A New Retreat for the ManKind Project Houston

The organization settles a lawsuit, says it'll make changes

When Kathy and Ralph Scinto decided to sue a men's group after their son killed himself following one of the organization's weekend getaways, they said to themselves that they didn't want a lot of money. Instead, they wanted to make sure that no one else would have to endure the kind of trauma that their son claimed to have suffered during the retreat shortly before taking his own life.

Now that the wrongful death lawsuit has settled, it appears that the Scintos may have gotten their wish.

According to court documents, the ManKind Project Houston will pay the Scintos $75,000 and make several changes to the way it does business.

"How do you put monetary value on a loved one's life?" says Kathy Scinto, speaking on behalf of her family. "You don't. And that is why our lawsuit was never about money. It was about making changes that could prevent a tragedy like this from happening to another ­family."

Marc Young, attorney for the ManKind Project Houston, says, "We're glad to be able to put this tragic event behind us. It was a very unfortunate accident, so again, yes, we're glad to put this behind us."

As first reported by the Houston Press ["Weekend Warriors," by Chris Vogel, October 4, 2007], Michael Scinto shot himself in 2005 shortly after returning from a ManKind Project Houston weekend retreat called the New Warrior Training Adventure.

In a letter written before his death, Scinto stated that it was his Alcoholics Anonymous sponsor Charles Kimberly Sawyer who suggested that he attend the retreat. Sawyer, a defendant in the lawsuit and a longtime member of The ManKind Project, was helping the 29-year-old Scinto in his struggles with cocaine and alcohol. The ManKind Project Houston's insurance company provided the same attorney for Sawyer as they did for the organization. The settlement agreement does not mention him.

As was the case with all new participants, no one told Scinto what the retreat entailed, but he trusted his sponsor and paid the $650 for the program, signed the detailed liability waivers and confidentiality contracts required to attend, and followed instructions to carpool with several other men up to the organization's rural compound in North Zulch, about 110 miles north of Houston.

There, according to Scinto's letter, the leaders berated some of the 40 or so men in attendance and the group engaged in activities including naked discussions of their sexual histories. At one point, Scinto began feeling uncomfortable and asked to leave the retreat. However, the group leaders did not let Scinto leave and instead encouraged him to continue with the program, according to the letter. Sawyer later told police that Scinto had unearthed a traumatic childhood memory. The memory, his mother says, was that a group of boys may have sexually abused him when he was six.

Michael Scinto stated in his letter that he was threatened and feared for his life, and was forced to remain at the retreat until its conclusion before being driven back home, where weeks later he killed himself.

The ManKind Project Houston is part of the international nonprofit parent organization, The ManKind Project, which has chapters all across the United States and in at least seven other countries. The organization describes its training as "a traditional masculine initiation, but geared toward the modern-day man." Its stated mission is "to assist men in reclaiming the sacred masculine for our time through initiation, training and action in the world." The avowed goal is to create caring and trusting relationships among men and to help them overcome their emotional wounds.

According to a local membership roster obtained by the Scintos and given to the Houston Press, many prominent doctors and lawyers as well as therapists, addiction specialists and Roman Catholic priests have attended the initiation retreat.

Thousands of passionately loyal members claim the group provides life-altering training and vehemently dismiss detractors. However, there is a contingent of critics who say the organization practices therapy without a license; targets vulnerable members of 12-step recovery groups; purposefully withholds the details of the program, thus keeping potential participants from making a fully informed decision whether or not to attend; and does not screen applicants who may be too emotionally frail for the rigors of the ­program.

It is these criticisms and concerns that Kathy and Ralph Scinto tried to address through the terms of their settlement.

Through the Harris County District Clerk's Web site, the Press has obtained a copy of the settlement agreement that was filed in the case. Since then, the document has been sealed, but as of June 18, twelve days after the agreement was sealed, a copy of it was still available on the county Web site.

According to the settlement, The ManKind Project Houston must implement several changes to the way the group screens applicants, discloses information about the program and handles participants who want to leave the retreat during the weekend program.

The ManKind Project Houston agrees to have its questionnaire for applicants reviewed by a licensed mental health professional on how the questionnaire can be improved, and the organization agrees to implement the recommendations accepted by its board of directors within six months. After the improvements have been made, the group agrees to have each applicant's questionnaire reviewed by a licensed mental health professional who knows what goes on at a retreat to determine if the applicant should be allowed to participate.

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