(Image: Private Media)

This is part one in a series. For the rest of the series, go here.

Scott Morrison made a $4 million grant before the 2019 election to an organisation with deep Pentecostal ties and which has since been forced to overhaul its management after an internal investigation into its past practices.

Crikey’s investigation also reveals conflicting stories about how the grant came about.

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The trail, though, leads directly to the prime minister.

The allegations include that young women attending the Esther Foundation in Perth — which offers counselling and rehabilitation services — were pressured to become Christians, were forced to read the Bible aloud as a therapy to improve concentration, and were subjected to all-night prayer and confession sessions led by the foundation’s founder and pastor, Patricia Lavater. A former Indigenous resident also claims she was told she had “Aboriginal demons”.

Other allegations include that treatment for addiction and trauma was based on the faith healing methods of Smith Wigglesworth, a prominent figure in the history of Australian Pentecostalism.

Morrison announced the grant in person during a visit to the foundation’s Perth facility two months before the 2019 election. He also took personal credit for the taxpayer-funded grant, telling staff and residents: “I don’t invest in things that don’t work.”

Scott Morrison’s speech at The Esther Foundation, Perth, 2019. “I don’t invest in things that don’t work.” Source: The Esther Foundation Facebook page.

The foundation is in the electorate of Hasluck, then held by a margin of 2.1% by cabinet minister Ken Wyatt. In a seeming parallel to the sports rorts affair, the $4 million grant was made under the government’s Community Health and Hospitals Program (CHHP), a $1.25 billon fund which was set up by Morrison to enable direct grants from the Commonwealth — a step which health experts warned would allow the government to give priority to marginal seats.

Crikey’s checks show that according to the public record the grant was approved by the federal Health Department under the CHHP program in June 2019, three months after Morrison announced it. It was also included in a list of CHHP projects publicly announced by Health Minister Greg Hunt.

In response to Crikey’s inquiries, Health said the public record was incorrect and that it was funded under another program after a submission made by the Esther Foundation directly to Hunt’s office in the month before the multimillion-dollar grant was announced.

Crikey’s checks also show that the foundation received a separate federal grant of $630,000 in January 2019 under the Safer Communities Fund, run by the Home Affairs Department.

The Australian National Audit Office (ANAO) has been investigating the administration of the fund following reports that 90% of funds were allocated to government-held or marginal seats before the last election. The ANAO’s report is due to be tabled this month.

Who — or what — is the Esther Foundation?

The foundation grew out of the work of Pentecostal pastor Phil Howell and his wife, Jeanette, who ran the New Day ministries in Perth in the mid-1990s. Jeanette was one of its founders, and she and Phil Howells went on to establish an entity called Without Walls, billed as an “apostolic and prophetic company”.

Esther Foundation, though, was to become most identified with the husband and wife team of Patricia and Rod Lavater who dedicated it solely to supporting young women with mental health problems and drug and alcohol addiction.  

The Lavaters built a powerful network of connections in Perth’s business and political circles. Former Liberal premier Colin Barnett was a strong supporter and was a member of its business committee. Under Barnett’s government, the foundation was given access to low-cost accommodation for its growing number of residents.

The foundation has also operated with the support of Perth’s most influential Pentecostal churches. These include Victory Life Church, founded by the former champion tennis player turned pastor Margaret Court — a trenchant opponent of same-sex relationships — and the Globalheart megachurch which was set up by former Hillsong senior pastors Gerard and Sue Keehan. The Keehan team had “planted” the London Christian Life Centre, which later became Hillsong London, before they arrived in Perth.

Over the years Globalheart has become closely entwined with Liberal Party politics in Western Australia. Two attendees, Albert Jacob and Jan Norberger, were MPs in the Barnett government. Other members reportedly held senior positions in the Liberal Party’s Moore division and formed a powerful support base for Liberal MP Ian Goodenough when he was elected to federal Parliament in 2013.

On the face of it the Esther Foundation was the success story everyone wanted to believe. Troubled young women and girls were having their lives turned around through its regime of Christian teaching and education and training for work opportunities.

Rod Lavater had spent several years in prison for defrauding banks and other financial institutions to feed a drug addiction. Described as a “genius” at writing grant applications and award nominations, his rise to running the foundation as senior administrator was the very triumph-over-adversity story it has symbolised and championed.

(Lest people be concerned about someone with financial fraud convictions running the Esther Foundation charity, Lavater insisted in interviews that he was “not a signatory” on the charity’s finances.)

Patricia Lavater has received various awards for her work, including being named Western Australia’s Australian of the Year in 2008 for her community service.

A different story emerges

Crikey has spoken to former staff and residents who paint a different picture of what was occurring behind the scenes. 

One former employee told Crikey: “Patricia thinks she knows how to rehabilitate young people because she believes God has told her she knows how to.”

