. All fees are paid upfront to ensure, according to Purcell, that clients commit to the therapy. Over the past few days, The Irish Times understands, a number of former clients were at the centre requesting refunds.

In the past two years the centre has moved into the area of “life mentoring” which includes a package where people pay €100,000 for two years’ worth of unlimited counselling, business advice and life tutoring. If participants don’t make one million within the two years, they will, according to Purcell, get their money back.

As the story unfolded this week, it emerged that over the years a number of complaints have been made concerning Roebuck to bodies such as the Irish Association of Counselling and Psychotherapy and the National Association of Pastoral Counselling and Psychotherapy (NAPCP) which currently accredits Roebuck’s psychotherapy course. Nothing came of these complaints although John Farrelly of the NAPCP is now urging people to write to it, detailing their experiences.

Claire Hoban resigned from the centre’s Life Mentoring programme, following an investigation by The Irish Times, although it is understood she is still employed at the centre. However, more than one former client of Roebuck has expressed the concern that Hoban is being made a scapegoat. “I am particularly sad about Claire Hoban,” says one woman who does not want to be named. “I trained with her and knew her quite well. The Claire being written about and spoken about on the radio this week is not the Claire I knew. The Claire I knew was wildly intelligent and creative. She was a vibrant woman with a kind and open heart. I don’t know what has become of her and I only hope she does not become the fall guy for this whole debacle.”

In conversation, Purcell and Hoban both display an unwavering conviction in their work. Hoban speaks of “motivation” and “life choices” and “helping people to achieve their dreams, whether that is moving to Barbados or buying a Ferrari”. Purcell is positive about the development whereby the centre is working more with “well” people as distinct from those who are, as the Roebuck website states, “lacking”. “Psychotherapy began with everyone having problems,” Purcell told this reporter last week. “This last five years we are working a lot in wellness. Claire engaged with them to keep them in wellness, increase their success and their capacities for relationships and communication. It’s an expansive programme and Claire chose to speak to those people. One of them [ John Hanrahan] had the real capacity to actually do this programme with her, he chose not to and that was it . . .I think he was disappointed. I wouldn’t be surprised if he ended up at the centre in two years’ time.”

The Irish Times attempted to contact Bernie Purcell for a response yesterday but was unsuccessful.

The Irish Times wishes to clarify there is another Bernie Purcell, living in Rathgar, Dublin, who has no connection with Roebuck Counselling Centre. She is a registered member of the Psychological Society of Ireland, a member of the Association of Psychoanalytic Psychotherapists in Ireland, and works as a senior psychologist in a state-run organisation.

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