Australia’s Hillsong – Abuse at Mercy Ministries

Hillsong, the largest pentecostal church in Australia is in the centre of a breaking controversy regarding one of it’s partnered ministries.

The Sydney Morning Herald has been doing an series on Mercy Ministries,  a free faith based treatment centre from the US  for addiction, eating disorders, unplanned pregnancy, self-harm and depression, catering to women from 16 to 28.

Former Australian clients are stepping forward with stories of extreme religious abuse, unqualified staff and medical neglect, cult experts are stepping forward, Gloria Jeans Coffee (which contributed 170 million) is stepping back, use of government money is being looked it, Australia’s  Minister for Human Services, Australian Competition and Consumer Commission, the NSW Health Care Complaints Commission and the Queensland Office of Fair Trading will investigate if victims step forward.

Tanya Levin, Former Hillsong member and author of People in Glass Houses:

Hillsong has always been proud of the origins and progress of the Australian incarnation of Mercy Ministries. According to Hillsong folklore, a female congregant, unable to find help in Australia for an eating disorder, travelled to the United States for treatment at Mercy Ministries. Mercy Ministries was created by an American, Nancy Alcorn, who says she was frustrated in her role as a juvenile justice officer because of the injustices of the system. She determined to open a place for young women that would be independent of government funding and intervention, and free, so women would feel sincerely cared for.

While the Australian congregant was at Mercy Ministries, she was visited by a Hillsong pastor. The pastor was so impressed with the work being done she decided to bring the program to Australia.

Mercy Ministries was a godsend for Hillsong. Desperate young women who are violated by the world draw a sympathetic audience. It seemed a simple concept for Hillsong to mimic locally and it was presented as a utopia of female health. Hillsong is an organisation based on recruitment and fund-raising. Mercy Ministries was an opportunity to do both on a new and larger scale.

The founders of Mercy Ministries are fundamentalist Christians who are primarily obsessed with women’s bodies and what they choose to do with them. The Bible is used to justify the supposed inferiority and intrinsic sinfulness of women and homosexuals. Hillsong teaches that a woman’s purpose, as an afterthought of God, is as a helper and a companion at best, and with Eve as their ultimate matriarch, the cause of the fall of all mankind.

Hillsong Church is Australia’s largest mega-church with 25 branches around the world. It is best known for it’s music, releasing 40 CD’s  since 1992.  Hillsong is a word/faith prosperity church started by  husband and wife team Brian and Bobbie Houston. About 18 thousand people attend services on it’s main 21 acre ‘campus’ in Sydney. As of 2004 it had assets of over 50 million dollars.

The unfolding investigative series by The Sydney Morning Herald can be found at Anton Hein’s Religion News Blog. Mercy Ministry, which has homes in Sydney and the Sunshine Coast has been operating in the country since 2000.

The Canadian branch says it plans to build in BC and expand across the country. The website says run by John & Helen Burns. There is no word on the website of their qualifications to run a residential program, they worked in Nashville and the Sydney location. The Canadian website currently links back to the US.

Mercy Ministries Australia responded to the abuse claims a few days ago with denial and blaming and a pr.
There is one psychologist listed for Australia, the UK centre was supposed to have opened in West Yorkshire in 2006. A home which  just opened in Auckland, New Zealand says it can take 15 women.  Australia claims 96 women have ‘graduated’ from their program.

Mercy, justice, liberty and compassion are concepts that evangelicals view as their own. They believe their God is the author of these values, and that with a monopoly on truth they have an imperative to administer them globally.

It is no surprise that the girls and young women who attended Mercy Ministries did not receive the psychiatric help they were seeking. Fundamentalist Christians are suspicious of psychiatry and psychology, unless prefixed with the word Christian. Psychotic symptoms such as voices are evidence of demons that medication cannot expel. I recall one Hillsong pastor proudly describing his own daughter’s employment at Mercy Ministries. He said she could counsel by birthright, aided by her bible college wisdom.

Having worked in a women’s refuge for five years, I know there are few social services out there. And such little love. It’s hard for young women who are tired, frightened and hungry to distinguish love from opportunism. Something has to be done to advocate for the needy when fundamentalists can smell their blood.

This investigative series is getting attention on a lot of blogs, one of the better posts is from One Salient Oversight. 
A NZ blogger who contributes to Mercy Ministries, blasts the media.

Update: The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission will investigate

About Bene Diction

Have courage for the great sorrows, And patience for the small ones. And when you have laboriously accomplished your tasks, go to sleep in peace. God is awake.
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7 Responses to Australia’s Hillsong – Abuse at Mercy Ministries

  1. Bill Kinnon says:

    Well, Burns could at least provide free dental care. He was a dentist before he became a megachurch pastor.

