This article by Meredith Griffiths was originally published ABC, PM and can be viewed here.
A controversial counselling centre linked to the evangelical Hillsong church says bad publicity has eroded its funding to the point where it is now shutting down completely.
The ABC understands that the consumer watchdog ACCC has been investigating Mercy Ministries, after media reports that young women seeking psychological and medical support were instead essentially enrolled in a Bible program.
Some young women say they could not leave the treatment centre and that staff would “exorcise” them.
But Mercy Ministries denies those claims.
According to its website, Mercy Ministries is a Christian organisation that helps young women suffering from eating disorders, self-harm, abuse, addictions or an unwanted pregnancy.
But around March last year, stories began emerging about what was going on inside the program’s residential treatment centre in the Sydney suburb of Baulkham Hills.
Tanya Levin is a social worker who the women contacted because they knew she was also a former member of the large Pentecostal church Hillsong, which supports Mercy Ministry.
“The women had been promised they would see a team of doctors and psychologists and dietitians to work on the issues they had come into Mercy Ministries with,” she said.
“When the women arrived at Mercy Ministries, they found out over the course of time that there was actually no professional intervention.
“The only intervention they got was from a Pentecostal Christian perspective.”
Ms Levin says she has since been in touch with 15 to 20 of Mercy’s clients.
“They learnt that they had been brought in for reasons of sin – they needed to repent, the needed to become born again – oftentimes, this involved exorcisms,” she said.
She says often the women were not allowed to leave the centre.
“It seems that with the extreme levels of deprivation, isolation, the women had to submit their Centrelink payments so that they had very little of their money,” she said.
The women’s complaints have not gone unheard. The ABC understands that the ACCC has been investigating Mercy Ministries for more than a year.
Now Mercy Ministries have announced it will cease operations in Australia because it is no longer financially viable.
Executive director Margaret Stunt says the bad publicity has had a bad effect on donations.
Around the middle of this year, it lost the support of one of its biggest funders, the coffee chain Gloria Jeans which used to advertise the service in its branches.
That is where 26-year-old Sarah Goodson heard about the service. She was disappointed today to hear that Mercy Ministries is shutting down.
“It literally saved my life,” she said.
Last year, she spent eight months at Mercy’s residence in Baulkham Hills being treated for anorexia. Ms Goodson says she went to the doctor many times and saw a dietitian every two weeks.
She says the clients had a choice about whether or not they signed over their Centrelink benefits to Mercy Ministries and that while they could not leave during the week, they were free to do so every weekend.
“You could not leave during the week because mainly the program runs during the week and that’s when you’re getting counselling and working on the issues that you have,” she said.
She says she was never exorcised and never witnessed one, but she says there was a lot of biblical influence.
“It’s a Christian-based program and because when you first enter that program you know that it’s a Christian-based program,” she said.
The Hillsong church released a program last night saying it is cutting ties with Mercy Ministries to protect the reputation of the church.
In a statement, it said: “Hillsong is not under investigation, but a number of key people from Hillsong Church over the years have been involved in Mercy Ministries. It is wrong that anything Mercy Ministries may or may not have done could overshadow so much of what we as a church stand for: Loving God and Helping People.”
The church’s leaders have encouraged people to assist any investigation into Mercy Ministries and says Hillsong will now be developing tighter guidelines about what other organisations its staff can work with.