"Cult-rescue group concerned about Mercy Ministries"

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.

"The business of giving Mercy"

This article by Ruth Pollard originally appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald and can be viewed here.

Twin roles … until recently Peter Irvine was both the managing director of
Gloria Jean’s Coffees and a director of Mercy Ministries. Photo: Rob Homer

Complex ties link Mercy Ministries to its supporters, writes Ruth Pollard.

Deeply felt ties bind Mercy Ministries, Gloria Jean’s and the Hillsong Church, connected through a complicated chain of directors and former directors – as well as donations.

As they deal with allegations, revealed in the Herald yesterday, of inappropriate treatment of residents in Mercy Ministries’ Sydney and Sunshine Coast houses, they insist the organisations are completely unrelated, despite sharing common board members and directors.

“Hillsong do not own or run Mercy Ministries … Hillsong are a financial supporter, as are many churches in Sydney and around the country,” said Peter Irvine, who until recently was both the managing director of Gloria Jean’s Coffees and a director of Mercy Ministries.

Mr Irvine is still on the board of Mercy Ministries and is responsible for its corporate sponsorship, and told the Herald he had taken a back seat at Gloria Jean’s Coffees, although he is still a board member and shareholder.

He said there was no conflict of interest in holding the two roles, saying he had focused for the past year on publishing a book and consulting businesses on franchising rather than any day-to-day running of Gloria Jean’s.

Mercy Ministries’ accounts were audited each year, Mr Irvine said.  However, it produced no annual reports and would not publicly release any financial information.

A copy of its financial statements and reports submitted to the Australian Securities and Investments Commission last October indicate it had income of $1.365 million in 2006, yet it is unclear how much of this includes transfers of Centrelink payments by the young women who seek out Mercy’s help.

As to the women’s allegations, Mr Irvine said:  “In any program you will always get a few that are disenchanted because they do not get their way and then criticise everything.

“The girls are not forced to come into the program … our people go out of their way to explain and prepare them.”

Two former directors of Mercy Ministries, Mark and Darlene Zschech, who brought the program to Australia from the US in 2001, have also been associate directors of the Hillsong Church’s annual conference.

Darlene, described as “one of the key worship leaders at Hillsong Church”, and her husband no longer appear to have any connection to Mercy Ministries.

Mercy Ministries’ accountant, Stephen Crouch, is married to another organiser of the Hillsong conference, Pastor Donna Crouch.

The Hillsong Foundation, the church’s charitable arm, supports Mercy Ministries to deliver the programs.

Gloria Jean’s Coffees supports Mercy Ministries through corporate donations and fund-raising activities that include cash donation boxes in stores and an annual fund-raising weekend, “Cappuccino for a Cause”, where 50 cents from each cappuccino sold goes to Mercy Ministries, a spokeswoman said.

However, information on how much financial support Gloria Jean’s contributes to the ministry, support that has continued since 2003, was unavailable, she said.

And despite the swag of allegations over the Mercy Ministries program – including claims that young women with mental illnesses had been forbidden from gaining access to medical or psychiatric care unsupervised, or from doctors independent of the program, and claims of the use of exorcisms to treat health problems – the spokeswoman said Gloria Jean’s would not be reviewing its sponsorship arrangements.

The Catholic Sisters of Mercy, who have long been involved in health care, education and social welfare programs throughout the country, have stressed that they have no connection with Mercy Ministries.

“All Sisters of Mercy in Australia wish to make clear to their co-workers, family members, friends and associates, current or potential benefactors and any other interested persons, that they have no relationship whatsoever with Mercy Ministries Inc,” a spokeswoman said.

"'Exorcisms, cruel techniques' part of Mercy Ministry treatment"

This article originally appeared on the ABC website and can be viewed here.

The peak body for mental health professionals has issued a warning on the potential dangers of faith-based cures for mental health problems.

The Sydney Morning Herald has revealed allegations of incorrect treatment of several troubled young women by the Christian group, Mercy Ministries, which is linked to the Hillsong Church.

