Thursday, January 22, 2009

To Write Love On Her Arms makes a stand against abuse

The Nashville Scene's Caleb Hannan has written a report about Mercy Ministries, a fundamentalist organization accused of abuse and neglect. He reports that TWLOHA have stopped supporting Mercy Ministries as further evidence of their questionable practices have emmerged:

"Back in October we wrote about Mercy Ministries, a Nashville-based Christian
treatment center for young girls. According to a handful of former residents,
Mercy withheld medication, attempted to cure patients with exorcisms...."

Read more

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Saturday, January 17, 2009

Australian Medical Association warns against Mercy Ministries' "dangerous and potentially unethical" practices.

As reported by The Sydney Morning Herald, Australia

"Ethics, financial probity for review
Ruth Pollard
March 18, 2008

FORCING sick, vulnerable patients to see a doctor in the presence of an unrelated third party was both dangerous and potentially unethical, the Australian Medical Association warned yesterday.

Young women who entered Mercy Ministries' residential care program were required, as per the organisation's policy, to see a doctor in the presence of a ministry staff member or volunteer, it was revealed yesterday.

"I wasn't allowed to talk to the doctor by myself; they had a staff member or volunteer with us at all times, and the doctor never mentioned my anxiety or the other conditions I was suffering," said Megan Smith*. She was in the organisation's Sunshine Coast house for three months because of anxiety disorder, obsessive compulsive disorder and other mental health problems.

"The staff used to bring our folder, which I guess contained our medical records, but the doctor would just flip through it and we were in and out in five minutes," she said.

The executive manager of programs at Mercy Ministries, Judy Watson, confirmed that all doctors' visits were monitored.

"Monitoring of a general practitioner visit is to assist with accurate medical information relayed and received for the benefit of the resident in their ongoing care whilst at Mercy Ministries," she said.

But the AMA's president and chairwoman of its ethics committee, Rosanna Capolingua, said patients must be able to talk freely to their doctor about how they are feeling, without the potential influence of a third party.

"It may be that the patient is under some kind of … duress or coercion to have that person accompany them," she said.

Without the ability to disclose that, their doctor might be none the wiser. "It would be very difficult for the doctor to determine whether the patient is freely requesting that the person be in the room with them."

And even if the doctor did ask the patient whether they had consented, the patient may not be able to answer.

"They are already vulnerable, they are coming in potentially under duress and they have another layer of fear on board … they might not have the courage to answer."

Such is the wider concern that Dr Capolingua has referred the matter to the AMA's federal ethics committee for consideration, aiming to advise doctors how to manage the situation.

Meanwhile, an investigation into the transfer of Centrelink benefits to Mercy Ministries is under way, after allegations that young women were signing over their benefits, but also encouraged to go onto a disability support pension so the organisation could collect carers' payments as well.

The Minister for Human Services, Joe Ludwig, has asked Centrelink to investigate the allegations and report on its pay arrangements with Mercy Ministries.

* Name has been changed to protect her identity."

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Tuesday, December 16, 2008

On My Experience with Exorcism at Mercy Ministries of America

Mercy Ministries of America: Truth Will Out writes

"As readers know, Mercy supporters worldwide initially claimed that demons had nothing to do with the program and such things like "casting them out" had never happened. Mercy Australia board member Peter Irvine even claimed there was never any "laying on of hands" during the course of prayers. Well, it's now been well established that the RTF counseling model deals with demonic oppression and does talk quite a lot about demons, so I would like to share my experience with how MMoA treats its residents who they claim suffer at the hands of demonic forces. I have talked about this before, but want to set it down in a specific entry for those who have not been to other sites, etc.

To be honest, I admit that I was a willing participant and also held the belief that demons could enter and live in my body because of previous sins that I and my ancestors had committed. I am not trying to claim I was the voice of reason among the other 20 odd residents and entire staff. It is horribly humiliating to me that I participated in these sessions and didn't think they were insane. I understand the instinct to claim these things never happened because the embarrassment is nearly enough to keep me silent on the issue. But in order to stop what is happening there I feel it's necessary to tell the truth--without exaggeration or omission--about my experience.

Here is what happened:

A number of months into my stay at MMoA we had a visit from a special speaker called Paula Kilpatrick, who came in specifically to minister to the residents through prophesy and casting out of demons. During my residence we had special guests on a number of occasions who merely spoke to us, but Paula was coming to address the specific issue of demonic oppression. Kilpatrick was to speak for 2 days. The first day would be devoted to residents and broken into 2 parts. The morning session would be focused on casting out demons and after lunch we would each receive a prophesy given to her through "the holy spirit." There would be no exceptions; Paula would prophesy over each of us and cast out demons. Getting rid of these demons would allow us to truly recover from the issues we suffered. It was made clear that--because of the authority given to these demons by Satan--as long as they were allowed to remain we could never fully be free of our struggles or be able to make godly choices.