    It’s an awful story, BD – as are so many from the Word/Faith Prosperity “other” Gospel.

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  3. Bene Diction says:

    The players gets more interesting than Mr. Burns Bill.
    Sy Rogers, a former Exodus director is involved in their promos, which are full of loaded prosperity/third wave language.

    The black and white bunker thinking is bizarre, let’s hope former clients and their families are able to step forward and assist government investigators. If the ministry can’t and won’t co-operate, shut them down.

    It appears from the reactions from ministry advocates to media is anger and almost paranonia that anyone would question them.

    This harms church and para-church groups who have qualified people in place and who are transparent and co-operative with regulatory agencies.

    The willingness to be out of sight of professional associations and government regulatory groups, the lack of records and co-operating in Australia and the skimming government money went on for seven years.

    The Mercy Ministry pr sounds like it came straight out of Nashville.
    It’s nonsensical babble, even for those of us familiar with psycho babble and evangelical babble.
    I can see why this Ministry would rebuff requests for records.

    I went looking for financials (found one statement on a US attorney general site) the ministry withdrew from financial transparency groups years ago.
    Of course. Made it easier to expand the business internationally.

    There is room and need in society for educated certified accountable Christian counsellors, this does not appear at all to be the case at the Hillsong offshoot, I don’t see it in the UK or NZ or Canada either.

    I’m not laughing – watched their promotional videos and read their material, this one size fits all is sloppy, unethical, harmful.

    First line of defense, attack victims.
    Vulnerable families unfamiliar with basic medical needs, disorders and treatment would get sucked in by this marketing. I can understand why many of their daughters would left needing ongoing medical and psychiatric intervention.

    Second line of defense, attack media.
    This is almost funny, like Coke, the headquarters in Nashville know they can export their brand without consequence.
    Sadly they succeeded in Australia for seven years, they opened in NZ in August and will hoodwink desperate Canadians and hands off bureaucrats.

    I will never understand why pentecostals, fundamentalists and neo-pentecostals believe health services do not honour religious faith.

    While mental health services are swamped in Canada,
    provincial governments cannot afford to just rubber stamp the dangers of Mercy Ministries.

  4. grantdale says:

    Sorry, typo police… I think that should read “Gloria Jeans Coffee (which contributed 170 THOUSAND per year)”

    Not “millions”.

    Either that, or I’m very clearly in the wrong line of work!

  5. i was at mercy says:

    Hi, I just wanted to say thank you for helping to get the truth about this abusive place out there.

    I am a Christian so I was sucked in by Mercy Ministries’ promise of Christian staff who were qualified in treating mental illness. I knew the links with Hillsong, who are very well known, and thought ‘great!’ But when I got there, I didn’t have one qualified person to treat me at all for the whole time I was there.

    I did have a couple of trips to the GP, when I needed more medication because it had run out, but that is all! I didn’t see a psychologist or anything.

    Even the counsellors were not qualified to treat mental illness, my counsellor was doing a mercy ministries counselling course (in house) so that is hardly a real qualification to treat mental illness. She didn’t help me, the counselling was less than an hour a week and it was prayer readings.

    I don’t want Mercy shut down necessarily, but I do want girls who still decide to go there, to go there informed truthfully qualifications that staff have (or don’t have.)

    I don’t hate Mercy for what they did to me. I actually like the ‘idea’ of Mercy – what they say they are on their website and in their advertising. But I am very much against what they actually do in reality. If they were running the program the way they claim to be running it, then there wouldn’t have been a problem. I didn’t want exorcisms and the ‘care’ of unqualified staff. I wanted what they promised me – psychiatric care by staff who were qualified to treat mental illness, and who were Christian.

  6. Bene D says:

    Homogenized, commercialized for profit exporting of what should be effective local church ministry is ripe for abuse, isn’t it?

    You have made very important observations about false advertising and misuse of power over vulnerable people, thank you for speaking up and speaking out. I trust you have found qualified and compassionate help. I’m sorry you had to go through this experience, good on you for being willing to see others don’t have to suffer.

  7. dr gary porter says:

    As a gp since 1985 I cannot say I have been overly impressed by modern psychiatry’s record in eating disorders and I cannot say I have seen a case where they have actually got to the bottom of the problem .Some young women recovered in spite of psychiatry rather than because of it and yes psychiatry did terrible things to some people too . A great many are seriously disturbed before and after psychiatry .I cannot say I know a lot of MERCY mINISTRIES but there undoubtedly a signifiant number of disturbed young women going there after already having been in ”mainstream ” treatment and failed to achieve a cure . They are not disturbed by Mercy so much as being desperate to try an alternative when the mainstream has failed .

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