On its website, Mercy Ministries claims to treat women aged 16 to 28 years old by “providing homes and care for young women suffering the effects of eating disorders, self harm, abuse, depression, unplanned pregnancies and other life controlling issues.”

But three former patients told the Herald that the programs involved “emotionally cruel and medically unproven techniques”, such as exorcisms and “separation contracts” between friends.

The girls reportedly left the Mercy centre suicidal, after being told they were possessed by demons.

The newspaper report also claims Mercy Ministries received the women’s Centrelink payments during their residential stay.

Mental Health Council of Australia spokesman Simon Tatz says it is important people receive treatment that is evidence-based, for instance psychiatry and certain drug treatments.

“It’s about getting people into treatments that are proven to work,” he said.

A spokeswoman for Federal Human Resources Minister Joe Ludwig says the allegations regarding Centrelink are being investigated.

Meanwhile, coffee chain Gloria Jean’s says it will continue its sponsorship and fundraising of the Mercy Ministries program.

A spokeswoman says the company was told the allegations were unfounded.

"Hillsong, Gloria Jeans accused of exacerbating mental illness"

This article originally appeared on the LiveNews website and can be viewed here.

The Hillsong Church and Gloria Jean’s Coffee are under fire for failing to provide young women suffering severe illness with adequate medical attention during their time at Mercy Ministries.  According to a Sydney Morning Herald investigation, the women signed up to months at the secretive ministry – supported by the Hillsong group and sponsored by Gloria Jean’s Coffee – which offered them no medical or psychiatric care.

The alleged victims say they’ve been forced to undergo years of psychological and psychiatric treatment as a result of their time at the ministry.  They are also complaining that the program required them to sign over all their welfare benefits.  The Mercy Ministries website claims it “exists to provide opportunities for young women to experience God’s unconditional love, forgiveness and life-transforming power. 

“It does, however, promise support from “psychologists, general practitioners, dietitians, social workers, (and) career counsellors”.

But the women say no professional care was offered at all, in favour of Christian counselling and “expelling demons”.

Naomi Johnson, who was 21 and suffering from anorexia when she entered the ministry, told the Herald that the ’treatment’ she received was extremely damaging and subsequent professionals had trouble getting anything out of the group.

“The first psychologist I saw rang and spoke to Mercy.  She wrote to them over a period of time, just trying to get answers.  They were very evasive; they avoided her calls.  Eventually she got some paperwork, some case notes, from them.”

"Hillsong linked to claims of abuse against women"

Naomi Johnson ... still devastated three years on.
Naomi Johnson … still devastated three years on.

This article by Ruth Pollard originally appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald and can be viewed here.

The evangelical Australian based church Hillsong has been linked to claims of abuse against women, including allegations of emotional manipulation.

Fairfax Media reports that both the Hillsong Church and Gloria Jeans Coffee are linked to the organisation Mercy Ministries, which has been accused of emotional manipulation when treating women.

Three women have now blown the whistle on a program operated by the Ministry, including allegations they entered as “independent” people, however came out of the program as “broken” and “suicidal”.

The women say as part of the program they were taught to believe that they were possessed by the devil, and have since been forced to receive years of professional psychiatric treatment.

The program includes signing over any welfare benefits to the Ministry, with the program alleged to contain little actual psychological assistance, and mostly prayer and “expelling demons”.

The Church has denied that the program is forceful, saying that it is a voluntary program and has a 90% success rate.

“Mercy Ministries staff address the issues that the residents face from a holistic client-focused approach; physical, mental, emotional,” a spokesman told Fairfax.

“The program is voluntary and all aspects are explained comprehensibly to the residents and no force is used.”

The program is believed to be sponsored by the Hillsong Church Group, based in the western suburbs of Sydney.  The program is also reported to be funded by Gloria Jeans, which despite significant public criticism, has continued to fund the Mercy Ministries program.

Hillsong, often dubbed a McChurch for its size, reach and overall culture, is a Christian belief organisation that is frequently accused of being only for profit, and if often seen to target younger people.

