Sects and cults:
thriving trade in misery
2 April, 2008
The revelations just keep on coming. Secretive and controlling Christian fundamentalist organisations fronting as mainstream services and businesses have hit the headlines of the Sydney dailies lately. Mercy Ministries promotes itself as a lifeline operated by qualified staff for young women battling drug addiction, eating disorders and mental illness. Instead, clients are locked down in suburban houses and "treated" with exorcisms, prayer and scripture sessions by Bible students who impose a bizarre disciplinary regime.
The Common Ground Café at the Royal Easter Show is actually one of a chain of businesses run by unpaid labour financing the Community Apostolic Order (aka the Twelve Tribes). That sect isolates its devotees on a property at Picton after having got them to sign over all their worldly goods. They show their love for their children with beatings with a stick kept above the door in every room.
Not so merciful
Ruth Pollard of The Sydney Morning Herald lifted the lid on the services offered by Mercy Ministries with a series of articles based on accounts of women expelled from houses in Sydney and the Sunshine Coast. Once the applicants are accepted into the program, their path is one of complete submission. On outings they are not allowed to go into the newsagents for fear that contact with the outside world will undo all the progress presumably being made through the routine of prayer and Bible readings. TV is banned. Relentless cleaning is the order of the day.
"To take the rubbish bin out to the footpath we had to get special permission. If we stepped over the boundary we were expelled because it was treated as absconding. Even to go to the toilet or brush our teeth we needed specific permission. It was such a sterile environment", a former resident told the Herald.
The women cannot reveal to others what led them to seek help. If they appear to be forming friendships with other young women in the house, they are required to sign "separation contracts". Mercy Ministries is reported to be preoccupied with the sexuality of its residents. "Girls were asked on the application form, as well as in a telephone interview, if they had ever had lesbian or bisexual relationships. They asked if I had been involved in drug abuse, witchcraft or lesbianism. They bunched them together like that," another former resident said.
Mercy Ministries shares the belief of backers the Hillsong Foundation and the Hillsong Church that Satan makes people act on homosexual desires and that homosexuality can be cured with God’s help. Women with high risk mental disorders are told to forget about them and to commit themselves to scripture study.
Those who insist they need to see a doctor are accompanied to a GP supportive of "the Mercy Way". While Ministries’ sources quote testimonials from satisfied clients, they are yet to produce research to back up the claim of a 90 percent success rate for those passing through its "holistic" Bible-based program.
The accounts presented by former residents indicate that the women have actually had their conditions exacerbated by their stay. Naomi (not her real name) was admitted to a psychiatric unit at Royal Perth Hospital on her return home and has taken three years to recover from her ordeal.
Her eating disorder was worse than ever and she was close to committing suicide. She still finds it hard to socialise. But her suffering and that of other women coming forward has at last roused the attention of experts. Ian Hickie, executive director of the Brain and Mind Research Institute of the University of Sydney, is concerned that the Ministries are reviving discredited old practices that focus on control, isolation, compliance and disempowerment.
"Our modern community and church-based organisations do have to have a separation of church and state — they do not proselytise religion, it is not part of their professional practice. Prayer is not a medical treatment," Professor Hickie said.
Spare the rod
Common Ground Café is a popular food outlet at the Royal Easter Show. It has also popped up at the Woodford Folk Festival and the Sydney Olympics. Its barramundi burgers and organic breads are a hit. But the workers who set up and run the businesses do long hours (up to 20 hours a day) for no pay with no workers comp and no insurance.
The cafés are owned by the Community Apostolic Order — an offshoot of a secretive cult founded in Tennessee in 1976 by former high school guidance counsellor Elbert Eugene Spriggs. It now has 3,000 members worldwide with communities in the US, Canada, Argentina, Brazil, France, Germany, Spain and England.
Devotees cannot marry outside the group and are cut off from non-member friends and family. Families are split up, even moved to other countries, when a cult member breaks with the religion. They take Hebrew names. No TV for them, either. Adherents are told that reasoning is "the same sin as witchcraft". It is notorious around the world for the severity of its disciplining of children, which includes beatings with its trade mark reed-like stick.
Also known as the Twelve Tribes, the cult has about 60 members in Australia and maintains a property in Picton south west of Sydney. Former member Matthew Klein has come forward with revelations about what he claims to be the dangerous work being undertaken by the brainwashed members of the cult. He wants authorities to act on these workplace issues and for the Department of Community Services (DOCS) to take action to protect children trapped by the cult.
"One day I left my two-year-old boy with an elder while I went and worked. When I came back, I asked how it went and he said ‘We had a few problems but we got over them’. He said that my boy wouldn’t come to him so he held and spanked him. When he still wouldn’t come, he spanked him again. I asked how many times that happened and he said, ‘About 10 or 12’. So he’d hit my boy about 60 times in the course of the day," Klein said.
Under the radar?
According to Klein, DOCS won’t act without "evidence". It is understandable that the department doesn’t want to venture into the minefield of issues created by the constitutional guarantee of freedom of religion but surely the eye-witness accounts coming from former members warrant urgent attention. It will become more urgent as the influence of the cult continues to grow.
Twelve Tribes runs businesses worldwide and in Australia has building demolition, plumbing, painting and import/export enterprises in its portfolio. Its holding company has assets worth $4.55 million but has tax-exempt status as a charitable institution. It has acquired a $1.7 million property in Katoomba in the Blue Mountains which is to be converted into a Common Ground Café.
Mercy Ministries has big plans for expansion beyond Sydney and the Sunshine Coast to establish houses in Adelaide, Perth, Newcastle and Melbourne. The organisation receives donations from the Gloria Jeans Coffee chain of between $150,000 and $170,000 a year as well as the proceeds of the tins sitting on the shops’ counters.
Hillsong is a backer. That church has been wooed by both major parties eager to secure the votes of the growing Pentecostal congregation. Howard entrusted the group with a federal grant for work in the Aboriginal community until it was discovered that funds were being used for the church. They were given another grant of $415,000 for community crime prevention. It was part of a strategy of offloading the social obligations of government to religious organisations in the style of the Bush Administration in the US.
Mercy Ministries is also rushing to fill this vacuum. The case of Naomi mentioned above is typical. She had no private health insurance and there were no publicly funded services for those with eating disorders in Perth. She willingly signed over her Centrelink payments to Mercy Ministries and was fearful of being thrown out because she felt she had nowhere else to turn and that it was her last chance.
Human Services Minister Joe Ludwig is reported to be concerned and has asked Centrelink to investigate but it remains to be seen whether the Rudd Government, with its significant numbers of very fervent Christians, will reverse the policy trend set down by its predecessor and close the gaps left open for fundamentalist organisations like Mercy Ministries.
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