Jul 4, 2021

Vulnerable youngsters hurt by acts of bad faith

The West Australian 

A Perth religious group that housed rapist Jarryd Hayne without warning female members has been accused of failing to report a sex assault, blaming victims and utilising a series of troubling rituals. Award-winning reporter Annabel Hennessy investigates

A Perth-based Christian missionary group is facing serious allegations of misconduct — including that leaders failed to report a sexual assault to police and blamed alleged victims for their attacks.

A special investigation from The Sunday Times into Youth With A Mission Perth can also reveal how the registered charity admits to encouraging sexual abuse victims to forgive their abusers and “repent” for any ill-will they held towards them.

WA Police have confirmed they are investigating an alleged indecent assault the complainant says occurred at the organisation two decades ago. The alleged victim says a YWAM leader told her to keep quiet about what happened and to apologise to her alleged abuser for leading him on.

The charity has hired KPMG to conduct a governance review of its policies after multiple complaints that it failed in its duty of care to young missionaries.

The Sunday Times has spoken to about 20 former students and staff of YWAM Perth, many of whom say they required counselling after their time there. They have signed statutory declarations swearing what they say is true.

The allegations, which span two decades, include claims one woman was told she had the “spirit of Jezebel” within her after she disclosed she was the alleged victim of childhood sexual abuse at another YWAM base.

Strange rituals former students have described include one where they had to “cough out” spirits that leaders told them could have caused bad things in their lives, including sexual abuse.

Some also say they have experienced what they describe as “spiritual abuse” — the use of religion as a manipulative tool. They say the teachings went well beyond usual Christian practices.

Many have been inspired to come forward after criticism of YWAM for allowing disgraced rugby league star and convicted rapist Jarryd Hayne to attend the organisation while he was facing rape charges in 2019. Students who attended the same time as Hayne said they were not given advance warning they would be living alongside someone charged with sexual assault.

In an email one female student sent to a YWAM leader in 2019 she asked why she and others hadn’t been informed before they arrived.

“What care is being given to women who have previously been raped and had to be on his team or be near him?” she asked.

The Sunday Times has been told YWAM leaders claimed Hayne was innocent and that they had a “word from God” about his attendance. A source said leaders asked at least one staff member to pray about Hayne’s attendance so they too received “confirmation” from God he should be allowed to attend.

YWAM Perth had supported Hayne in an application to modify his bail so he could attend their Discipleship Training School, which is targeted at 17 to 25-year-olds , while he was facing the charges. He was found guilty this year and sentenced to more than five years in prison.

In a lengthy statement released to The Sunday Times, YWAM said it “sincerely regretted and apologised to those of our staff and participants who may have been affected by any shortcomings in ensuring that the values and beliefs that we share have been adequately and properly communicated and implemented on the ground” .

The organisation said after recent concerns expressed due to its decision to accept Hayne into the program, it had invited both present and former staff and students to give feedback about that and other matters.

“Some of the feedback we received has indeed been concerning,” YWAM Perth said. “We unequivocally would like to state that the experience of some of our participants and staff, as related to us, is not reflective of our values or our beliefs.”

But it also defended some of its teachings, including encouraging students who had been victims of sexual assault to forgive their abusers.

“As part of the separate process of spiritual healing and in accordance with the biblical principles as to repentance and forgiveness, we also encourage the participant, when he or she is ready, to try and forgive the person who has caused them harm and repent to the extent that the participant bears any ill-will or malice towards that person,” YWAM said.

“Repentance and forgiveness, however, does not mean that the sin committed against the participant is somehow excused or condoned.”

YWAM described Hayne as having “special issues” .

“Some of the participants who attend the DTS program come with special issues (such as Mr Hayne) or pre-existing physical/mental health conditions,” it said.

“We have not sought to discriminate against them. Instead, consistent with our Christian values and beliefs, we accept these participants because they come to us with a genuine desire to learn how to grow in their relationship with God and spread the word of God.”

YWAM said in the 35 years since it was started in Perth by husband and wife duo Peter and Shirley Brownhill in 1985, who still run the charity, more than 11,000 students had completed its programs.

