"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.”

Australian Today Tonight report featuring Rhiannon

Australian television program Today Tonight featured a story on Mercy Ministries on 17 March 2008.

An excerpt from a letter received from television program Today Tonight on 20 March 2008: –

In the days since Today Tonight did a story on Mercy Ministries, we have been inundated with responses, so much so it’s raised serious questions about the figures we received from Mercy Ministries claiming to be the total number of girls who graduated and “failed”.

Executive Director of Mercy Ministries Peter Irvine claimed since the organisation began in 2000, 96 women had graduated, six failed and only two had come forward to complain… Since our program aired, a greater number of women have since contacted our program citing mistreatment by Mercy Ministries.

These girls did not receive professional treatment whilst in the care of Mercy Ministries, they were denied such help and instead were put in the care of people whose only training was from an in-house program – a far cry from the medically based expertise needed to treat serious problems of sexual abuse, drug addiction and psychological trauma.  It also contradicts the program guidelines outlined on the website.  Even the website acknowledges that such conditions need professional help…

Kind regards,

Marguerite McKinnon
Today Tonight

Welcome to Mercy Survivors

 Welcome to the Mercy Survivors web site.

This web site serves as a contact point for the survivors of the Mercy Ministries program worldwide.

This site has an international focus.  We currently have members from Australia, New Zealand and the United States, and are putting out the call to all countries where the Mercy Ministries “franchise” is operating.

In the coming weeks, you can expect: –

  • News about events relating to Mercy Ministries;
  • Testimonials form former residents and graduates of Mercy; and
  • A private members only forum where you can discuss, seek help and reach out to other women who have been through Mercy Ministries.

Fuck up

This piece by Mercy Survivor Kathryn was originally published on her personal blog, Comfortably Numb, and can be viewed here.

yeah, i fucked it up
so? what else is new?
i fuck up everything i try
fucking up is what i do
everyone was praying
asking God to help somehow
but i still fucked up, i still got kicked out
even God doesn’t want me now
He doesn’t want me to be happy
He doesn’t care that i cry
He doesn’t want me to get through this
He won’t care when i die
You might think that’s extreme
that i should still hang on
but i’ve been holding on for much too long
i just can’t be that strong
i’ve been digging and digging a hole
it just gets more and more deep
finally they’ve covered the top
and left me in here to weep
but weeping, i won’t do
i won’t let them be satisfied
i’ll sit by myself in that deep dark hole
till i’ve wasted away and died
maybe then they’ll be happy
that they sent me home
that they pointed me to suicide
and caused me to write this poem
i hope that makes them happy
i hope from this they learn
that when you’re not helped up to heaven
you’re left in hell to burn


Mercy Ministries

This piece by Mercy Survivor Kathryn was originally published on her personal blog, Comfortably Numb, and can be viewed here.

finish the program?
no! of course not!!
that’s too much for me
that’s asking a lot
that’s not the way things work for me
there’s not gonna be an end
i can’t make it that far through
i’m never going to mend
i’m never going to feel content
these eyes will always cry
i’ll never feel that sense of peace
i’ll always want to die
forever and always i’ll wait
for something that’s not there
for something that’ll never come
it all seems so unfair
all i want’s a reason
a purpose for all this pain
something that makes it all worthwhile
like the sunshine after the rain
but i don’t think anything’s there
i don’t believe it’ll ever come
so i’m left without a hope
a pile of pills and a micky of rhum


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