This article by Barney Zwartz originally appeared in The Age and can be viewed here.
Anxious parents, friends and relatives of young women involved with Mercy Ministries have kept the phones busy at a Melbourne-based international cult-rescue organisation.
Raphael Aron, director of Cult Counselling Australia, said Mercy Ministries was not a traditional guru or disciple cult but its exploitation of vulnerable people put it in the cult spectrum.
Mercy Ministries is an American-style fundamentalist Christian group treating young women for drug addiction and pyschological disorders using prayer, exorcisms and Pentecostal religion.
Yesterday it was revealed that some residents have their Centrelink benefits paid directly to the organisation, which has links with Hillsong, Australia’s biggest church. Mercy Ministries yesterday said the report contained inaccuracies.
The group has facilities in Sydney and the Sunshine Coast, but has said it plans to expand into Melbourne.
“We’ve known about this organisation and been concerned about it for quite some time,” Dr Aron said.
“My experience of these groups is that they are well meaning but totally misguided. They take away the women’s opportunities and give false hope, then the women find they hit a brick wall and have nothing.”
He said that quite apart from the religious elements, such as exorcisms and speaking in tongues, Mercy Ministries was medically inadequate, lacked medical professionals and was not accredited.
Dr Aron said that when such groups were made public there would be a rush of inquiries, and some would lead to his organisation working with families.
Mercy Ministries Australia director Peter Irvine said the organisation received overwhelming positive feedback from graduates, their families and the community.
He said it was founded in 2000 as a Christian-based charity offering a free six-month residential program.
“We provide a holistic, client-focused approach addressing physical, emotional and spiritual needs,” Mr Irvine said in a statement.
He said the group was funded mostly through donations and sponsorships, and worked closely with Centrelink. “Where a young woman is eligible for Centrelink benefits this amount goes a small way towards providing 24-hour care seven days a week.”
Mr Irvine said residents knew the program details before they joined and could leave at any time.