The church also uses large concert style productions and music to attract a younger demographic.

[Note:  It was earlier reported that the coffee retailer Gloria Jeans was owned by the Hillsong Church.  This was incorrect.  Gloria Jeans is instead alleged to be a significant benefactor to the Hillsong Church, and the Mercy Ministries group.  The company has now denied they are providing any official financial funding to Hillsong, other than assistance for fundraising activities.  Gloria Jeans are now assessing their assistance of the Mercy Ministries Group].

"They prayed to cast Satan from my body"

This article by Ruth Pollard originally appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald and can be viewed here.

Rhiannon Canham-Wright ... attended a Mercy Ministries program.

They call themselves the Mercy Girls.  And after years of searching they have found each other.

Bound by separate, damaging experiences at the hands of an American-style ministry operating in Sydney and the Sunshine Coast, these young women have clawed their way back to begin a semblance of a life again.

Desperate for help, they had turned to Mercy Ministries suffering mental illness, drug addiction and eating disorders.

Instead of the promised psychiatric treatment and support, they were placed in the care of Bible studies students, most of them under 30 and some with psychological problems of their own.  Counselling consisted of prayer readings, treatment entailed exorcisms and speaking in tongues, and the house was locked down most of the time, isolating residents from the outside world and sealing them in a humidicrib of pentecostal religion.

At 21, Naomi Johnson was a young woman with a bright future, halfway through a psychology degree at Edith Cowan University, working part-time and living an independent, social life.

Yet she was plagued by anorexia.

With her family’s modest means and her part-time job there was no way she could afford to admit herself into the one private clinic in Perth that specialised in adults with eating disorders.

They had no private health insurance, and there were no publicly funded services in the state.  So after much research Johnson found a link to Mercy Ministries on the internet.

Months passed as she devoted herself to going through the application process, pinning all her hopes on what appeared to be a modern, welcoming facility, backed by medical, psychiatric and dietitian support.

She flew to Sydney, thousands of kilometres away from her family and friends, and entered the live-in program.

Nine months later she was expelled, a devastated, withdrawn child who could not leave her bedroom, let alone her house.

Nine months without medical treatment, nine months without any psychiatric care, nine months of being told she was not a good enough Christian to rid herself of the “demons” that were causing her anorexia and pushing her to self-harm.  After being locked away from society for so long, Naomi started to believe them.  “I just felt completely hopeless.  I thought if Mercy did not want to help me where do I stand now?

“They say they take in the world’s trash, so what happens when you are Mercy trash?”

Two months after she had been expelled from Mercy’s Sydney house (her crime was to smoke a cigarette) Johnson ended up in Royal Perth Hospital’s psychiatric unit.  From there she started seeing a psychologist at an outpatient program two to three times a week.

“Even now, three years on, I don’t socialise widely, I don’t work full time, I don’t study full time.  Even now there is still a lot of remnants hanging around from my time at Mercy.

“The first psychologist I saw rang and spoke to Mercy.  She wrote to them over a period of time, just trying to get answers.  They were very evasive; they avoided her calls.  Eventually she got some paperwork, some case notes, from them.”

Mercy Ministries made the psychologist sign a waiver that she wouldn’t take these notes to the media before they would release them.  Johnson has signed no such waiver and, months ago, she posted her notes on the internet, almost as a warning to other young women considering a stint at Mercy Ministries.

Yet for so long she just wanted to go back to the Sydney house, because they had convinced her that Mercy was the only place that could help her.

“It is difficult to explain, in a logical sense.  I know how very wrong the treatment, their program and their approach is, but the wounds are still quite deep, and even though I know that they were wrong, there is still a part of you that just even now wants to be accepted by Mercy.”

In the northern suburbs of Perth, in a large, one-storey home bordered by a well-tended cottage garden, the Johnson family is attempting to pick up the pieces of a life almost cut short by Mercy.

With two fox terriers at her feet and doors and windows shut against the relentless Western Australian heat, Johnson – a small, delicate young woman with a razor sharp mind – unveils a sophisticated, nuanced interpretation of her time in the Sydney house.

