It is rare that a psychotherapist finds themselves on the receiving end of national press coverage for professional misconduct. However, that is exactly what happened to John Clapham, a therapist operating in Exeter in South West England. Clapham and his organisation, Palace Gate Counselling, were recently thrown out of the British Association of Counselling and Psychotherapy (BACP) for his groping of counsellor employees in a so-called intimate massage treatment session. Until recently such scandals were generally announced discretely in the professional conduct section of Therapy Today. Unfortunately for Mr Clapham, reports of his behaviour were offered to the nation over Sunday breakfast last week by the Mail on Sunday.
Clapham’s clumsy advances to two female counsellors, whose work he was also supervising, were not only unwanted sexual approaches but also gross breaches of professional trust. In addition to the damaging emotional impact, both women claim they were subject to years of intimidation by Clapham and his associates in an attempt to block the various ways in which they sought to raise their complaints. Finally in May this year, a BACP investigation upheld the bulk of the women’s complaints and removed Clapham from its register.
Unfortunately, that is where any sanction ends for Clapham. An investigation by the Police went nowhere and given that BACP registration is voluntary, Clapham can continue to practice and potentially to groom new Sabina Spielreins to play muse to his Karl Jung. The case has raised calls for government to revisit the regulation of therapy and the scandal has momentarily put therapeutic abuse in the public eye. However, the therapy profession as a whole should think carefully whether it wishes to frame the regulation debate in terms of unwanted sexual advances and bullying by a rogue therapist against his employees.
Clapham is an archetypal “little man of the professional class”, the sort of respectable chap whom George Orwell identified as the most suitable protagonist in a good Sunday paper scandal. As such he is a perfect foil for the two women he allegedly groomed. In the grainy snapshot that announces the media’s conclusion on someone’s guilt, the respectable county town psychotherapist morphs into a sinister abuser. In contrast, his victims scrubbed up well for their professional press photos. To borrow terminology from Jung, whose sexual relations with clients seem less and less acceptable with hindsight, this was a story about archetypes: the old man with fading sexual powers fancying himself as Zvengali to the eager trainee Trilbys with whom he surrounded himself. Distilled to its essence, you have less a call to stop therapeutic abuse than another replay of a sex story as old, hackneyed and ultimately ephemeral as the paper that printed it.
Yet who can blame the women involved for seeking this route? Angry at Clapham’s abuse, worn down by bullying from his cronies, unable to get help from the Police, and frustrated by a lengthy and ultimately toothless complaints procedure, the counsellors involved appear to have gone to the press as the only effective means to stop Clapham doing the same to others. In this they have succeeded. For the time being at least, it is hard to imagine that Clapham and his organisation will have new clients queuing up. The pair have also gained useful publicity for their own professional practices and reputations, which given what they have been through seems a fair enough secondary benefit.
However, it remains to be seen whether using their experience to raise the issue of therapeutic regulation in the national press is of long term benefit to the profession. Both the counsellors involved have made clear their support for greater regulation of psychotherapy and they probably introduced the Mail to Catalyst, an organisation quoted in the article that supports victims of abuse by therapists. Following the phone hacking scandal, UK newspapers have more than ever to wrap their grope-and-expose stories in a bigger issue to maintain credibility. Clapham’s victims have skilfully played on that. However, what they failed to do was set a professional context to either the abuse or the need for regulation.
The women deserved their free press punch at Clapham, but they remain self-appointed representatives of the rest of the profession. They might well have benefited from media support from their own professional body, which happens to be the BACP. Given that Clapham was expelled in May, it is surprising that neither the complainants nor the BACP appear to have co-operated on the article, which took some planning and preparation. A press statement from BACP or a quote from a senior therapist would have set the professional context with some important industry messages, particularly that abuse by therapists is rare, that regulation would improve the safety of clients but that regulation is about more than stopping abuse. While there is no doubting their courage and perseverance, neither counsellor has the necessary experience or gravitas to speak for the profession as a whole. Both might deny this presumption, but by going to the media and positioning your experience of abuse as a reason for regulation, you are taking on such a role de facto.
What this story lacks is a credible voice from those who do represent the profession in bodies such as BACP. No further demonstration is necessary of the political naivety of the therapy profession, its lack of media savvy in a media-driven age, and the deficit of courage among its senior figures to speak out regularly in the media. Getting the result you want from media coverage requires more than crossing your fingers and hoping the journalist is on side. It takes preparation and relationship building. This story illustrates the failure of the BACP to establish a strong media presence and to support the media efforts of victims of therapeutic abuse who want publicity for their experience. The end result is that the ethical majority are silenced in these cases, potentially leaving the floor to the angry, the aggrieved or those with an axe to grind.
Therapists are not the Mail on Sunday’s standard readers, so I doubt whether anyone reading this piece had their attention held much past the opening paragraphs and photos down to the regulation issue. While justified and well intentioned, the story remains a breakfast tale of abuse and bullying whose immediate impact on readers is more likely to be titillation and schadenfreud than outrage at an unregulated industry unable to root out rotten apples. By raising the issue of regulation without a solid professional context, the piece runs the risk of painting all therapists, particularly older men, as potential Claphams. Abusive therapists are a tiny minority, and if the profession frames regulation around their elimination it risks making that process a means of preventing the bad rather than encouraging the best. I don’t begrudge Clapham’s victims their revenge, particularly served suitably cold after years of struggle. But exposing scandals in which you are the victim is not the optimum way to advance regulation of therapy, particularly when done without the co-operation and involvement of the wider profession. BACP would be wise to take note and take a close look at its media strategy.