The following is a radio transcript from Mark Colvin and Meredith Griffiths of ABC radio. The original audio file can be listened to here.
MARK COLVIN: A controversial counselling centre linked to the evangelical Hillsong church says bad publicity has eroded its funding to the point where it’s now shutting down completely.
PM understands that the consumer watchdog the ACCC (Australian Competition and Consumer Commission) has been investigating Mercy Ministries. The reason: media reports that young women seeking psychological and medical support were instead essentially enrolled in a bible program. Some young women say they couldn’t leave the treatment centre and that staff would “exorcise” them. But Mercy Ministries denies those claims.
Meredith Griffiths reports.
MEREDITH GRIFFITHS: According to its website, Mercy Ministries is a Christian organisation that helps young women suffering from eating disorders, self-harm, abuse, addictions or 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: The women had been promised they would see a team of doctors and psychologists and dieticians to work on the issues that they had come into Mercy Ministries with and 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.
MEREDITH GRIFFITHS: 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. Mr Levin says she’s since been in touch with 15 to 20 of Mercy’s clients.
TANYA LEVIN: 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.
MEREDITH GRIFFITHS: She says the women weren’t allowed to leave the centre.
TANYA LEVIN: 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 own money.
MEREDITH GRIFFITHS: The women’s complaints have not gone unheard. PM understands that the Australian Competition and Consumer Competition has been investigating Mercy Ministries for more than a year. Now Mercy Ministries has announced it will cease operations in Australia because it’s no longer financially viable.
The executive director, Margaret Stunt, says the bad publicity has had an effect on donations. Around the middle of this year, it lost the support of one of its biggest funders, the coffee chain Gloria Jean’s which used to advertise the service in its branches.
That’s where 26-year-old Sarah Goodson heard about Mercy Ministries. She was disappointed to hear it’s shutting down.
SARAH GOODSON: It literally saved my life.
MEREDITH GRIFFITHS: Last year she spent eight months at Mercy’s residence in Baulkham Hills being treated for anorexia. Sarah Goodson says she went to the doctor a lot in that time, and saw a dietician every two weeks. She says the clients had a choice about whether or not they signed over their Centrelink benefits and they were free to leave every weekend.
During the week, could you physically leave the property if you wanted to?
SARAH GOODSON: No because mainly the program runs during the week and that’s when you’re getting counselling and working on the issues that you have.
MEREDITH GRIFFITHS: Sarah Goodson says she was never exorcised and she never witnessed one.
Was there a lot of biblical influence though?
SARAH GOODSON: Yeah. Because it’s a Christian-based program and because when you first enter that program you know that it’s a Christian-based program.
MEREDITH GRIFFITHS: The Hillsong church released a statement last night saying it’s cutting ties with Mercy Ministries to protect the reputation of the church.
EXTRACT FROM STATEMENT (voiceover): 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.
MEREDITH GRIFFITHS: 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.
MARK COLVIN: Meredith Griffiths.