“The feedback we received from our participants has been overwhelmingly positive,” YWAM said.

As well as being a registered charity, YWAM is also a registered training organisation under the Government’s Australian Skills Quality Authority.

Most of its students come from overseas and attend the organisation on student visas. Students and staff both pay thousands of dollars to YWAM. Staff are not paid.

This includes fees of up to $6000 to attend outreaches in developing countries such as PNG, Philippines, Indonesia and Bangladesh, where YWAM travels to “make God known” .

Students and staff live at YWAM’s building in Perth.

According to financial documents filed with the Australian Charities and Not-for-profits Commission, it had a total income of $7 million for the 2019 reporting period.

‘I was so afraid’

Jennifer Wratten Napier, from Virginia in the US, was 20 when she signed up for YWAM Perth’s six-month discipleship training school about 20 years ago. She was itching to take a break from higher education and see the world. “I thought this was an opportunity for me to be able to give back, to learn and grow and meet people from other places,” Jennifer said. “And let’s be honest, as an American I think Australians have like the best accent in the world.”

Now, more than two decades later, she still has nightmares about her time with YWAM. Just hearing an Australian accent can be distressing.

Her recent complaint to YWAM is among one of the most disturbing. Jennifer was the victim of childhood sexual abuse.

As part of one of the YWAM exercises she was encouraged to disclose her abuse in front of about 30 other students and then forgive her abusers. Students were told to confess their sins, then reveal sins that had been committed against them and forgive these people.

Jennifer is a Christian and believes in forgiveness, but she found it upsetting to be instructed to forgive someone publicly who had abused her. “It’s a very vulnerable thing to be sharing with people . . . the focus (was) very much on, ‘You need to forgive people immediately, you need to not be bitter’ ,” Jennifer said.

“( The YWAM staff are) not qualified to speak to you as somebody who is a certified therapist or counsellor should, but they’re out there playing this role . . . it’s completely inappropriate.”

Jennifer alleges she was sexually assaulted by another YWAM student. She believes he targeted her after hearing her disclose she was the victim of childhood abuse.

Jennifer says the assault happened on a bus trip after they had been conducting evangelism at a trip to the Eastern States.

“I had been sick with motion sickness and I was sleeping in the aisle of the bus,” she said.

“At 2 or 3am, while everyone else was sleeping on the bus, I woke up to (the other student’s ) hand on my throat. He squeezed enough to let me know, ‘I could kill you’ ,” she said. “He then started molesting me . . . it was so dark, I was so afraid.”

The student had been sexually harassing her and making threatening comments in the lead-up to the attack.

She believes he wanted her to be scared of him so that when he attacked she would stay silent.

But when she got off the bus Jennifer told her YWAM leader what had happened. The leader took her over to another staff member — Whitney Button, a fellow American who was then 22.

“She (Jennifer) was sobbing and she could hardly walk. I managed to get out the story of what had happened,” Whitney said.

“I thought I should take her to police, I asked (the leader) that. I remember asking, ‘Do we need to go to police?’

“He said that we all needed to get some sleep and that he would take care of it the next day.”

Jennifer says the leader told to her not to speak to anyone about what had happened until all the details were accounted for.

Another student who was on the bus also recalls seeing Jennifer crying.

“I remember this picture of a devastated Jennifer crying so hard in my head so clearly and I remember my ache and frustration not being able to help her because I was told she couldn’t talk about it,” the second student said.

The next day the YWAM leader organised for himself, Jennifer, Whitney and the alleged attacker to meet.

“I remember thinking that they were going to send (the alleged attacker) home and he wouldn’t be able to go on the outreach,” Jennifer said.

Instead the YWAM leader simply told him to apologise.

“Part of me almost felt like, is this really happening?” Jennifer said.

“( The leader) was saying, ‘Do you forgive him? God’s forgiven him so you need to forgive him.’ He told me that I needed to apologise to (the alleged attacker) he was like, ‘Did you do something? Were you leading him on?’

“I remember saying I needed to call my parents and he was like, ‘If you call your parents they’re going to send you home and if they send you home then you can’t do God’s will’ .”