In the days before Paula's arrival, the house was filled with excitement and anticipation. A fellow resident spoke to me of a previous session where Australian resident Jenny Fairbairn struck Paula, a supposed indication that she was physically controlled by a demonic force determined to remain in her body. I was nervous that something similar might happen to me, but Nancy was reassuring, told us that Paula would prophesy to each of us and that she was eager for Paula to arrive because she would bring revival to the entire house. She was particularly excited for Paula to minister to the staff, who sat in for each of the sessions. In addition to ministering to the staff and residents, one of the girls who cared for Nancy's dogs told me Nancy had plans for Paula to pray over her favorite dog, Jude, who was commonly known to suffer from a seizure disorder. I was excited just like everybody else, but I was also nervous that for some reason--possibly a lack of faith or because there was something wrong with me--it wouldn't really work. If it did work, I was afraid it wouldn't last because I would "open a door" to allow the demons back in. They would come back even stronger, I was told, if they were cast out and I knowingly made sinful decisions that allowed them to return.

When casting out the demons, Paula went through a list of the various issues and called for each of us to stand when applicable. She cast demons out of me twice that I remember, for my eating disorder and chemical dependency. (Again I was treated for drug addiction although I had only used drugs recreationally in my youth.) She called for those who suffered eating disorders to stand up. We stood and she began to pray, saying things like "I cast you out in the name of Jesus!" She went around to each of us, touching us on the back or shoulder and commanding the demon to leave us. She stood by and continued to touch us until we told her the demon had left us. She said we would physically feel different when it had left. She stood there for a long time with me, longer than with the others. I remember feeling really angry with her and wanting to shove her away from me, which my friends and I attributed to the demon not wanting to leave my body. Finally I told her that the demon had left and she moved on to the next girl.

During the afternoon session she prophesied over each of us. She told me I would marry somebody in a band, which we all thought was really funny because I was the resident feminist and the last thing I wanted to hear about was who I was going to marry. I didn't marry anybody in a band and have never even dated anybody in a band. My husband is an engineer who sometimes plays Rock Band. (Though admittedly he is pretty good at it.) When I have argued to evangelicals that Paula's prophesy did not come to fruition, they have said that I just didn't follow god's plan for my life. I find evangelicals' support of religious prophesy interesting because they claim that fortune telling is demonic, but I can see how it is a useful tool to control the masses as it is hard to doubt somebody who you believe hears directly from the god you worship.

That night we all went to Nancy's nearby condo for dinner and celebrated the day's events. Nancy's condo isn't made to hold so many people, but we crowded into the small space on the floor, surrounding Nancy who sat on the couch. Some of us took turns speaking about that day's experience, each giving a glowing testimony of how she felt physically restored now that the demons plaguing her for so long had finally been forced to leave her body.

Just as I'd feared, the exorcism didn't work on me. The rest of the girls were abuzz with happiness, but I sat in the group wanting to cry because I just didn't feel any different. I felt physically nervous and uncomfortable. Hoping for some kind of reassurance that there wasn't something wrong with me, I spoke up and said I just didn't feel right, that I felt uneasy. Nancy's response was that it was my problem, and that I'd better go back to the house that night and pray about why it hadn't worked. On our way back to the house, some of the girls and I mulled over the possibility that my feelings were due to how particularly difficult it had been for Paula to remove my demons.

The following day, Paula ministered to the staff. Admittedly, I don't remember the details of the second day as well as the first, but there are a few points that stick out in my mind. Paula healed several staff members of physical illnesses to include a "throat ailment" (suffered by my individual counselor) and a rare condition called Raynaund's disease. The latter is characterized by severe dryness and peeling of skin from the hands and it was only when Paula described the symptoms that this staff member declared that she had it. She went on to testify in tears revealing that she hadn't even known she had it, but just thought she had really bad dry skin in the winter. So, without a medical diagnosis, Kilpatrick was credited with healing the disease.

As with other guest speakers, the sessions with Kilpatick were taped and each of us was given a cassette with the small excerpts from when Paula spoke directly to us. Unfortunately I no longer have my tapes, but we are still looking for somebody who might.

