As pastor Neil Thomas was allegedly demanding sexual favours from the women he had selected from his church, he’d invoke the Bible to convince them it was their spiritual duty.

“Anoint me with oil, just like Mary Magdalene anointed Jesus with her alabaster jar,” he would say, urging them to touch him. In doing so, he promised, they would be “called by God”.

For years, faith and fear had kept his victims quiet.

They were vulnerable, searching for guidance, wanting to belong. He was a self-appointed “apostle” of Christ boasting 72,000 global followers and a network of churches and bible colleges branded under his name: Neil Thomas Ministries.

But beneath the surface was something far more sinister than the holy messages Thomas preached.

Former members claim the evangelical ministry operated like a cult. Families were discouraged from talking to anyone outside the church, and those who refused to heed directives were threatened with curses or excommunication.

Some claim they almost lost their homes or businesses as they were pressured to help finance the church’s operations here and abroad.

And women allege they were systematically singled out to work as Thomas’ personal secretary, only to be sexually abused and eventually discarded.

Now, four years after Neil Thomas’ death, a group of women have launched legal action against his family-run ministry. While they are not accusing his son and successor, Peter Thomas, of any crimes, they say he failed to properly address the allegations once he and other church elders became aware of them in 2017.

Peter Thomas repeatedly refused to answer questions from The Age and Sydney Morning Herald about how the church handled the matter, although it is understood from the women’s lawyers that the church has denied liability.

However, statutory declarations from three former church members who used to work for Neil Thomas allege a pattern of sexual abuse, spanning two decades.

The women behind the legal action want the ministry to publicly apologise for what they believe was a fundamental breach of authority. And at a time when the new #ChurchToo movement is sweeping through faith-based communities, they have decided to share their stories in the hope that other survivors might also come forward.

“These women were abused by someone they trusted, someone who invoked religion to prey on the vulnerable,” their lawyer, Gordon Legal associate Marina Leikina, told The Age and Herald.

“He preyed on their faith and knew there was little chance they would ever say no to such a powerful figure. Sadly, these women have had to carry the shame of what they were forced to do, and continue to live with that.”

‘Adored like the Pope’

In an industrial precinct in Tullamarine, Melbourne, surrounded by car workshops and airport taxi centres, is a nondescript building that makes up the headquarters of Neil Thomas Ministries.

It might not look like much, but beneath the dark facade and tinted windows sits a chapel, a bible college, a media studio and several offices.

Today, NTM has followers across Australia, New Zealand, the South Pacific, India and Africa. It has two Innerlife churches in Melbourne — one at Tullamarine, another at Taylors Hill — and more than 500 family worship centres around the world.

The church’s greatest footprint, however, is in Vanuatu, the highly religious nation where the ministry has helped build schools, clinics and orphanages, and Neil Thomas, according to insiders, is “adored like the Pope”.

“He laid his hands on many and demons fled,” the church claims on its website. “The sick were raised up, the lame walked, and the blind could see.”

Here, in this verdant pocket of the South Pacific, the life that Lisa (who did not want her surname published) had wanted changed irrevocably.

She was only 24 years old when she first walked through the doors of the ministry that would soon become her family. The product of a difficult home, Lisa came to view Thomas as her spiritual father.

It wasn’t until she became the secretary of a church women’s ministry, known as Luke 8, that the abuse began. One night in 2008, on a trip to Port Vila, Thomas, then 73, directed her to come into his room and rub ointment on his back. Then he ordered her to perform sexual acts.

She recalls him telling her, “The horn of the Lord has been raised for my ministry, and there will be strength and power.”

Lisa recalls feeling powerless to stop it.

“He took me into a community where I felt loved and accepted, and made me feel I was special and serving God. So I did what he asked,” she says.

The abuse continued for about 18 months. What Lisa didn’t know at the time was she was not his only victim. Another former church member, Jenny, says she was also forced to provide sexual favours while working as Thomas’ secretary, first in the early 1990s when she was 26, and again in 2002.

“I should have walked away but my fear and my ignorance of God’s word held me there,” she says.

A third woman, Julie, has also accused Thomas of abusing her on overseas business trips to Vanuatu, and New Caledonia in 2005 and 2006. He’d direct her to share a room with him under the premise that he might become ill, then made her undress in front of him or touch him. She, too, was working as his personal secretary at the time, while her husband was one of the pastor’s friends and loyal lieutenants.

All three women remained silent for years, too ashamed to tell their family or friends about what had happened, too scared that they would not be believed.

