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Coming home to the Church

Leaving cults

Homecoming: In St Patrick’s Cathedral, Toowoomba are, from left, Clare Birchley, Eilish Gaffney and Claire Murphy. Photo: Michael Hart

By Paul Dobbyn

EILISH Gaffney was at Helidon’s Magnificat Meal Movement headquarters in early 2012 listening to a live Skype talk from the movement’s founder in Vanuatu.

To her shock, she heard the founder Debra Burslem denounce two of her closest friends.

That was when Eilish felt the first serious stirrings of doubt about the path she was on.

Claire Murphy and Clare Birchley were the subjects of the attack.

The two women had become the cult leader Debra Burslem’s right hand women over 17 years – Claire relied upon for her accountancy skills and Clare as the “fixer” and logistics person.

Yet here they were, two good women who were being angrily accused … wrongly, Eilish knew that for certain.

Claire was a fellow Irishwoman. Eilish had first met her in Dublin in 1995 when they were both keen young Catholics afire with a tremendous love for Eucharistic Adoration.

Eilish had also grown close to Toowoomba woman, Clare Birchley, as they prayed and worked together to advance the MMM cause over many years.

All had moved to Helidon to work with the movement.

Now these “decent, honest, reliable and capable women” were getting ripped to pieces in public.

The Magnificat Meal Movement’s founder was “scapegoating” them, calling them thieves and liars.

“Over my 17 years connection with MMM, I’d seen Debra publicly humiliate many people, so when she attacked the ‘two Clares’ I suppose most of the community thought: ‘Ahh they’ll get over it; we’ve all been there’,” Eilish said.

”I remember coming home from the talk and saying to my husband Mark: ‘What is going on?’

“’This is absolute rubbish. There is no way that either of those girls ever took money.’”

As Eilish also told the The Catholic Leader, “this assessment was based not only on the outstanding character of these girls but also, having lived in Debra’s household, I knew that not an ‘i’ was dotted or a ‘t’ crossed without Debra’s permission.”

Ironically, the attack would open a path to freedom from the Magnificat Meal Movement for the three women, who still live in Helidon not far from MMM’s former headquarters.

Yet the track to their recovery, which continues to this day, has been hard, eased by their own deep friendship and the support of the Toowoomba Catholic community.

On that emotion-charged late February day in Vanuatu, lights were going on for “the two Clares” during the cult leader’s denunciation as well.

“It nearly killed me,” Claire said.

“I was in Vanuatu that day, sitting in the very same room as Debra in her compound when she launched her attack.

“Two days later, I returned to Helidon and for two weeks grappled with this sense I must clear my good name.

“At the same time, it was the type of shock needed to help me see the light.”

Clare was more angered by the cult leader’s treatment of her friend than the attack on her own character.

“I phoned Debra and made my protest,” she said.

Eilish, in a letter to the cult leader, disagreed with the accusations, condemnation and treatment of the ‘two Clare’s’ and said she was very concerned about the ‘pack mentality’ in the movement.

Yet, the baseless accusations, the scapegoating, gave the three women the determination to escape from the group.

“Finally we were able to stand up and say ‘No’ to Debra,” Clare said.

“Both Claire and I all resigned from the movement some weeks later, March 11 to be exact.”

Things were not to be simple, however. What followed was a variety of predictable personal attacks including hate mail from the cult leader and the MMM followers.

This writer gained a taste of this upon contacting the leader, who now calls herself Debramarie Burslem, in her compound at the MMM’s current headquarters in Vanuatu on Tuesday April 14.

“I’m just so delighted not to have these women in my life,” was the only comment on her former close associates she was willing to give.

The three women also faced the emotional trauma of leaving a cult.

“A whole belief system had been built up,” Claire said.

“Having been in the movement so long, we had no resources of our own; it was like coming out of life in a convent or prison … we had no money and had lost many connections to the outside world.”

“I was devastated,” Clare said. “I cried every day for about three months.

“It was all so difficult – like for 15 to 18 years we’d been speaking German and now we were suddenly having to speak English.

“And Debra was such a charismatic leader – like King David on steroids.”

Back in Helidon where the women had lived as part of the cult for so many years, things were also difficult.

In 2012, the 300 or so in the cult living around Helidon were warned not to communicate with the apostates.

Claire estimates about 130 have left since then with adherents still numbering about 170.

The lengths to which Debra Burslem went to ensure the isolation of the  three women were extraordinary.

“People living on our side of town were told their land was cursed,” Clare said.

“They were ordered to sell up and move away to the other side of town, which they did.

“Everyone was ordered to shun us and we lost all our friends.

“Even a friend whom I’d known and worked with before Debra Burslem came into our lives, had made the decision not to speak with me

“When I called to speak with her, she said, ‘I’m sorry, I can’t talk to you. I have to go now.’

“This is how abrupt the disassociation was.”

Despite such difficulties, bit-by-bit Eilish, Claire and Clare are coming back into the mainstream of society and religious practice.

Friendship has been a powerful enabling force for their escape.

“Actually, I don’t know how people survive if they’re on their own after leaving these cults,” Clare said.

“One story I read about one man who’d left a cult was that for two years he woke up every day and got immediately drunk.

“We’ve supported each other, talking and talking, counselling each other through it all.”

Eilish and Claire are now Eucharistic Ministers at St Patrick’s Cathedral.

All three women speak of the “wonderful, warm support” received from Toowoomba’s Catholic community.

“Bishops (Bill) Morris and (Robert) McGuckin and Fathers Peter Dorfield and Hal Ranger have also provided much support,” Claire said.

“We can see the priests are here to serve their people; they’re the hands and feet of Christ; they’re the real deal.

“There’s been no sense of judgement from anyone; it’s been a real feeling of ‘coming home’.”

Written by: Staff writers
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