Friday, February 08, 2013


In 1990, at the Disneyland Hotel in Anaheim, California, Dr. William Coulson gave a talk in which he apologized to the Archdiocese of Los Angeles for his part in a disastrous 1960‘s experiment which precipitated a mass exodus of nuns from their vows and harmed many Catholic students. I was one of them.

The talk was recorded (Psychology in Education) and was recently made available to the public. Upon hearing it I was immediately transported to a specific day in 1968 and to my Los Angeles Catholic school classroom. It was the day the “experiment” began, a day I can recall in detail like few others.

It would take a book (and someday I may write it) to recount the rapid succession of events which swirled to life like an angry genie released from his lamp - or more precisely, like demons released from hell - because, while the experiment may have commenced with the best intentions, it set in motion a series of events which would morally and spiritually cripple me and many others, and would lead (I believe) to the death of my brother, the divorce of my parents and the complete collapse of the pillars of faith and family upon which the surety of my young world was built.

I was riveted by Coulson’s talk. Forty years later, here was “the thing”, the epicenter of my formative history. It was an “I knew it” moment. In 1968, my 12 year-old psyche had been too young to know what was happening, but not too young to know that SOMETHING was happening, and that something felt very, very wrong.

“I’m sorry”, said Coulson from my CD player nearly 20 years after he had actually said it. “I’m sorry. I apologize. We tried to stop it, but it was too late.” Coulson was speaking of the experiment in Self-Actualization he and the eminent psychologist, Carl Rogers, had conducted in the Los Angeles Catholic schools in the late 1960’s. Coulson was Roger’s Chief of Staff and oversaw the experiment.

Rogers’ theory of Self-Actualization was founded on the supposition that humans are naturally good, that everyone has the “truth” within them, and in order for us to “self-actualize” we only need an environment where we can express our most intimate feelings which then allows us to get in touch with our inner truth.

The main vehicle for the therapy was the “encounter group”, a small group wherein the members are given a personal issue to discuss and then instructed to listen to each other non-judgmentally. There is no right or wrong, just listening and affirmation.

If this sounds familiar it is because Self-Actualization is now called Self-Esteem Theory and is widely employed in counseling and in education. The subject person is not to be judged. He or she is simply to be given information (not instruction) and the counselor/teacher is to guide the student to “the truth that is within”. This was thought to produce the self-esteem necessary for an individual to self-actualize, which would then provide the foundation for a happy life.

Up to 1968, Rogers had tested his theory with the mentally disturbed, and with some success. He then wanted to test it on normal people, believing that if it could assist the disturbed, it might help normal people even more. Rogers needed a large and willing control group. By chance he found it in Los Angeles with the nuns of the Immaculate Heart of Mary (IHM’s) who ran many of the archdiocesan schools including a college.

Coulson recounts that the experiment was a “disaster”.  Within one year, over 300 of the original group of 560 nuns were petitioning Rome to be relieved of their vows. And by the end of the second year, though the experiment had been designed for three years, Rogers himself, alarmed at the results, terminated the experiment.

But though Rogers quit, the nuns did not. Enamored with the excursions into an “off-limits” world of intimacy opened by the encounter process - excursions Coulson recounts but are too scandalous to print here - the IHM’s continued, and continued until their schools closed and the order collapsed. “We thought we could make the IHMs better than they were; and we destroyed them”, said Coulson.

Unfortunately, before the IHM’s flamed out, several other orders caught the Rogerian disease, including the one which taught at my school. Through 6th, 7th, and 8th grade, I watched our own nuns “self-actualize” until they were no more. A teaching order from Spain was imported to replace them. But it was too late. The exodus of nuns from their vows was soon followed by an exodus of the laity from their faith.

Two decades later, the seduction of self-actualization would morph into the moral equivalent of a flesh-eating bacteria and would cost the Los Angeles archdiocese hundreds of millions of dollars in lawsuits, and the revelation of the damage and scandal  is just beginning. But no one knows the cost in souls. At least Coulson was sorry.

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