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Nine months later she was expelled, a devastated, withdrawn child who could not leave her bedroom, let alone her house.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