Jennifer said that at the time she didn’t know what her rights were as a US citizen in Australia or even the number for police.

Whitney said she felt what was happening was wrong and voiced concerns to the leader but she was repeatedly dismissed. She’d been trained to obey her leaders and said she felt powerless.

Despite protests from Jennifer and Whitney, the alleged abuser was allowed to attend a YWAM outreach in South-East Asia with them.

Whitney, Jennifer and another student stayed in separate accommodation from the alleged attacker but still had to be with him during the day.

Jennifer reported the alleged assault last month to WA Police, who confirmed they were investigating.

Now a mother-of-five , she said one of the reasons she was inspired to speak out was because her daughter was nearing the age she was when the alleged attack happened.

Jennifer said for years she felt like she was to blame.

“I was pretty devastated. That’s when truly depression and anxiety began in my life,” she said. “I’ve seen many, many counsellors over the years and they would say, ‘Jennifer, what happened was not your fault’ , and I didn’t believe them.”

She would like to see YWAM Perth take responsibility for what happened and recently wrote to them as part of their review.

“I was grieved when I heard about the situation with Jarryd Hayne but I am not surprised when my sexual assault was covered up and silenced,” she said.

“I refuse to be silent about this any more. I will not live in the fear that (the alleged attacker) caused by his abuse, and the fear from spiritual abuse that the YWAM Perth leadership put me under.”

In its response to The Sunday Times, YWAM said it did not have the “expertise or ability to investigate matters that should properly be investigated by the appropriate authorities” .

“That is not to say that those matters will not be taken into account and addressed by us when we consider how we can improve in our commitment to ensure the safety and wellbeing of all our participants and staff,” they said.

‘Misguided and uninformed’

Olivia, not her real name, attended YWAM Perth from 2015 to 2017, when she was just 18 travelling from her hometown in the US.

She attended two decades after Jennifer and the pair don’t know one another.

But just like Jennifer, Olivia says her time there has left a scar.

“I came across YWAM by googling and I looked at their website . . . it was just these beautiful pictures of people my age or older and from a lot of different countries and they were just having fun,” she said.

“I was looking for meaning, I was looking for safety, I was looking for family. And that’s what I was promised.”

Olivia signed up for the Discipleship Training School. Within weeks of starting she was made to participate in the repentance and forgiveness session.

She said the YWAM leaders told students to disclose “sins” that had been committed against them and sins they themselves had committed.

“This took place in front of about 40 people . . . Abuse was suggested for us to disclose. We were told that it was the next step in walking in God’s kingdom. That being completely open, vulnerable, and transparent about everything would make us ‘more free and would help us receive love more fully’ ,” Olivia, who signed a statutory declaration for The Sunday Times, said.

“We also had to tell the bad things that we had done, so we were also hearing people confess some seriously messed up things that they had done to other people, like molestation.”

Olivia, previously a victim of sexual, emotional and physical abuse, said the process went on for about 17 hours.

“When I attended this, about half the participants were standing up and having to talk about abuse and were told to forgive their abusers and forgive them for specific things that they did,” she said. “Some people had significant trauma and were told in order for them to move forward in this they need to say, ‘I forgive this person for doing the sexual activity without my consent’ .

“Some of the things we had to repent for are certain things like mental illness. It’s such a serious and sensitive topic and I don’t understand why they had the audacity to think they could address that.”

Olivia was struggling with an eating disorder at the time and was told to repent for it.

“They saw my eating disorder as something that could be healed from spiritually and after I participated in repentance and forgiveness I was told to eat a candy bar to prove I had healed. Then they got upset with me when I wouldn’t eat a certain meal a few minutes later,” she said.

Olivia, who went on to join YWAM staff, said her mental health struggles were not taken seriously while she was at the organisation and she was not referred to medical professionals when she started expressing fears she was going to hurt herself.

She also told to write a letter to someone who had physically and emotionally abused her as a child saying she forgave them.

“It was not safe or healthy for me to send that letter — I was pressured into it at first, but then bought into the notion that it was releasing forgiveness,” she said.