Careful and articulate, her struggle with the horror of her descent into despair at the hands of Mercy is only evidenced by the occasional tremor in her hands and voice as she describes her experience.  She was sharing the house with 15 other girls and young women, with problems ranging from teenage pregnancies, alcohol and drug abuse, self harm, depression, suicidal thoughts and eating disorders.

“There were girls who had got messed up in the adult sex industry – a real range of problems, some incorporating actual psychiatric illness, others just dealing with messy lives, and the approach to all those problems was the same format,” Johnson says.

Counselling involved working through a white folder containing pre-scripted prayers.

“Most of the staff were current Bible studies or Bible college students, and that is it, if anything.  You just cannot play around with mental illness when you do not know what you are doing.  Even professionals will acknowledge that it is a huge responsibility working in that field, and that is people who have six years, eight years university study behind them.”

And while there was nothing that was formally termed “exorcism” in the Sydney house, Naomi was forced to stand in front of two counsellors while they prayed and spoke in tongues around her.  In her mind, it was an exorcism.  “I felt really stupid just standing there – they weren’t helping me with the things going on in my head.  I would ask staff for tools on how to cope with the urges to self harm … and the response was: ’What scriptures are you standing ..our Bible.”

Johnson had grown up in a Christian family; her belief in God was not the issue; anorexia and self harm were.  “A major sticking point was when they told me I needed to receive the holy Spirit in me and speak in tongues, to raise my hands in worship songs and jump up and down on the spot in fast songs.  I told them that I really didn’t understand how jumping up and down to a fast song at church was going to fix the anorexia, and yet that was a big, big sticking point, because it showed I was being resistant, cynical and holding back.”

Her mother, Julie Johnson, watches as she talks, anxious about the effect of her daughter’s decision to tell her story, yet immensely proud of her courage.

“Naomi was very determined to find somewhere that could help her. We didn’t have private health cover, so our resources were limited, so she searched the net and came across Mercy Ministries,” Julie Johnson says.

“It sounded very promising … she went off to Mercy a very positive young lady who finally had some hope that she was going to come back completely free of this eating disorder.”

And the family was excited, too, pleased that there was someone who could help their daughter beat anorexia.  “But unfortunately it didn’t work out that way.  They gave her hope and told her they would never give up on her but … in the end she got quite distraught that she was never able to please them.”

Johnson sent her parents a letter telling them she was not very well and that she was very confused with the kind of program Mercy Ministries was running.

“I called and spoke to her counsellor in person,” Julie Johnson said.  “She told me that Naomi was lying to me, that Naomi was just rebelling … she was making the wrong choices.”

But instead of taking her mother’s concerns on board, the staff punished Naomi for disclosing anything about her time at the Sydney home.

“They told me that what happens in Mercy stays in Mercy, that what happens between the staff and Naomi stays at Mercy.  It is not let out to the family,” Julie Johnson said.  “We were isolated, we were not involved in her progress at Mercy, we were just excluded and yet we were a family that wanted to be behind her and they wouldn’t allow us to be.”

The situation came to a head when Johnson returned to the Sydney house after spending Christmas with her family in Perth.  She was told she had been seen smoking at the airport and that she was being expelled from the program.  Naomi phoned her mother in tears, and the staff informed her they were putting her on the next plane back to Perth.

“She was distraught; she was an absolute mess; her life was in danger.  I could hear it, she was capable of anything, the anxiety was so extreme … she was just out of control,” Julie Johnson said.  “I said to them, ’There is no way you are going to send her back on her own, she is suicidal. You will deliver her to me at the airport when I can get a flight over’.”

Mrs Johnson flew to Sydney to collect her daughter.

“She went into that place as a young lady and came back to us as a child.  She was very confused, like she was 12 or 13.  She shut herself in the bedroom and thought she was nothing but evil.  Her self-esteem went down.  She thought, ’I may as well die.”’

Johnson, now 24, and her mother, know how close the end had been.

