Church Lady ‘Counselor’ Has A Long History Of Forcing “Christian” Counseling

Holly Salzman from Albuquerque, New Mexico went to District Family Court to seek help with co-parenting with her ex-husband. She was ordered to take 10 classes on co-parenting, communication and conflict resolution with a family counselor, according to local news outlet KRQE News 13. The counselor, Mary Pepper, “touts herself as an educator, a mentor and a teacher for couples.”

But Pepper turned out to be a “Christian” counselor who began each session with a prayer, and gave Salzman homework “titled ‘who is God to me?’”

Salzman complained about the “Christian” counseling to the court, but her complaint was dismissed. Even though she would be held in contempt of court, she stopped going, saying she felt “offended and disgusted.” The court took her kids away from her, and she endured 10 sessions of court-ordered Christian-themed lecturing in order to get her kids back.

Salzman went to the local Albuquerque news outlet, and they filmed and recorded her “Christian” counseling sessions undercover. During one session, for instance, Pepper tossed off this incredibly condescending comment:

“The meaning in my life is to know love and serve God,” Pepper told Salzman in one of the meetings. “If you want to explore how God was in your past,  how God was in your life and not in your life…  I know you don’t believe in God which is fine but I now at some points he was in your life in some way.”

The KRQE News 13 team interviewed Pepper following one of Salzman’s Christian counseling sessions. Pepper made contradictory statements. She said that Salzman was interested in religion, and therefore, Pepper inserted it into the sessions. She also said that her sessions are not religious in nature. Pepper then ended the interview when asked about how payment works for the sessions.

KRQE did an impressive job of investigating this obvious, aggressive violation of Salzman’s First Amendment rights. The story has also been reported on by progressive media like Raw Story. But previous reports have overlooked some salient facts.

I was curious whether this was a case of one person abusing her position, or a systemic violation of the First Amendment, perhaps by a conservative religious group having infiltrated local family court services.

There is no evidence that the program has been taken over, despite the court initially turning a blind eye to an obvious abuse. Yet, Pepper’s history makes her a problematic choice for the court to mandate people to attend her sessions. Since the late 1980s, Pepper has been mixing religion and counseling in her career. According to her LinkedIn profile, Pepper taught children at Annunciation Catholic School in Albuquerque from 1989 to 2003. Apart from teaching the children, she writes she also “informally taught the parents of my students many aspects about life, parenting & marriage.”

According to her resume, in 2009 and 2010, Pepper was a “Parent Educator” at “Project Defending Life” in Albuquerque. Project Defending Life is a Catholic mission based on the teachings of Pope John Paul II that counsels women with “crisis pregnancies” to “carry their babies to term.” It has been run by the same Catholic priest, Father Stephen Imbarrato for the last 9 years. On his Facebook page, Imbarrato refers to abortion as “pre-born baby killing,” quotes Fox News’s attacks on Planned Parenthood, calls news outlets that reported on Pope Francis calling for forgiveness for women who have abortions “Satan’s media,” and prays for a decent Republican presidential candidate.

In 2010 and 2011, Pepper worked at the Samaritan Counseling Center in Albuquerque. The Samaritan Counseling Center’s mission is

“to help people in central New Mexico find wholeness and healing through professional psychological counseling and education which integrate medical and spiritual resources.”

In 2012, Pepper became the Executive Director of her own Healthy Relationships 101, LLC, which offers family counseling to the community in Albuquerque, and is the position she fulfills when courts refer people to her. At her company’s website, the “curriculum” for couple’s counseling is the book “The Couple’s Checkup,” by David H. Olson, Ph.D. The book is recommended by Focus on the Family, another right wing Christian-political pro-life group.

According to an Immaculate Conception Church flyer, in 2014, Pepper provided counseling services at Albuquerque’s Catholic Center, using that book. She used the same ‘curriculum’ in her Catholic counseling that she uses in court ordered counseling.

It’s abundantly clear that Mary Pepper is a Catholic ideologue and activist, and has been throughout her career. That’s fine, but it’s inappropriate for a court to refer claimants to her if she can’t check her religious convictions at the door. A judge can’t mandate that divorcees have to be harangued by a church lady. Pepper’s protestations to local media that she is not inserting her religion into the counseling services ring hollow, since she’s been doing nothing else for decades. And there is audio recording of her doing it, so it’s a moot point.

How does someone like Pepper gain the confidence of a court to abuse its power? There have been major complaints about arbitrary and abusive decisions made by Albuquerque District Family Court’s Presiding Judge, Gerard Lavelle. But, given the nature of Family Court, the complaints are also self-serving, and should be taken with a grain of salt. I found no evidence that the court is cozy with the religious right.

But I found one interesting tidbit that connects Pepper’s religious activism and the courts. While Pepper was at Samaritan Counseling Center, she worked in a now defunct department called Healthy Families. The Enrollment Coordinator at Healthy Marriages was someone named Petulia Vandever, according to LinkedIn. There is a blog under that name on Blogger with only one post. The post outlines a marketing strategy for Healthy Families. The key element of the strategy was,

“Healthy Marriages will connect with new government workers/officials…”

The blog post didn’t explain why they would do that. Did Pepper make some friends in Albuquerque courts while her religious counseling group was reaching out to new government officials?

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