Warning: This story mentions self-harm and may be distressing for some readers.
There are calls for Catholic Church authorities to intervene at a Christchurch chapel over allegations of controlling and manipulative behaviour by its leaders and unauthorised exorcisms.
The head priests at The Sons of the Most Holy Redeemer, or Transalpine Redemptorists, deny any wrongdoing.
But Newshub has spoken to more than a dozen former members, including priests and brothers, who raised serious concerns about the conduct of the leaders, Fathers Michael Mary and Anthony Mary.
Exorcisms: "Boundaries were overstepped"
Mental health worker Michael Hempseed, who's the founder and director of Frontiers of Hope, had multiple people come to him with concerns.
Some of the issues disclosed related to the way exorcisms had been conducted.
"The people that came to me from the Oratory, they were some of the most traumatised people that I have ever worked with.
"I was horrified when I heard what was happening. I heard stories of people being tied down. They describe being screamed at. Having people come right up to their face yelling at them, screaming at them"
Hempseed says he was told in some cases, people pleaded for the rituals to stop.
"People saying, 'I want this to stop. I want this to stop'. And they would continue. This would go on not just for five minutes, but for hours and hours."
He says he was also told children were given exorcisms.
Leaders at The Sons deny ever performing an exorcism on a child, saying they only performed "minor exorcisms" on children which is very different to the full ritual.
However, Newshub has established at least one young person was left severely traumatised and believed they were possessed after an interaction with a priest.
Hempseed says there was a common theme among those who came to him with concerns.
"Each person had a different experience, but very much there was a consistent pattern of manipulation, abusive relationships and control and domination.
Greg Price is one of the original members of the Latin mass run by the Sons of the Most Holy Redeemer.
He says he tried to raise concerns with Father Michael Mary but felt he wasn't listened to. After he left, Father Michael Mary sent him a letter threatening him with legal action for bad-mouthing the parish.
Price also had concerns about the way exorcisms were conducted after talking to two friends who had them.
"My understanding is they're nothing to do with how a catholic exorcism takes place, tying people around the neck to the back of a chair whilst performing the exorcism. And then holding a crucifix and stabbing at them as though the crucifix was a dagger. It's just theatrical. That's madness."
He described Michael Mary as a bully who was unwilling to listen to the concerns of others.
"I feel a moral obligation to do what I can to try and prevent others from suffering."
A former member of the Parish says she also had concerns about the way exorcisms were carried out.
The woman, who we've agreed not to identify, says: "Boundaries were overstepped".
Exorcisms are permitted in New Zealand, but the rules dictate a priest must have permission from a bishop every time such a ritual is carried out.
The Bishop's office in Christchurch has confirmed that permission was given to The Sons for exorcisms on two adults.
Permission was granted by former Christchurch Bishop Paul Martin, who was recently installed as the Archbishop of Wellington.
However, Newshub understands at least seven adults had exorcisms.
It's understood one person had dozens of exorcisms performed on them, some lasting many hours and performed three days in a row.
They were tied up during the exorcisms. Another source confirmed several occasions when people were forcefully held down in a chair.
Auckland Bishop Steve Lowe says it is not normal to tie someone up or use any form of restraint, calling such a practice "cinematic".
Penance: "Licking the floor"
Mark Robinson, who's now based in Australia, was a Brother with the Sons of the Most Holy Redeemer in Christchurch for six years.
"There's an undercurrent, definitely an undercurrent of fear and anxiety the whole time."
He says if you contradicted Father Michael Mary you'd be punished or given a penance. Many times he was instructed to lie on the floor while others stepped over him on the way to dinner.
"Another one was making a cross on the floor with your tongue. Licking the floor in the form of a cross with your tongue like, three times, you know, something like that."
He eventually told the leaders he wanted to leave, and claims he was told to sign a confidentiality agreement forbidding him from talking about his time at the parish.
He says the experience was traumatising and took a decade to get over.
"More than 10 years to sort of get over and heal from a lot of the damage that was done. I mean, my initial thought on getting out of there was this huge sense of relief, like I'd been let out of prison."
Self harm: "I started cutting my skin"
Another person, who we've agreed not to name, said she found the teachings of priests at The Sons psychologically trapping.
"While under the leadership of the monks, my mind was shaped into holding very extreme beliefs." she said.
She said she was taught that she should never question a monk or doubt their holiness, and that anything said against them was the voice of the devil.
She said she was taught expressing or feeling emotion was unholy, and she should avoid socialising with people outside the parish.
"These cult-like beliefs were dangerously trapping."
"The intensity of the fear also caused the development of what is called a spiritual illness, scruples, which is mental terror."
She said the monks taught that physical penance pleased God.
"The children were given very extreme examples of saints who hurt themselves. Due to the monks' teachings, I started cutting my skin while I prayed."
- If you have further information, contact Michael Morrah in confidence by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org
Priests too involved in private lives of families: "I was disgusted"
Another person who spent several months attending the mass given by the Sons of The Most Holy Redeemer says the leader Michael Mary was "charismatic, but at the same time quite controlling."
The woman, who we've agreed not to identify, says she felt the leaders became too closely involved in the life of her family, and Father Michael Mary's interest in her children joining the order became unhealthy.