The executive manager of programs with Mercy Ministries, Judy Watson, is proud of the organisation’s achievements, and rejects the claim that there are no staff qualified in psychiatry, psychology or counselling.

It appears that there is one registered psychologist at Mercy’s Sydney house, although the Herald understands that the little contact she has with the residents is around scriptures, not psychological care.  She did not respond to a request for an interview.

In a written statement, Watson said: “Mercy Ministries counselling staff are required to have tertiary education and qualifications in counselling, social work or psychology.  Staff also participate in externally provided supervision from psychologists.”

Yet she was unable to detail what qualifications each staff member had, or how many had qualifications beyond their one registered psychologist.

On the allegations that young women are denied medical and psychiatric care, Watson had this to say: “Residents’ mental and physical health concerns are taken very seriously, and appropriate treatment is made available.

“Mercy Ministries provides a range of services to young women in the program.  Mercy Ministries provides services through either health professionals employed by Mercy Ministries, subcontracted to provide services to residents at Mercy Ministries, or taken to specialists at their practice.”

Rhiannon Canham-Wright and Megan Smith (not her real name) are two others who have suffered at the hands of Mercy Ministries, this time in the group’s Sunshine Coast house.

Smith had also been at university before she went into the Mercy Ministries house.  She had been diagnosed with anxiety disorder and obsessive compulsive disorder, and thought a residential program with medical and psychiatric care would help get her illnesses under control.  Yet almost from the moment she arrived she began to struggle.

Sitting in the courtyard of a cafe in a large, central Queensland town, as storm clouds gathered above, she told her story in a soft, quiet voice.  Like Johnson, she is fiercely intelligent and articulate, focused and determined.  She described her mental illness growing quickly out of control the longer she was subjected to the cruel, illogical treatment in the Sunshine Coast house.

“I was pulling my hair out – it’s a condition called trichotillomania,” said Smith, now 29.  “However, it wasn’t bad before Mercy.  I let the staff know about it because suddenly it had got a lot worse.  Instead of taking me to the doctor to where I could have got assessed and got some medication, they just told me to forget about it.”

Her condition worsened without treatment, but she had no way of getting any medical care because the house was locked down most of the time.

“To take the rubbish bin out to the footpath we had to get special permission.  If we stepped over the boundary we were kicked out of the program because it was treated as absconding.  Even to go to the toilet or brush our teeth we had to have specific permission.  It was such a sterile environment.  We were not allowed to talk about our feelings, there was no family support, no friend’s support, and no professional support.”

Before long, Smith began to harm herself in other ways.  Again she alerted the staff to her concerns.  They reprimanded her for wasting their time, calling her a “fruitcake”, she said.

“The [staff member] said I was attention seeking, bringing negative energy to the environment and taking her valuable time away from girls who really need her.

“With this particular staff member, I know she had issues in the past, because she used to talk about it with the girls. She was open about it because she thought that was how God qualified her for the work that she did.

“But she had mood swings and anger problems.  She would go from calm and normal to aggressively angry very quickly.”

Again, there was no medical treatment, just Bible studies and prayer reading, relentless cleaning and many rules that were often only revealed to residents when they broke one of them.

“I went to a residential place that said they help people with mental illness using qualified professionals, [instead] going there took away my help.  Even the GP they took me to to get my prescriptions filled was their GP, who they said had been specifically chosen because they were supportive of ’the Mercy way’.  I wasn’t allowed to talk to the doctor by myself; they had a staff member or volunteer with us at all times.”

Asked to name the most valuable thing she learned in Mercy Ministries, she said, without hesitation and with much mirth: “cleaning”.

“I am no domestic goddess, so I needed all the help I could get.”

In both the Sydney and the Sunshine Coast house residents were prohibited from talking about their past, what brought them to Mercy, their struggles and problems.

“We were threatened with being kicked out if we did disclose anything,” Smith said.  “It was a lot to do with control and manipulation, and it just shows that they did have that power over us.  We could have talked and rebelled but we were so scared of them and just so desperate for help.

“I was really sucked in.  That was my world; it was locked down 24/7, so anything the staff said I believed to be the truth.”

