This article by originally appeared on the Queer News website and can be viewed here.
The Hon. Ian Hunter is a Member of the Legislative Council and chairperson of the Social Development Committee. Below is an extract from a Matter of Interest speech made before the Upper House on Wednesday, 30 April 2008.
I was shocked and dismayed at recent reports in the Sydney Morning Herald from journalist Ruth Pollard about the activities of a secretive religious organisation called Mercy Ministries, which takes young women with emotional and mental health problems and attempts to cure them through prayer and exorcism rather than through qualified medical or psychiatric treatment.
I am also concerned at reports that they are considering opening similar centres here.
Mercy Ministries takes in women from the ages of 16 to 28 offering support from, in their words “psychologists, general practitioners, dieticians, social workers, [and] career counsellors.”
Another dimension to this is that Gloria Jeans cafes throughout Australia have been promoting this Ministry through their outlets.
Gloria Jeans is the major sponsor of the program, a program which we shouldn’t be surprised has close links to the Hillsong Church. Gloria Jeans reportedly contributes 90% of all money the Ministries receive. On their website, Gloria Jeans describes the Mercy Ministries as:
… a national charity that provides a free residential program for women in crisis, aged between 16 and 28 years. At Mercy Ministries’ homes, young women receive support and counselling to help deal with eating disorders, self harm, abuse, depression and life controlling issues.
The truth though has been revealed by whistle blowers who say that they came out of the Ministries’ program suicidal and more depressed than ever, convinced that their problems were due to demonic possession and Satanic control.
Now I have no problem with church groups supporting the vulnerable in our community, indeed I admire them for doing so. But when the services they provide – with the continued backing of corporations such as Gloria Jeans – claim to be medical and psychiatric, but are actually based on this sort of superstitious nonsense, we really must speak out. This is the worst sort of American theological hooliganism which I had hoped we in Australia were immune to.
Ruth Pollard’s articles detail the experiences of three young women in particular, who spent time in the program because of various psychological disorders. They were subjected to a regime of prayer and Christian counselling. They were subjected to exorcisms which were supposed to expel the evil demons which they claim cause bipolar disorder, depression and eating disorders.
They were effectively isolated from the outside world in what Pollard calls a “humidicrib of Pentecostal religion.”
According to Mercy, 96 women have “graduated” from the program however what it doesn’t say is that many others have been expelled with no support or follow-up care. According to reports published by the ABC many girls have left the Mercy Centre suicidal after being told they were possessed by demons.
21 year old Naomi Johnson’s story is typical.
When she entered she was suffering from anorexia. Because her family did not have private health insurance, after much searching, they found the Mercy Ministries website.
After 9 months in the Sydney Ministry, she was finally expelled, a broken woman. During this time she received no accredited psychiatric help, and was subject to exorcism to expel the demons of her anorexia.
Upon expulsion – she claims for smoking a cigarette – Johnson was so crippled by the experience she could barely function in the adult world. Ms Johnson’s mother gives a harrowing account of how her daughter “went into that place as a young lady and came back to us as a child”.
Another former Mercy Ministries participant Rhiannon Canham-Wright has commented that “every time I had an asthma attack they told me to stop acting… I was punished; I had to do an assignment about why God believes that I was lying.”
Those who sign up for the Mercy Ministries program are:
– Forced to sign separation contracts agreeing not to see those who the Ministries view as “troublemakers”
– Prevented from talking about their past
– Given scant medical or psychiatric assistance
– Not allowed to get medical help for bipolar disorder, anxiety or anorexia.
Former participants have even told of being locked in their rooms and told that they were useless and not worth helping.
This horrific level of control and manipulation even extends to forcing those in their care to ask permission before they do things as simple as taking a garbage bag out to the bin or even clean their teeth.
“It was a lot to do with control and manipulation, and it just shows that they did have that power over us” says Ms Johnson.
But if all this wasn’t enough, not only are the organisers attempting to manipulate and indoctrinate innocent young women with their dangerous dogma, recent reports by the ABC have shown they are now attempting to make a quick buck out of it.
The Mercy Ministries have according to the report recently been referred to the ACCC after fresh claims that many young women enter the centres thinking they would receive free help when in fact Mercy allegedly claim carers benefits from Centrelink.
These events are not in the past. These horrific centres are still operating in Sydney and on the Sunshine Coast and there are plans to open similar centres in Adelaide. Mercy Ministries remains committed to continuing its operations despite intense controversy and, given these concerns, several corporations have acted quickly to cut their ties with Mercy Ministries but not Gloria Jeans coffee shops.
I’ll certainly be thinking twice about where I buy my next cup of coffee.