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Warning on cults

Disturbing memories: Claire Murphy, left, and Clare Birchley with a photograph of themselves and others in blue habits worn in the Magnificat Meal Movement’s early years.

Disturbing memories: Claire Murphy, left, and Clare Birchley with a photograph of themselves and others in blue habits worn in the Magnificat Meal Movement’s early years.

By Paul Dobbyn

FORMER adherents of Helidon’s Magnificat Meal Movement cult, Claire Murphy and Clare Birchley, are on a mission.

It’s to warn Catholics and the broader community of the insidious nature of cults.

“Initially, the movement was all very much about the traditional Catholic faith,” Ms Murphy said.

“But over two decades, every aspect of this faith was subtly dismantled; everything we believed in was taken apart.”

Ms Murphy was secretary to the MMM cult leader Debra Burslem (formerly known by her married name of Geileskey) for 15 years and travelled worldwide with the charismatic figure.

Ms Birchley was involved with the cult leader at a senior level for 18 years.

Ms Murphy, now a Eucharistic Minister at Toowoomba’s St Patrick’s Cathedral, estimated there are still about 190 followers of the movement living in the Helidon area.

Debramarie Burslem, as she now calls herself, is now living in Vanuatu, declaring on her website to be “the only world Bible declared essential end times prophet of the essential mission of peace for end times”.

It was in Vanuatu in 2012 that the self-proclaimed prophet, in front of a large gathering of her followers, denounced the women accusing them of theft and causing financial ruin.

That led to what Ms Birchley called “crunch time”.

“The lights finally went on and, for the first time, we were able to say ‘no’ to Debra,” she said.

“We had been thoroughly scapegoated and it gave us the strength to walk away.”

Ms Birchley estimated Burslem had squandered $20million of her followers’ money since first springing to prominence in the 1990s.

Extravagances were justified in various ways. “For example, Debra purchased 10 Mercedes over 12 years and claimed God showed her it was a sign of mercy she should be driving in them, because of the word mercy in Mercedes,” she said.

“Then there was the planned $45 million basilica planned at Helidon to honour the Virgin Mary.

Irish-born Ms Murphy said she had always wanted “to go the extra step for God”.

She spent a year with a religious order in her home country in 1981. She next became a professional secretary with a top 10 accountancy firm in Dublin, an occupation which would eventually lead to her significant role with the MMM.

“I first met Debra in Ireland in 1995 and in 1996 – I estimate she visited Ireland about 10 times,” she said.

“What she was advocating was nothing new and seen as really good, especially as she was attracting young people to Adoration.”

At this point, Mrs Burslem (then Geileskey) was living in Victoria and had started the movement which she would soon after bring to Toowoomba.

Ms Murphy left Ireland to join the MMM community in 1997.

“Initially it all felt very much like an Irish convent with a Reverend Mother,” she said, showing a photograph of the community’s early followers dressed in blue habits.

“Over the years, things subtly changed – Debra became more and more powerful.

“She started to say the teachings of the Catholic Church have been tampered with. She made claims such as the Consecration in the Novus Ordo Mass was not real and so on.

“At that point then (Toowoomba) Bishop Bill Morris became involved and started investigations into the group.”

“In the mid-2000s, people in the MMM were encouraged to renounce marriage and baptismal vows; by 2012, husbands or wives not accepting MMM were asked to leave.

“Some refused and left the movement after this wake-up call.”

Ms Birchley encountered and was drawn into the movement in the most mundane of ways.

“One weekend, I came home to give a hand with morning tea at a First Saturday gathering in Holy Name parish,” she said.

“Debra spoke and I was inspired – back then the spirituality was traditional but 18 years later, I walked out of a fear-driven cult.”

“People like Debra are powerful, charismatic people and can be very dangerous.”

The women are now writing a book about their experiences.

“We want to warn everyone how easy it is to become part of a cult,” Ms Murphy said.

“People would ask us how we could be so misguided, but when it all began it was all so normal.”

Ms Burslem was reached by phone at her compound in Vanuatu on April 14.

“I’m so delighted not to have those women in my life,” she said.

“We’re having a wonderful time and so busy helping people who have no homes after the cyclone.

“If you want to talk about that I’m more than happy to do so.”

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