By the time Smith was expelled from Mercy, three months into her six-month stay, she was a mess.  She was locked in a room and told she was not worth helping, she said, then driven to the airport and left alone to wait for a flight to her central Queensland home.

A family member met her at the airport.  He had been told, incorrectly, by Mercy staff that Smith had chosen to leave.  He was unprepared for the state she was in when she arrived.

“She was extremely upset. She didn’t want to come back at all … she was in a real mess,” said the relative, who did not want to be identified.  “I was extremely fearful that she was likely to commit suicide.  It was an extreme shock that this ministry we all had decided was the real deal had turned out to be a worse problem … it left her in a worse state than she had ever been in before.”

For two years just keeping her alive became a full-time job, he said.  “Whenever she was alone for any length of time it was always a fear that she may not be alive when you got back.  When you did get back there were quite a lot of times when she had a knife and she had been scratching her wrists.”

Since then Smith has received effective psychological care and is no longer at risk of self-harm or suicide.  After more than a year of searching the internet, she found one other woman who had been at Mercy, using the social networking site Facebook.  That is Canham-Wright, 26, another former resident of the Sunshine Coast house.

Canham-Wright, now living in Darwin with her daughter, 1, and her partner, describes every day as a struggle since she was thrown out of Mercy, after living there from July 2003 until the following March.

She had gone into Mercy Ministries just after her 21st birthday following a drug overdose and suffering bipolar disorder.  Soon after she was in conflict with staff over her regular medication.

Canham-Wright has asthma, and yet she was prevented from having her ventolin with her at all times, she said.

“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 lying is wrong.

“I was told, ’You still have demons to battle with. Satan still has a huge control over your life.  That is when the exorcism and the prayers over my life started.”

She got to the point where she no longer knew herself or what she believed in.

“They would call me into their office, saying that I was just make-believing and trying to get attention, and they would start praying over me.  They would always pray for Satan to be dismissed out of my body.”

Every night there was a prayer meeting.  “When someone wanted to have something prayed about in particular, we would all have to lay hands and the staff member … would perform an exorcism.”

You will find a donation box and pamphlet in every Gloria Jeans store soliciting donations for Mercy Ministries.  “Your spare change helps transform a life,” the pamphlet reads.

Yet few who donate to Mercy understand they are giving money to fund exorcisms in a program that removes young women from proven medical therapies and places them in the hands of a house full of amateur counsellors.  Its literature claims to have a 90 per cent success rate – yet nowhere does it publish any results.

The allegations by Johnson, Canham-Wright, Smith and others indicates the program cannot lay claim to such a success rate.

The internet is littered with other young women making similar allegations about the Mercy Ministries program.

One young woman wrote in January: “I have been to Mercy Ministries – I have seen so many girls hurt and abused there, it is really sickening.  Many girls are also kicked out and leave there far worse off than before they went to get help.”

Another replied: “Mercy Ministries operates off the grid, and therefore can abuse and harm young women who go there.”

And yet Mercy continues to operate without the scrutiny of government authorities, under the radar and with impunity.

"They sought help, but got exorcism and the Bible"

This article by Ruth Pollard originally appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald and can be viewed here.

Naomi Johnson was a resident in Mercy Ministry’s Sydney house for nine months.

Naomi Johnson was a resident in Mercy Ministries Sydney house for nine months.
Photo: Erin Jonasson

A secretive ministry with direct links to Gloria Jean’s Coffees and the Hillsong Church has been deceiving troubled young women into signing over months of their lives to a program that offers scant medical or psychiatric care, instead using Bible studies and exorcisms to treat mental illness.

Government agencies such as Centrelink have also been drawn into the controversy, as residents are required to transfer their benefits to Mercy Ministries.  There are also allegations that the group receives a carers payment to look after the young women.

Mercy Ministries says 96 young women have “graduated” from its program since its inception in 2001.  But many have been expelled without warning and with no follow up or support.