As I have stated many times, I have no reason to exaggerate what went on there because the truth of the story is shocking enough. I could easily have said Paula pulled out crosses and people foamed at the mouth, but they didn't. However, she did come to cast demons out of us--from our bodies--and any who say differently are lying. When I have spoken directly with people--regardless of whether they support Nancy and the MMoA program--all of them admit to what happened with Paula. The staff were very excited about Paula's visit. All of them--including Nancy--had full knowledge of its intent. In my opinion, it seems like a waste of time to try and deny what occurred in such a public setting and I hope that Nancy is asked directly about it at some point because it will give me further proof that she is lying."

Monday, December 8, 2008

Cult-rescue group 'concerned about' Mercy Ministries

Barney Zwartz
March 18, 2008 - 1:19PM

The Age, Cult-rescue group 'concerned about' Mercy Ministries

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.

Read the whole article

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Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Mercy Ministries Exorcism books leaked

Live News reports

EXCLUSIVE: Mercy Ministries exorcism books leaked

Handbooks allegedly used to perform exorcisms on sick girls at the controversial Mercy Ministries residences in Sydney and on the Sunshine Coast have been leaked to

Mercy Ministries, which is bankrolled by the Pentecostal Hillsong Church, has previously denied performing exorcisms on residents.

The documents, obtained clandestinely by a girl who “escaped” the group’s clutches, shows counsellors how to rid ‘demons’ from girls struggling with anorexia, depression and drug addiction.

Mercy Ministries’ activities hit the headlines in March this year when former residents claimed they were subjected to exorcisms, were cut off from friends and family and had to sign over their Centrelink payments to the group.

Some of the young women say they had little or no access to the promised psychologists and other mental health professionals but were instead counselled by bible studies students whose solution to all problems was prayer.

Earlier this year the then head of Mercy Ministries, Peter Irvine, said exorcisms were not practised at the residences. Mercy Ministries has been forced to shut their Sunshine Coast residence.

“There’s no exorcism, no driving out of spirits it’s not how the program works,” he told Today Tonight’s Marguerite McKinnon earlier this year.

But the handbooks tell a different story and corroborate accounts given to by former residents of Mercy Ministries.

In the handbook, under a section entitled ‘Identifying Additional Demons’ those practising the exorcism are advised to ask the demon’s name, but not for any more details.

“They sometimes talk: they may threaten the person or you. They have been know to say, ‘I am going to kill you,’ and other unsavoury phrases. Command them to be quiet in the Name of Jesus,” the book advises.

Later, the book, Restoring The Foundations, published by an American Christian group, warns those exorcising demons to be firm.

“The minister’s attitude is one of commanding,” it reads.

“He needs to be firm and prepared to press in. He does not need to be loud. (Demons are not deaf.) The ministers’ commanding attitude resembles that of a person speaking to a little “yappy” dog commanding him to go home and stop barking.

“We also want the ministry receiver to set his will to resist and then command the particular demon or grouping of demons to leave him, in Jesus’ name. This is repeated until the demons are gone.”

Later in the book, those performing the exorcism are given more complex techniques in a subheading called ‘What to do With Obstinate Demons’.

Later a list of ‘Scriptures that Demons Hate’ is provided.

“But if I with the finger of God cast out devils, no doubt the kingdom of God is come upon you,” is one such passage singled out.

The emergence of the exorcism handbook lends weight to other claims made by girls who went through the Mercy Ministries program.

Megan Smith (not her real name), who spoke to earlier this year, said her panic attacks only got worse.

“I was self-harming,” she said.

“I was cutting my arm with anything I could get my hands on – scratching with anything from my nails to paper clips.

“I never really had a problem with self-harm beforehand. When you tell them about self-harming they said I was trying to get attention and I was taking their valuable time away from girls with real problems.”

Finally, she was subjected to an exorcism.

“The counsellor gave me a list of different demons – demon of anger, demon of unforgiveness, demon of pride, there were lots of them and I was told to go away and circle the demons I had in me or around me,” said Smith.

“I was really scared… they cast demons out of me, one by one, and they became quite excited and animated during the process, and spoke in tongues.

“It was the counsellors and myself and they put their hands on me and started praying one by one for each of the demons that were on the list to be cast out of me.

“After each demon was cast out I had to say ‘I confirm the demon of X has been cast out of me in the name of Jesus and is unwelcome to return.'

“The whole time I was there, all I heard was that I'm demonic.

“Even after the exorcism, when I had the next anxiety attack, I was told that they had already cast the demons out, so therefore I was obviously either faking it, or I had chosen to let the demons come back, in which case I was not serious about getting better.

“They kept telling us that the world can't help us, professionals with all their 'worldly qualifications' can't help us, only Mercy could because only they have God's power.

“So when I was kicked out for being 'demonic, unable to be helped, not worth a place at Mercy’ and because I had taken too long to pray to become a Christian... it left me worse than I had ever been before in my life.