Olivia has since received professional counselling and said YWAM staff did not have the appropriate qualifications to offer guidance on issues relating to abuse and mental health: “I don’t see people in there as evil. I think they’re heavily misguided and uninformed.”

In its statement YWAM said: “We do our best to help the participant manage his or her issues and pre-existing conditions while they are in our care through discourse and prayer. Where professional help is requested or required along the way, we arrange for the participant to meet with mental or other health professionals.”

However, it also said “we accept that things can always be done better” . “Having regard to complaints that have now been brought to our attention, we accept that we may have missed past opportunities to have done things differently had senior representatives at the time been informed of these matters,” it said.

‘Spirit of Jezebel’

Alice, not her real name, is another sexual abuse victim who says YWAM Perth retraumatised her. She attended from the age of 18, between 2004 and 2007.

“I was struggling with who I was as a person at the time and felt that doing (their course) may be a solution to my problems,” she said.

As a child Alice had spent time on a different YWAM base where she was allegedly sexually abused. She says when she got to YWAM Perth she disclosed this to the “one-on-one” staff member assigned to her, who encouraged her to share this publicly in the Repentance and Forgiveness session.

“We had been told to say what happened to you, then to name the abusers and then to forgive them. (YWAM director) Shirley Brownhill as the facilitator was the one who set this process out,” Alice said. “I disclosed my abuse in this forum. We had been doing repentance and forgiveness for about 15 hours where many people had been disclosing horrific things. I got up and confessed my sins. I then disclosed my abuse. I named my abusers and included that it had happened at a YWAM base.

“After I disclosed my abuse Shirley Brownhill came over to me and prayed out the spirit of Jezebel among other things.”

Alice said she was then taken to a different room to keep praying out the spirit of Jezebel. “My understanding of Jezebel was that in the Bible she was portrayed as a temptress, a provocateur, someone who caused havoc,” Alice said.

“I was quite distraught because this was the first time I had ever publicly disclosed my abuse. Until this week I had never spoken to anyone about my abuse, including my family.”

She said after the session her abuse was not mentioned again and she was not offered any follow-up counselling. “As a traumatised 18-year-old I wasn’t engaged with properly and was strongly encouraged that the way you deal with it is publicly, amongst people you don’t know, and that you needed to forgive the abusers,” she said.

Alice said since leaving YWAM she had chosen not to report her alleged childhood abuse to police as she was familiar with the difficulties in the legal system of prosecuting sexual abuse crimes. But she found it below the expected standard duty of care that no one in YWAM Perth asked her if she wanted to go to police, given her alleged abuse was at another YWAM base.

In its statement YWAM said: “We believe that whether or not to make a complaint to the relevant authorities is a deeply personal decision to be made by the participant. We support whatever decision the participant ultimately makes in that regard.”

Alice said she also had the “spirit of Jezebel” prayed out of her during a “deliverance” session, when YWAM leaders read out various “sins” . Those who had experienced these sins were told to “cough” to remove spirits that might have caused these bad things.

Alice said sins that were read out included homosexuality, abuse, masturbation and incest. The sessions could last more than 12 hours. “I remember people having physical reactions convulsing, screaming and hitting themselves . . . one person tried to run up a wall,” she said.

Alice said the fact homosexuality was lumped in with sins like incest was degrading and a form of conversion therapy. She went on to join staff and said they were not given proper training to handle issues such as sexual abuse.

“I was allocated one-on-one students. I was responsible for their spiritual growth and effectively I was to act as a pseudo counsellor too,” she said. “I did not feel I had appropriate training to be counselling these students.

“I had one student assigned to me who was a victim of sexual abuse and was very vulnerable. I did the best I could but received very little to no guidance from the leader of my school except to pray for her. One of the recommendations that was given to me from my superior was to fast for her.”

Alice said she had recently spoken with about 30 former YWAM students and staff, many of whom had similar complaints about how victims of sexual assault were treated.

“As a registered charity and registered training organisation YWAM have minimum standards they need to meet,” she said.

“I’m speaking up because I believe particularly as a charity they have a duty to take seriously women’s safety.”

1800 RESPECT; Lifeline Australia 13 11 14

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