The Dark Side of Mercy Ministries

Two young women I recently spoke with in intimate and heart-breaking interviews learned the hard way that celebrity Christian endorsements and pretty pink websites can’t cover up the dark, abusive side of Mercy Ministries. Over the past few weeks, they’ve shared stories with me of Mercy staff’s use of coercive control and domination to attempt to “treat” them of their medical and psychological disorders and how Mercy required mandatory HIV and STD testing, as well as detailed confessions from the girls about their past sexual relations (specifically about any lesbian or bisexual experiences) upon intake.

Mercy Ministries is a Nashville, Tennessee based group which was accused of misrepresenting their counseling and recovery services to young women in Australia in 2008. The misrepresentation in Australia was two-fold. First, they claimed their services were free but had the girls sign over their government checks. Second, the ministry claimed to be using licensed therapists and professional counseling methods.  In 2009, Mercy admitted their guilt in misrepresentation on both counts and paid back $120,000 of government aid it had wrongly taken from the girls who attended—in Australia. Although the media attention reached the United States, the founding group (based in Nashville, TN) was never investigated further. Instead Nancy Alcorn, the founder of Mercy Ministries took the investigation as a sign from God that the group was under “spiritual attack” and took fundraising efforts into high-gear.

In 2009, founder Nancy Alcorn’s blog stated:

Since [the scandal], we have reorganized the governing structure of Mercy Ministries to bring new levels of oversight and accountability, have increased our funding efforts, and are in the process of opening two new homes—one in California, one in North Carolina—over the next two years. (Emphasis my own)

The most interesting part of the statement is a complete disregard for the admittance of guilt for misrepresenting their services. Instead, Mercy put extra effort in “increasing funding efforts.” Could this be because the scandal brought a large loss of donation support? Plenty of evidence can be found online about sponsors who cut off financial support and stopped their endorsements of the ministry program after the scandal occurred. Hillsong Church in Australia is one such group. In 2009, they issued a statement about their involvement with Mercy Ministries claiming that they cut all ties with the group.

…[W]e sever any affiliation with Mercy Ministries internationally, and would not be associated with any attempt by Mercy Ministries Inc or Mercy Ministries Ltd, to recommence within Australia, under that or any other name…We would encourage those, that any investigation involves, to cooperate fully.

Religious groups like Mercy are hard to pin down when it comes to accountability—legally and otherwise. Abuses in large-scale ministries can range from financial irresponsibility, mis-allocation of funds, exorbitant salaries for founders, violation of employment laws to medical malpractice. Abuses like these often get overlooked until a whistleblower within the group speaks up. “These groups often operate under the radar of government oversight,” Marci A. Hamilton, shared with me when I spoke with her last week about possible government oversight of a group like Mercy Ministries. Professor Hamilton, author of God vs. the Gavel, is one of the United States’ leading church/state scholars, specializing in issues involving religious entities that harm others. Hamilton is also an advisor for victims in many clergy abuse cases, including cases involving child abuse.

Upon further investigation, I found Marci’s statement rang true. When I inquired about Mercy Ministries licensing with the state, Grant Lawrence Director of Communications for the Department of Mental Health, confirmed my suspicions that Mercy Ministries is not licensed by the Department, which gives group and residential homes guidelines and best practices. (They are licensed as a child-placing agency by the Department of Child Services which only governs children under age thirteen.) The Department of Mental Health also oversees the young adults within these facilities, providing each young woman with a social worker and licensed medical care. If Mercy isn’t licensed by the Department of Mental Health, how can they claim to be providing proper medical treatment and licensed therapy to young women who are rape and sex trafficking victims, suffer from depression and are suicidal? They can’t.

According to Mercy’s own website, qualifications to work at the program include a bachelor’s degree and maturity in their relationship with God. Although the site claims that their counselors have either a master’s degree in counseling or psychology (or be working toward such a degree) and meet state licensing requirements, there are two issues with this. One, statements from Mercy graduates counter this statement. Many residents claim that their counselor was not certified, trained or experienced to deal with the issues they faced such as depression, anxiety, eating disorders, and suicidal thoughts. Two, Mercy is not licensed with the Department of Mental Health nor are they a licensed medical treatment facility. They are governed by their own Board of Trustees which doesn’t include medical or counseling personnel. Three, even if their staff is licensed, as they claim, the real issue is the curriculum they teach and what they consider “best practices” as opposed to what secular therapists use as standard practice.

In upcoming articles on Mercy Ministries, I’ll continue to examine the stories of two young women whose lives were negatively impacted on the group, the curriculum and therapy “methods” that were used to treat them and what experts in the field have to say about groups like Mercy.

