Seeking Recovery, Finding Confusion

By Marc Fisher
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 22, 2007

When Kristen was 17 and drinking out of control, her psychologist referred her to an Alcoholics Anonymous group that specialized in helping the youngest drinkers. In the Midtown Group, members and outsiders agree, young people could find new friends, constant fellowship, daily meetings, summer-long beach parties, and a charismatic leader who would steer them through sobriety.

But according to more than a dozen young people who structured their lives around the group, the unusual adaptation of AA that Michael Quinones created from his home in Bethesda became a confusing blend of comfort and crisis. They described a rigidly insular world of group homes and socializing, in which older men had sex with teenage girls, ties to family and friends were severed or strained, and the most vulnerable of alcoholics, some suffering from emotional problems, were encouraged to stop taking prescribed medications.

Kristen, now 26, said that for eight years, she was "passed along" from one middle-aged male leader of Midtown to another. She said her sponsor urged her to have sex with Quinones -- widely known as Mike Q. -- as a way to solidify her sobriety and spiritual revival. Kristen, who spoke on the condition that her last name not be used in keeping with AA traditions, also recalled helping to persuade other teenage girls to sleep with older men in the group.

"I pimped my sponsees out to sponsors," she said, referring to the AA members who agree to watch over a fellow member's sobriety. "I encouraged them to sleep with their sponsors because I really believed that this would help with their sobriety."

Rianne McNair, who left Midtown in 2005 after three years in the group, said, "Several of my friends had sex with Mike Q. One of my friends went to the beach house, and her sponsor assigned her to Mike Q.'s bedroom. The younger girls looked up to these guys; Mike is idolized, like, 'I got invited to Mike Q.'s house for dinner tonight. Can you believe it?' "

Midtown, also known as the Q Group after its leader, has expanded steadily to about 400 members since Quinones assumed leadership in the 1980s, but appears to be reaching a turning point. Quinones, a 63-year-old real estate agent who grew up in Baltimore and served in the Army in Vietnam, is fighting an advanced case of prostate cancer, according to group members, friends and relatives. He did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

In response to questions raised by some parents, therapists and churches where Midtown held meetings, the group this spring issued a statement denying improper acts. "We cannot be all things to all people . . . " the statement said. "We do not condone underage sex. While we are not the arbiter of other people's sex conduct, underage sex is illegal and our experience shows that it can endanger your sobriety.

"We cannot tell you what to do with regard to taking medications such as anti-depressants, anti-psychotics, etc. While we have no opinion of medication in general, based on our personal experience, many members of the Midtown Group do not sponsor people who take mood-altering medication."

Outside Quinones's house, young Midtown members who often hang out around the front steps declined to talk to a reporter. A senior member of the group, who is close to Quinones and who spoke on condition he not be named because of AA's tradition of anonymity, said, "Anyone who has anything positive to say about the group is going to respect AA's policy of dignified silence in the media."

Montgomery County police said they are looking into allegations of underage sexual relations. But they said the women who have come forward have told of relationships that took place when they were 16 or 17; Maryland law considers women 15 and younger to be underage. Many of the allegations were aired in Montgomery County District Court in a domestic relations civil suit involving a member of the group.

"We interviewed 15 to 20 people, and they all said he's doing it. But it was all, 'It wasn't me,' " said Montgomery police Sgt. Ron Collins of the department's pedophile section. "Nobody's come forward with anything we could charge him with. The girls can be 16 or 17, and it's legal."

Controlled by Leaders

Over eight decades, Alcoholics Anonymous, a pioneer in the support-group model of treatment, has grown to attract about 2 million members in more than 100,000 groups.

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