Three former residents who have felt the full force of Mercy’s questionable programs are blowing the whistle on its emotionally cruel and medically unproven techniques, detailing abuse including exorcisms, “separation contracts” between girls who became friends, and harsh discipline for those who broke the rules.

Naomi Johnson, Rhiannon Canham-Wright and Megan Smith (Megan asked to use an assumed name) went into Mercy Ministries independent young women, and came out broken and suicidal, believing, as Mercy staff had told them repeatedly, that they were possessed by demons and that Satan controlled them.

Only careful psychological and psychiatric care over several years brought them back from the edge.

Taking in girls and women aged 16 to 28, Mercy Ministries claims to offer residents support from “psychologists, general practitioners, dietitians, social workers, [and] career counsellers”. These claims are made on its website, and the programs are promoted through Gloria Jean’s cafes throughout Australia.

But these former residents say no medical or psychological services were provided – just an occasional, monitored trip to a GP, where the consultation takes place in the presence of a Mercy Ministries staff member or volunteer.

Instead, the program is focused on prayer, Christian counselling and expelling demons from in and around the young women, who say they begged Mercy Ministries to let them get medical help for the conditions they were suffering, which included bipolar disorder, anxiety disorders and anorexia.

When the Herald asked Mercy Ministries representatives whether they told young women that the symptoms of their mental illness or eating disorders were due to demonic activity and that residents were forced into exorcisms, they offered no denial.

“Mercy Ministries staff address the issues that the residents face from a holistic client-focused approach; physical, mental, emotional.  The program is voluntary and all aspects are explained comprehensively to the residents and no force is used,” the executive manager of programs, Judy Watson, said in response.

Throughout its website, decorated in hot pink tones with images of happy young women who have been “saved”, Mercy claims to offer its residential programs free. Yet the services are not free – young women on unemployment benefits are “asked” to sign them over to Mercy, while others are asked to make a donation for expenses.

Mostly funded by Gloria Jean’s Coffee – which said last night it did not plan to change its sponsorship arrangements – and supported by the Hillsong Foundation, Mercy Ministries says it has a 90 per cent success rate, but when asked to provide evidence of the program’s outcomes, Ms Watson said that research was under way and not yet available.

Not only does Mercy Ministries appear unconcerned by the allegations, it is mounting an aggressive expansion campaign.  Peter Irvine, its former managing director, now director of corporate sponsorship, confirmed it was opening houses in Adelaide, Perth, Townsville, Newcastle, Melbourne and another Sydney house, in the southern suburbs.

Ms Johnson spent nine months in the Mercy Ministries house in Glenhaven before she was expelled. Close to committing suicide and her eating disorder worse than ever, she was admitted to a psychiatric unit and has spent three years trying to recover from her ordeal.

Ms Canham-Wright and Ms Smith tell similar stories from their time in the Sunshine Coast house, and all continue to suffer from the effects of Mercy Ministries’ unconventional program.

They are concerned that as more houses are due to open, more women will be put at risk, partly because there is a desperate shortage of affordable services for people with mental illness.

“This could be really dangerous…Mercy has the potential to be inundated with people … [who will] fall for the advertising and out of desperation reach for Mercy,” Ms Johnson said.

“Here in Perth people with eating disorders are very limited when it comes to treatment.  When you reach 18 there are no government-funded inpatient treatment options for anorexia, except for a general public psychiatric ward where there is no expertise on these issues.”

The federal Minister for Human Services, Joe Ludwig, said the Government would investigate.  “I am very concerned about these serious allegations, and I have asked Centrelink to investigate its payment arrangement,” he said.

The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission, the NSW Health Care Complaints Commission and the Queensland Office of Fair Trading have also indicated they will investigate if they receive complaints from the women.

Allan Fels, dean of the Australia and New Zealand School of Government and former chairman of the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission, said if Mercy Ministries had made false claims about its services it would be in breach of the law and could face injunctions, damages and fines.  “Both the federal Trade Practices Act and the relevant state fair trading acts would seem to apply to the situation since income is being received by Mercy Ministries.  Both laws prohibit misleading and deceptive conduct.”

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