ALLEGATIONS of widespread abuse at Mercy Ministries group homes appear finally to have caught up with the fundamentalist Christian group, which has announced it will close its Sydney home on October 31, citing ”extreme financial challenges and a steady drop in our support base”.
”We are no longer financially viable,” reads a statement from Margaret Stunt, a former Hillsong Church staff member from London appointed as executive director of Mercy Ministries in April.
The announcement came less than a week after the group said it had completed extensive renovations to its Sydney home, including a new kitchen, carpets, light fittings, staircase and deck, painting and landscaping – all funded with donations totalling more than $100,000.
Given that the organisation will close, it is unclear who will benefit from the renovations. A staff member at Mercy Ministries said she was unable to comment.
Targeting girls and women aged 16 to 28, Mercy Ministries claimed – on its website and in promotional material distributed in Gloria Jeans cafes around the country – that its programs included support from ”psychologists, general practitioners, dietitians, social workers, [and] career counsellors”.
Instead, the program prevented the residents gaining access to psychiatric care, choosing to focus on prayer, Christian counselling and exorcisms to ”expel demons” from the young women, many of whom had serious psychiatric conditions such as bipolar disorder, anxiety and anorexia.
A Herald investigation last year revealed the women who entered the program were required to sign over their Centrelink benefits and were virtually cut off from the outside world, except for a weekly trip to the local Hillsong Church for worship.
At the time, Mercy Ministries’ then chief executive, Peter Irvine, was quick to dismiss their claims, implying that the victims of the group’s unorthodox and dangerous treatments were not telling the truth.
Since then Mr Irvine has sent an apology to the women featured in the Herald’s articles. ”I would like to apologise for the statements that I made to the press in March 2008. I did not accurately reflect the situation and I regret my comments,” he wrote.
News of the closure was greeted with relief by its former victims, who cautioned that the group was still operating in New Zealand, the US and Britain.
”It is amazing that our little voices speaking out could make a dent against organisations as big as … Mercy Ministries,” said Naomi Johnson, one of the women who blew the whistle on the abuse.
”After all the lies they told about us, this is what we hoped – that Mercy Ministries would be closed so that other girls would not get hurt.”
In June last year, Mercy Ministries announced it had closed its Sunshine Coast home ”due to strategic and resourcing issues”.
Hillsong Church was quick to distance itself from the organisation it had supported – both financially and with key staff and executive officers – since its inception in 2001. ”Hillsong Church has cut ties with Mercy Ministries around the world following an [Australian Competition and Consumer Commission] investigation into Mercy Ministries,” said a statement released by the church last night.
A spokeswoman for the ACCC, one of the many investigatory bodies to which the women complained, would not comment or confirm an investigation had taken place.