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A phony counselor fools church

Richard O’Toole is accused of unlicensed health care.

Richard O’Toole is accused of unlicensed health care.

ST. PETERSBURG — For years, Richard O'Toole enjoyed the respect of hundreds of fellow churchgoers at First Unity Church. He told them he was a mental health counselor and he lectured on hypnosis and served on the church's board of trustees.

So when news spread that O'Toole, 69, had been arrested Monday on six felony counts of unlicensed practice of a health care profession, church members and officials were shocked. Even more disturbing: The police investigation began after a 17-year-old boy said that O'Toole had asked him to "pull your tiger out," slang for exposing his penis.

"It's been a very difficult time for everyone, especially for the families," said Temple Hayes, the minister of the church at 460 46th Ave. N. "I wasn't aware of his past nor was anyone at the church aware of his past. It's a very unfortunate thing. We are all victims here."

St. Petersburg police are still investigating. They are asking anyone with information to call detectives with the department's crimes against children unit.

"The detectives have a concern that there might be other victims out there," said police spokesman Bill Proffitt.

O'Toole was released from jail on bail late Monday. He did not respond to calls seeking comment.

He has been a member of First Unity since 1999 and a board member for the past 2 1/2 years. He has resigned from both the church and the board. In conversations with church members and in bulletins, he passed himself off as a licensed mental health professional, police said.

In a church newsletter, O'Toole said that his loves are "psychology and flying" and that he liked "to combine proven effective scientific techniques, including the use of self-hypnosis, with Unity principles."

He was included on a list of counselors that the church recommended for grief counseling, and he attracted other clients by advertising through the church newsletter.

Church officials say they didn't know about O'Toole's past. In 1997, O'Toole was arrested on a charge of simple battery after showing a boy a pornographic film and then grabbing the clothed boy in a sexual manner. O'Toole pleaded no contest to that charge, and adjudication was withheld.

O'Toole is not listed on the state's sex offender registry.

Late last year, another 17-year-old boy who had done yard work for O'Toole told his family about a strange incident. The boy, who is not being named because of the nature of the allegation, told police that O'Toole had asked him to pull out his penis in 2006, claiming he was a doctor.

The boy's father said in an interview that his son related the 2006 incident only recently when the family learned that another boy in the church had raised concerns about O'Toole's conduct. Police have not charged O'Toole in connection with the 17-year-old's allegation.

"O'Toole seemed like 'a professional, nice cheerful guy,' " the boy's father said.

He said O'Toole recruited young men to do yard work, and gave them large sums of money. O'Toole also let the 17-year-old boy drive his Mercedes-Benz and Cadillac, according to police.

As police began investigating the 17-year-old's allegation, they learned that O'Toole had passed himself off as a mental health professional, despite lacking state licensing.

Corey Wenzel, 16, was a member of First Unity who went to a hypnosis session with O'Toole, hoping to get by without taking medication for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.

O'Toole offered hypnosis as a way to help people deal with issues such as addiction and the loss of a pet.

Wenzel said he went to only one hypnosis session and felt it "kind of helped." But after learning O'Toole wasn't licensed, Wenzel said he felt cheated.

"I thought he was a trained professional," Wenzel said. "I was surprised."

As the investigation continues, church officials say they will offer help to the police.

Hayes, the minister, said more than 700 people attend First Unity. Church officials are also concerned that there may be more victims who have not come forward yet.

"I just want to be supportive as the spiritual leader of the community," Hayes said.

"This whole thing has weighed heavy on our hearts and our souls."

Times researcher Shirl Kennedy contributed to this report. Abhi Raghunathan can be reached at araghunathan@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8472.

.FAST FACTS

Investigation

Anyone with information can call the department's Crimes Against Children Unit at (727) 893-7746.

A phony counselor fools church 03/04/08 [Last modified: Tuesday, March 4, 2008 12:34am]

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