Painting a halo on the pig is not, it seems, a licence to breach the Trade Practices Act 1974 (Cth).
The ACCC has indicated that it has gained court enforceable undertakings (which includes payment) from seven former directors of the Mercy Ministries entities regarding "misrepresentations".
Mercy Ministries is a "not-for-profit Christian based charitable organisation" associated with the controversial and politically powerful Hillsong group. It offered a residential counselling program to young women affected by issues such as eating disorders, unplanned pregnancy, depression, self harm, substance abuse and the effects of sexual or physical abuse. The program was offered whilst the young women resided in a Mercy Ministries home.
The ACCC indicates that between January 2005 and June 2008 Mercy Ministries misrepresented (in brochures and on its website) that its services were provided for free. However the majority of residents were required to assign their Centrelink payments (ie welfare payment from the state) to Mercy Ministries for the duration of their stay. The Lord it seems, helps those who help themselves in an Australian manifestation of the US 'gospel of prosperity' (a gospel perhaps currently being questioned by televangelist Oral Roberts, who this week has gone to the big cash register in the sky).
The ACCC was also concerned that Mercy Ministries "misrepresented that it offered professional support" from psychologists, dieticians, general practitioners, social workers and counsellors. Alas, "the level of professional support was not available as represented". The ACCC notes that "Mercy Ministries did not employ this range of professionals". Access to external professionals was 'facilitated' upon request from residents, although it's unclear whether the consumers were instead encouraged to rely on prayer. (Some critics have alleged that Mercy also engaged in exorcism.)
The deliciously succinct Section 52 of the Trade Practices Act prohibits corporations from engaging in conduct that is misleading and deceptive or is likely to mislead or deceive. Section 53(aa) prohibits them from falsely representing that services are of a particular standard, quality, value or grade. Section 53(e) prohibits them from making false or misleading representations with respect to the price of goods or services. Individuals responsible for the conduct or management of a corporation are prohibited from knowingly causing or permitting the corporations to engage in such conduct.
Oops, that was bad news for the mercy business. The ACCC indicates that the former directors of Mercy Ministries Inc/Ltd -
* acknowledge that they were persons ultimately responsible for the conduct of Mercy Ministries, and admit its conduct was false, misleading and deceptive, and likely to contravene sections 52, 53(aa) and 53(e) of the Trade Practices Act 1974Undertakings by those former directors - Mark Zschech, Darlene Zschech, Peter Irvine, Mark Caldwell, Stephen Crouch, Young Pil (Phil) Sohn and Clark Pearson - include provision of a signed joint letter of apology to past residents in the relevant period. The undertakings also include an offer of a voluntary payment of $1,050 - small but a signal that Mercy's words were awry - to the people affected by the conduct.
* undertake to attend annual trade practices compliance training for three years.
ACCC chair Graeme Samuel said -
Given the vital role charitable organisations have in our society, and the trust placed in them, it is imperative that their conduct is of the highest standard, especially in their dealings with vulnerable and disadvantaged members of our community. The utmost integrity is expected from charities - by the ACCC and the public at large - and it should be delivered.The SMH reports that -
Hillsong Church said in October it had cut ties with the group. At the same time, Mercy Ministries announced it was closing its Sydney home, citing "extreme financial challenges and a steady drop in our support base".