“They told me I would never get better now because I had blown my chance. I started cutting my arms and wrists more than ever, with their voices echoing in my mind as I did it.”

Suicidal and self-harming after being removed from the program, which she now thought was her only hope, she went to see a “proper psychologist to prepare me to go back to Mercy to help me fit in better.”

“The psychologist had never heard of them but told me to stay away from them… that person helped me more in the 40 minute session – really listening to me and understanding me.”

Mercy Ministries earlier this year "There's no exorcism - that's not how the program works"

The Handbook. Leaked photocopies of the Mercy Ministries guide

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Thursday, November 20, 2008

Mercy Ministries using Youtube to censor abuse reports

Deconverts reports on Mercy Ministries:

Earlier tonight I received a comment on one of our earlier articles readers which covers the abuse of women in the Hillsong-supported “Mercy Ministries” programme that one of the videos we linked to has been removed from YouTube in an apparant attempt to censor the voice of abused women, unhappy with their treatment at Mercy Ministries, via a false claim under the DMCA. The reason for the removal appears to be as a result of a malicious copyright “Take Down” claim by “Mercy Ministries International” as an attempt to censor the voices of some of the women who were psychologically damaged by their programme. This “programme” claims to help desperate women with drug addiction, mental illness and eating disorders. The truth is that women end up far more troubled, and far worse off than when they started. Ruth Pollard of the Sydney Morning Herald reports, “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”.

The video that we linked to contained a radio interview in which several women talk openly and candidly about their experiences at Mercy Ministries. And judging by the severe abuse they claim to have received, and the number of women speaking out, they are not alone. Needless to say, Mercy Ministries International do not appear to have gone on record to address these complaints. Instead they used a “Take Down” notice mechanism on content which does not contain their intellectual property (it was all discussion of the programme, by participants of the programme), therefore the only logical conclusion is that they are attempting to censor the free speech of these women. The “Take Down”, or Digital Millennium Copyright Notice is the legal framework which allows any artist or author to remove, in this case, video and audio content from YouTube by claiming (in this case, very, very illegally) that they are the owners of the content and did not give their permission. This act allows sites such as YouTube to operate without legal claims against them that they are encouraging copyright violations since content producers (such as TV companies) can easily remove copied content.

What is to stop anyone from filing “Take Down” notices against any video they don’t like?

There are severe legal penalties if you fraudulently file a DMCA “Take Down” notice against content which is later shown to have not violated your copyright. For instance for reporting, entertainment (satire) or other fair use cannot be taken down without breaching the DMCA. Using the DMCA in this way might get the videos taken off in the short term, but you open yourself under penalty of perjury to both damages and potentially both civil and criminal charges. Mercy Ministries International, following in the footsteps of Kent Hovind (Dr. Dino of Creation Science Evangelism) seem to think it’s ok to lie for Jesus and disabuse others of their rights to free speech. And most importantly, the free speech of those who need it the most. How about desperate, single women struggling with mental illness?

Anyway, here’s a link to a few more videos on YouTube covering this issue. If you feel strongly about the rights of others, the voice of the weak and abused or even for that matter your own rights, speak up now and get the message out about how Mercy Ministries International are using strong arm tactics to maliciously and illegally issue take down notices on content which although does not hold them in good light, is not theirs and they have no legal right to censor.

What’s all this about DMCA “Penalty of Perjury”?
How might criminal and civil action be taken against Mercy Ministries?

Fundamentalist Christians using the DMCA “Take Down” notices to censor content on the Internet (and especially YouTube) has been seen before. Most notably from the evangelical creationist, “Venomfangx” who maliciously and with risk of criminal and civil charges under penalty of perjury decided it was worth the risk in order to have any criticism of him and his values censored from the internet. Not only is this a major problem for freedom of expression, but it highlights exactly what type of organisation Mercy Ministries is. They are an organisation who clearly have no qualms about filing illegal take down notices on YouTube videos in which their activities and the harm they have caused to vulnerable women is exposed. As if we needed more evidence, Hillsong’s Mercy Ministries clearly have no morals. (Or perhaps they get their morality from the bible? You tell me.)

Abuse at Mercy Ministries (Part 1/7)
An interview with a Christian girl with bipolar disorder who suffered further at Mercy Ministries

Want to hear more? Search for it
(new videos will go up all the time)

Mercy Survivors (a site set up to help women get over Mercy Ministries)

“They prayed to cast Satan from my body”

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Saturday, October 25, 2008

Report on Mercy Ministries Australia

Ruth Pollard
March 17, 2008

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.

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