According to graduates, Mercy Ministries has a dark side that even the bright pink logo can’t hide.

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  • tbolt88

    I am familiar with this organization and find this post to be biased and misrepresentative.  Many of the statements made here are speculative, broad generalizations with no documentation whatsoever.   I know several young women personally who have been through this program and it literally saved their lives.  They couldn’t afford to get help from private facilities and they were never charged for the help they received at Mercy.  As far as comparing it to other treatment facilities, there isn’t one in the world who doesn’t have someone dissatisfied with their program.  I just think it’s important to present all sides of a story and this post appears to be strictly editorial. 

  • crowepps

    Factual statements in the article regarding Mercy Ministries include:

    – celebrity Christian endorsements and pretty pink websites

    – use by Mercy staff of coercive control and domination

    – required mandatory HIV and STD testing, as well as detailed confessions from the girls about their past sexual relations 

    – admitted their guilt in misrepresented their counseling and recovery services and charged for services they claimed were free

    – not licensed by the Department of Mental Health

    – not a licensed medical treatment facility

    Do you have evidence that any of those statements are incorrect?  Certainly a quick Google seems to indicate there is support for most of them:

    It was my take that this post was not ‘editorial’ but instead introductory, since it clearly states it is the first in a series of posts.  Must say though, I am impressed that Mercy’s apologists are Johnny-on-the-spot, claiming the author is biased before the articles are even published.

  • ewilliams

    As Executive Director of Marketing at Mercy Ministries of America (MMOA), I wanted to respond to, clarify and correct some of the information contained in this commentary.

    Much of this commentary revolves around allegations leveled some years back against Mercy Ministries of Australia (MMAU). To clarify, MMAU was an autonomous entity distinct from MMOA, with separate funding, oversight, leadership, program design and organizational structure. Although it shared the “Mercy” name, it was not founded by MMOA’s Founder & President, Nancy Alcorn. Simply put, MMAU was an independent charity with no oversight from MMOA and was solely responsible for its operations and actions.  

    MMOA has never been involved in any investigation or executed any settlement or agreement regarding misconduct of any kind in Australia. Furthermore, we have never claimed or assumed responsibility for any actions related to the homes operated by MMAU, and we explicitly deny allegations of wrongdoing by our organization. In fact, the quote from a post by Nancy Alcorn on 2/29/09 referenced above erroneously implies that our increased fundraising efforts were a reaction to events in Australia. Not only is this quote presented out of context, but the context provided is inaccurate and misleading, as evidenced by the verbatim quote as it appears online:

    “…Last year we celebrated the 25th anniversary of Mercy Ministries and closed out what I see as the first chapter of Mercy’s amazing story and our message that true freedom is possible through Christ.

    Since then, we have reorganized the governing structure of Mercy Ministries to bring new levels of oversight and accountability, have increased our fundraising efforts, and are in the process of opening two new homes—one in California, one in North Carolina—over the next two years.”

    This commentary also states that “religious groups like Mercy are hard to pin down when it comes to accountability,” yet MMOA is a 501(c)(3) public charity which seeks to operate under the highest standards of financial accountability and excellence. We are audited by an independent accounting firm each year and governed by a Board of Trustees. We consistently exceed industry standards for financial accountability, fundraising and board governance, as shown by our membership in ECFA.  In addition, this year (2012) we received our fourth consecutive four-star rating from Charity Navigator, America’s premier charity evaluator. According to Charity Navigator, only 6% of all charities receive at least four consecutive four-star evaluations. In 2012, 83.52% of our funds were used directly for program costs. We encourage anyone with questions about our use of funds to visit the “Financial Accountability” section of our website, or call us at (615) 831-6987.

    Our homes are not – nor have we ever claimed them to be – medical facilities, therefore the regulatory and licensing requirements a state may impose upon those types of facilities do not always apply to our homes.  Girls accepted into our program must be deemed medically stable by medical professionals before they can enter a home.  Furthermore, to be considered for our program, applicants must voluntarily seek our help, and residents are free to withdraw from the program at any time.

    Finally, because of the sensitive nature of our work, it would be unusual if we didn’t occasionally encounter a resident who felt the program wasn’t beneficial to them. However, the overwhelming majority of our residents tell us time and again how thankful they were that they had access to our free-of-charge, Christian alternative to secular treatment programs. More than 85% of our residents have experienced secular treatment programs without long-term results, and many have spent thousands upon thousands of dollars doing so.

    I hope the above information is helpful.  MMOA is committed to high standards of excellence in all areas of operation, and we appreciate the opportunity to set the record straight.