The turning point came in at least 2017, when Lisa told a member of the church she had been abused. That person, in turn, informed Peter Thomas. According to the women, church officials suggested she was “crazy”, telling some members of the congregation, including her children, that she had “seduced” their pastor.

Jenny says this happened even though she had also told Peter Thomas of her own experience.

“Enough is enough,” Julie says now. “It’s important that the truth finally comes out.”

Dealing with it in-house

While the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Abuse shone a much-needed light on clergy assaults against children, an Age and Herald investigation last year revealed that countless adults who have also been the victims of sexual misconduct are yet to be properly recognised.

Still, as the #MeToo movement slowly sweeps into communities of faith, much of the spotlight has centred on the Roman Catholic Church. In much of the often self-governing evangelical movement, a culture of secrecy prevails.

Sometimes, though, that culture comes back to bite. Last year, Brian Houston — the revered Hillsong Church founder whom Prime Minister Scott Morrison cites as a mentor — became the subject of a NSW police investigation after a victim publicly accused him of not doing enough to expose the crimes of his father, Frank.

Frank Houston was an Assemblies of God pastor who preyed on young boys in the 1960s and 1970s. But while Brian sacked his father as a pastor in 1999, the Royal Commission subsequently found he failed to inform police and had a “conflict of interest in assuming responsibility” for the allegations.

“Most Australian churches are changing their processes to deal with offences, but in Evangelical churches, there’s a tendency to do it in-house,” says Latrobe University cultural historian Timothy Jones, an expert in religious affairs.

“It becomes a family secret and they cover it up with those sort of dynamics, saying it’s not the business of the law.”

Neil Thomas Ministries is also a family affair. Neil’s son, Peter, is now the church’s international leader, and along with his wife Sonia, one of NTM’s senior pastors.

When asked last week about the allegations, Peter Thomas initially claimed the matter was confidential.

The Age and Herald then sent a detailed list of questions, asking when the church was told about the abuse allegations and how the allegations were handled, as well as questions regarding the church’s operations and treatment of members. He declined to respond.

Bad investments

The ministry’s finances, too, are largely hidden in the Neil Thomas Family Trust, while the church’s charitable status ensures its assets and true wealth are not subject to full scrutiny.

What is publicly available nonetheless tells an interesting tale of bold ambition, big donations, and bad investments, from a Christian radio station and a confectionery business to a home shopping service and internet solutions.

All were partly financed by the generous tithes members were asked to donate: 10 per cent of their annual salary, along with so-called “love offerings” from people who wanted to contribute more.

For years, businessman Tony Cardillo was among them.

Cardillo reckons he gave more than $1 million to the church between 1995 and 2012, including the proceeds from the sale of a prime waterfront site in Vanuatu that was being developed into a Christian resort.

“For the sake of doing as my pastor wanted, I sold the resort at one-third of the value to help rescue NTM,” Mr Cardillo said.

“There are hundreds of families who have left over the past few years because they lost complete trust over how their money was lost and promises were never fulfilled.”

‘God wants to reach sinners’

The video on YouTube shows Neil Thomas looking intently across the room, imploring his followers to “want what God wants”.

He is sitting on a chair behind a glass lectern, his grey hair partially obscuring the wireless microphone that projects his voice towards the audience.

“Did you know that God wants to reach sinners?” he asks. “Do you know there’s nothing more important to God than that?”

The sermon was posted in February 2014 — 10 months before Thomas died, and more than three years before Peter Thomas was reportedly informed about the sins of his father.

Today, those three women want the church to be held to account for a breach of trust that continues to haunt them profoundly. They have sought compensation and a public apology, while their law firm, Gordon Legal, continues to investigate, convinced there may be other survivors. Lisa, Julie and Jenny hope that by speaking up, other women might also feel empowered to do the same.

“I know there will be other women, like myself, who have been sexually abused but are afraid to come out,” says Jenny.

“I would like them to know that they don’t have to live that way. There is a difference between loyalty, versus right and wrong.”

-The Sydney Morning Herald

(0) comments

Welcome to the discussion.

Keep it Clean. Please avoid obscene, vulgar, lewd, racist or sexually-oriented language.
PLEASE TURN OFF YOUR CAPS LOCK.
Don't Threaten. Threats of harming another person will not be tolerated.
Be Truthful. Don't knowingly lie about anyone or anything.
Be Nice. No racism, sexism or any sort of -ism that is degrading to another person.
Be Proactive. Use the 'Report' link on each comment to let us know of abusive posts.
Share with Us. We'd love to hear eyewitness accounts, the history behind an article.