Psychotherapist who tried to ‘cure’ me of homosexuality has at last been struck off

Our writer, who uncovered gay "conversion" therapy in Britain, discusses his struggle with practitioners and British psychotherapy's regulating body

Patrick Strudwick
Thursday 04 October 2012 15:44 BST

Lesley Pilkington, the psychotherapist who tried to “cure” me of my homosexuality while I was undercover investigating so-called conversion therapy, has now, finally, after a two-and-a-half-year fight, been struck off.

The professional body under which she practiced – the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy - has withdrawn her membership. She becomes the first therapist in history to be struck off after trying to convert a gay client to heterosexuality - despite decades of such abusive interventions by the profession.

Many believed the 60-year-old Christian had already been booted out in May when she lost her appeal against the BACP’s verdict of “ professional malpractice”. (They described her as “negligent”, “dogmatic” and “unprofessional”). This week, while covering a story about the organisation, many newspapers reported as such. But the appeal merely upheld the original verdict and most of the original sanctions.

Accept your child for who they are, or you will either damage them or lose them forever

One of the scandals of this case was that Pilkington could have clawed her way back into her professional organisation. The BACP gave her a get-out-of-jail-free card with their sanctions. To retain her membership, after being suspended, all she needed to do was write a report within a month of May’s verdict, reflecting on the findings against her, and then, between four and twelve months, write another more detailed response, countersigned by her supervisor, explaining changes she had made in her practice that ‘ demonstrate her learning’.

Easy. But she didn’t. And that was why, a few days ago, the BACP revoked her membership, for failing to adhere to the sanctions. Given the egregious evidence the professional conduct panel had heard, that they even allowed her any leeway is a disgrace.

Aside from the laughable assertions that homosexuality is caused by a “difficult birth” and “freemasonry” – and can be lessened by practicing rugby - Pilkington suggested I had been sexually abused, and that that was what made me gay.

“I think it will be there,” the panel heard her saying on the covert tapes of our therapy sessions. “You’ve let things be done to you.”

I hadn’t. I’ve never been sexually abused, and told her so. (Imagine, for a moment, if I had not been an undercover journalist, what her suggestions would have done to my family and me).

They heard her praying to God to bring these memories to the surface. They heard this and they gave her a get-out clause. The BACP is Britain’s largest body of therapists, with some 30,000 members, all paying an annual membership fee. It prides itself on its “ethical framework” and complaints procedure.

But these limp sanctions were merely the final insult. Another was why the BACP has been in the news this week.

For the first time in its history they have released a formal position statement on conversion therapy (also known as reparative therapy).

It said the BACP "opposes any psychological treatment such as 'reparative' or 'conversion' therapy which is based upon the assumption that homosexuality is a mental disorder, or based on the premise that the client/patient should change his/her sexuality".

I welcome this, of course. But what led up to it was a diabolical shambles for which they should be ashamed.

My investigation was prompted by a study by Professor Michael King of University College London, which found that one in six therapists and psychiatrists had attempted to lessen a client’s gay tendencies – or reverse them completely. This study came out in March 2009 – a few weeks before I went undercover for the Independent.

At the time of King’s study, the BACP merely offered up their press spokesman who told the Guardian that such practices were “ absurd” and makes “people with gay thoughts suffer extra pain”. You might think that this is a robust enough statement. But during the case, when Pilkington and I, with our barristers, were in front of the conduct panel, I was asked by the panel why it was I asserted that the BACP condemns conversion therapy. I read aloud the quote to the Guardian.

They decided to disregard it because they “don’t know who authorised it.” So I was left fighting a case about an issue on which the organisation conducting the case had no position.

I had to rely instead on a clause in their code of conduct about not letting your personal beliefs about sexual orientation affect your practice. Immediately after the original hearing, last year, I contacted the BACP to supply me with the BACP’s position on conversion therapy. They refused. Every journalist that contacted them to ask for their position was denied it. Their reason? My case was ongoing.

And again, this week, their spokesman Philip Hodson repeated this line: “You can't establish a formal position once a case is going on – you have to wait until a case is over."

This is nonsense. Imagine suing someone for battering you, and the judge refusing to issue the state’s position on assault. It is a dystopian farce about which even Kafka would be dumbfounded.

Pilkington suggested I had been sexually abused, and that that was what made me gay

I could go on. I could describe how the BACP allowed Pilkington to cross-examine me directly for an hour and a half, contravening their own official conduct hearing practices. I could detail the way they did nothing to stop Pilkington, while still a member of the BACP, venting homophobic bile on numerous television and radio stations to defend her position that homosexuality can be treated.

But there is a bigger issue here: how to prevent these gay “ cures”. This week California passed a law banning the use of conversion therapy on minors. (Thanks in part to the campaigning by the international gay rights group All Out, who are now focusing their efforts in Europe). This much-needed piece of legislation will prevent countless young kids being subjected to treatment that leaves the majority of them with worsened mental health – as the clinical psychologists Shidlo and Schroeder concluded in their 2002 study. They found what I found when people contacted me about their experiences: depression, suicide attempts, and self-harm. It takes victims years to recover from being told they’re evil and sick and broken. Many never do.

That Pilkington versus Strudwick has set a precedent, that the BACP now has a formal position, still won’t stop this practice in Britain. Counselling and psychotherapy are completely unregulated. The Coalition shelved Labour’s plans to bring them under one statuary body. Anyone can set up as a therapist without any training. Anyone can attempt to “cure” another of his or her homosexuality. Even the therapists who are members of professional bodies are only liable if their organisation happens to have a clear stance on conversion therapy.

The government pretends to care about accountability. But when it comes to those seeking help for mental health problems? They are happy to leave the welfare of our most vulnerable people in the hands of private bodies. The BACP, as they have generously demonstrated in this case, is unfit for purpose, unfit to protect clients from abuse and unfit to hold their members to account. Either we must introduce a law like California’s, which extends to adults as well, or we need regulation.

The Department of Health has furnished me with their position on conversion therapy:

"Homosexuality is not an illness, disease or mental health disorder. It does not need treatment.”

But it may as well be written in crayon for all the clout it wields.

I have one last thing to say. And I direct it both to parents of gay kids and to Lesley Pilkington, who told me - and has spoken publicly - about her son’s attempts to assuage his homosexuality. Accept your child for who they are, or you will either damage them or lose them forever.

Join our commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies


Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in