“The organisation was poorly run. There was no accountability or culpability.”

Former residents contacted by Crikey have made several allegations about what happened inside the foundation. They include:

  • Young women and girls were expected to read the Bible every day
  • Staff were “constantly pushing people to convert”
  • There was a lack of staff with professional qualifications 
  • Residents were told they risked going to hell if they left and did not follow God’s will
  • At one point residents were attending five religious meetings a week. The church service commonly went for four to five hours, and involved such things as running up and down the room with imaginary swords for up to an hour to beat the spirit of addiction. This was considered to be a treatment for addiction and it was considered residents should be better off, if not cured
  • Residents were told that any same-sex attraction was a lie from the devil, and was sin. Anyone who was LGBTIQ was forced to undergo a form of gay conversion. If a resident was known to have feelings towards another woman, the two were not allowed to talk to each other and would be forced to repent of their thoughts and feelings for each other, often publicly. 

The facade crumbles

By late 2019 — six months after Morrison announced the $4 million grant — the Esther Foundation success story started to unravel.

A new CEO investigated the backlog of complaints. As a result the foundation and its founder, Patricia Lavater, parted ways. 

In its annual report, the foundation publicly downplayed the extent of the problems it had uncovered. In a careful statement it referred to “a difficult season of change” while it “transitioned from the old to the new”. There was “the realisation between us all” that it was “time for everyone to embark on a new adventure”. 

“We gratefully build on the legacy of all the best aspects of what this organisation has significantly grown into since the mid-1990s under [Patricia Lavater’s] leadership,” a statement said.

However, a statement prepared in the name of Patricia Lavater for “friends and family” of the foundation made more admissions. It was circulated to a small group, excluding corporate sponsors, almost a year to the day after Morrison’s visit.

“There were mistakes made in the time I was managing director and I am aware of complaints having been raised about the way things were done,” her statement said. “I own the responsibilities of the mistakes and wrongs that were done on my watch. I know that the Lord has a new season for me as well as some time of contemplation.

“I am continuing to work on those areas in my life that are weak and allowing the Lord in his mercy to bring change to those areas.

“The Lord will never forsake us as we look to him. He is a gracious God and a God of second chances. I am asking the Lord for a clear vision for the next stage of my journey and to be connected with what He wants for me.

“Esther is on the Lord’s heart and He loves the broken that come through these doors even more than we do. Don’t let your hearts be troubled but rely on Him. The Lord is with you, mighty warriors!”

Crikey has also confirmed that a number of former residents took their complaints to the West Australian Police before Patricia Lavater left.

Patricia Lavater responds

Speaking to Crikey, Patricia Lavater denied the foundation was opposed to homosexuality.

“It didn’t matter what the relationship was, the girls were told they couldn’t have any relationships while they were on the (treatment) program. It wasn’t about being homosexual.”

She also denied attempting to drive out “Aboriginal spirits” through dance: “We did dance around using the moves one girl gave us but that was for fun.”

Lavater agreed that young women had run around with swords to cut their addiction but insisted that was a symbolic act. The burning of possessions, too, was symbolic — but applied only to stolen goods the girls might have brought in. 

Church services might have gone on for a long time, but this was likely because “the girls wanted to keep singing” gospel songs. 

Lavater conceded that some allegations made to Crikey might be true but suggested this might be because of staff who weren’t qualified: “A lot of the girls who were successful under the program stayed on as staff and weren’t qualified, and I wan’t always there.”

On the question of coercion to read the Bible, Lavater said the foundation’s program was “Bible-based” and that perhaps “some of the girls felt like they didn’t want to read the Bible”.

“I think it’s good for a leader to admit making mistakes,” she told Crikey. “I don’t want to take away from the people who want to be heard.”

So what of the foundation’s methods now?

In an emailed response the Esther Foundation said that for more than 25 years it had played “a vital role in assisting women through trauma and crisis situations including addiction and domestic violence”.

“The current executive staff of the foundation cannot comment on issues they have no direct knowledge of that occurred in the past before they were employed,” it read.

“These allegations were made against a former MD who left two years ago. We can state categorically that the Esther Foundation is now operated under best practice principles and our focus is on helping all participants in their journey to restoration.”

The foundation’s new board remains dominated by evangelical and Pentecostal church members. 

Since Patricia Lavater left, it uses the “Celebrate Recovery” program, a 12-step “Christ-focused” program similar to Alcoholics Anonymous, which was pioneered in the United States. 

The foundation says adopting Celebrate Recovery — which claims it is “part of a movement that God is blessing” — should help “strengthen our credibility with the government and corporate stakeholders”.

It also draws on the Bible-based teachings of American Christians Dr John Townsend and Dr Henry Cloud on how to set personal boundaries.

Next: How did a Pentecostal foundation get a $4 million grant from Scott Morrison? And why? 

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief
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