Counselors and prosecutors working with abused women in Montgomery County said yesterday a pilot program that counsels first-offender spouse abusers for 12 weeks, instead of sending them to court and then to jail, has been a big success.

Of the 41 men who have taken part in weekly counseling sessions during the 18-month project, only one has been back in court on subsequent spouse abuse charges, according to a report released yesterday. That compares with a 33 percent recidivism rate for 36 men who were arrested for spouse abuse during the same period, but were not referred to the program, officials said.

The numbers are too low to draw final conclusions, program coordinator Cynthia Anderson said yesterday, "but the results are encouraging."

The program is a joint project of the county's Task Force on Spousal Abuse, the state's attorney and the county's Community Crisis Center. It is operating with the help of a $11,000 annual grant from the state.

State Del. Mary H. Boergers (D-Kensington) is preparing legislation that would make the program mandatory for most first offenders throughout the state, Anderson said.

A similar project is run by prosecutors in Miami, and another is mandatory for first offenders throughout California, Anderson noted.

Men in the Montgomery program are referred there by prosecutors once they have been arrested and charged. Upon successfully completing the program, their charges are dropped.

The pilot group of 41 ranged in age from 18 to 63 years-old, according to Lauren A. Firestone, one of two counselors at the county's crisis center. The first counseling group included two unemployed men, a doctor, a lawyer, a businessman and a construction worker, Firestone said.

Several had difficulty communicating non-verbally, she said, recalling one man who found it almost impossible to look a woman in the eye. Most tended to stereotype people by sex, she said, and almost all either witnessed or suffered from abuse as children.

In almost all cases, Firestone said, the men could learn "to get in control of themselves, rather than try to control someone else."

Assistant State's Attorney Martha Kavanaugh, who coordinated the project for county prosecutors, praised the project. "No one's a winner in court in this type of situation," she said, adding that couples often emerge from the courtroom with more problems than they had to start with.

Furthermore, laws which allow a wife to refuse to testify against her husband make prosecution difficult, Kavanaugh said. And when a husband is found guilty, the only two remedies are jail or probation, without any rehabilitation.

The counseling sessions involve "assertiveness training, a lot of role playing, and conflict negotiation," said Firestone.

When men enter the program, Firestone said, they first see it as a way to avoid prosecution.

They "still blame the wife for pressing the charges," she said, adding that the first step is to get the men to acknowledge their own responsibility.

From 8 to 12 men are rotated in groups at various stages of progress, Firestone said. That means that newcomers get guidance--and strong peer pressure--from others. "The men are really supportive of one another," Firestone said. "they car-pool, they exchange telephone numbers. They have their own informal buddy system."

The men come from all walks of life.