She says Father Michael would contact her sons against her wishes.
"Getting in contact with some of my children. And in a way, I feel behind my back."
She said she noticed significant changes with one of her boys, who stopped talking to her and her husband..
"He went silent, wouldn't speak to us, really abrupt and snappy. And then he would say, 'Oh, I'll see what Father Michael Mary has to say'."
Another way she says leaders became too involved in personal matters was during a confession with Father Anthony Mary
"He asked me very deeply personal questions about my sex life. It made me feel ill. I was disgusted. Made me feel sick, actually."
She says Father Anthony crossed boundaries and the line of questioning was both unnecessary and inappropriate, especially from a priest.
The leaders respond
Fathers Michael and Anthony Mary refused to be interviewed but did respond to the allegations during an hour-long sermon which they live-streamed from their oratory in Christchurch.
Father Michael Mary denies priests at The Sons of the Most Holy Redeemer ever performed an exorcism without permission from a Bishop.
"Our take on this is that the allegations simply cannot be true. Our exorcisms of people absolutely must always have the written permission of the bishop.
"It is too dangerous for a priest to exorcize the devil unless he has permission from the bishop and unless he acts on behalf of the bishop. To do otherwise risked being attacked, oppressed, or even possessed by the devil."
Tying people up
Father Michael Mary says what he called a "safety harness" was sometimes required during an exorcism because the devil can overpower the possessed person.
"During an exorcism. When the devil takes over the person's body, it is not possible for an average person to restrain the mighty strength that is let loose in the person."
Continuing exorcisms when asked to stop
Father Michael Mary says it is not appropriate to stop an exorcism if a person requests it, saying the devil speaks through the possessed person.
"Before undertaking exorcism. The participant agrees the exorcist will decide when the exorcism should stop."
"Why? Because the devil, speaking through the possessed person, will call the exorcism to a halt as soon as possible. The evil spirit does not want to be exercised."
Exorcisms on children
Father Michael Mary says only "minor exorcisms" were performed on children.
He says he never needed permission from the Bishop for these.
"Which did not require the bishop's explicit authorization. As the ritual says, it is meant especially to be employed, quote, 'to expel the devil, sway over a locality'."
He says a minor exorcism and an exorcism are "quite different" and likened a minor exorcism to "insistent sprinkling of holy water around a person."
Licking the floor
Father Michael Mary did not dispute that one penance practised involved licking the floor in the shape of a cross. However, he said this penance was discontinued in 2012 and is now only done on a voluntary basis.
"These are historical penances that were practised by the canonized saints and members of the Redemptorist Order. I have done them many times."
"If a member practised these today, it would be his private choice and only with permission of his spiritual director. Thirdly, penances are not punishments. They are acts of reparation, sacrifice and humility offered to God."
Too involved with families
Father Michael Mary rejected the suggestion that either he or Father Anthony Mary became too closely involved in the personal lives of families and individuals.
He says he always does his best to help people.
"Our community is very popular and we are often asked to visit families and individuals.
Father Michael Mary says a priest was kicked out of his order in 2017 for being "too focused on the hard teachings of our Lord." He did not elaborate on what this meant.
He denied his teachings or that of any other priests were manipulative or trapping.
"I do not think that the style of preaching or behaviour here is manipulative. Or mentally trapping. Or psychologically damaging.
He also rejects the suggestion that he or other priests have been too focused on physical penance, or that their teachings would cause some people to harm themselves.
"Countless examples of doing penance have been given to us by the church over the centuries in the lives of the saints."
He says priests do make suggestions of penance for Lent.
"What were the choices suggested? Fasting from the main meal for the day. Total media fast for the day. To take a cold shower for the day, to give up snacks for the day and just for the day to perhaps choose to abstain from eating either meat or eggs or dairy or alcohol or dessert or sugar or sweets. All just for the day.
"Did this result in some children self-harming? I would like to know who. None of these penances are in any way harmful to an ordinary, healthy person."
You can view Father Michael Mary's response to the allegations here from 28 minutes.
The Catholic Church responds
The Catholic Church told Newshub it does not consider The Sons of the Most Holy Redeemer mainstream Catholicism. However, the group is part of the Christchurch Catholic Diocese.
Archbishop Paul Martin, who was formerly Bishop of Christchurch, approved two exorcisms at The Sons. He confirmed he is aware of issues regarding their culture, and is "managing the issues."
"The diocese is managing the collective nature of these matters as per the processes available to the Church, taking into account the sensitivities of some parties affected. There have been situations where people have come forward with issues but have asked that these not be taken any further."
Newshub asked detailed questions about what checks were done prior to the approvals for exorcisms being granted, but Archbishop Martin did not respond.
Exorcisms must be conducted according to strict criteria, which includes ensuring a recipient is actually possessed rather than suffering from psychological illness.
It's considered best practice that advice is sought from a medical professional to rule out mental health issues prior to an exorcism taking place. Sources have told Newshub that when it came to exorcisms performed at The Sons, this did not happen.
Information provided by Auckland Bishop Steve Lowe shows that in the past five years, six exorcisms were approved in the Auckland/Hamilton diocese and six were approved in Christchurch, including two at the Sons of the Most Holy Redeemer.
Newshub also requested figures for the number of complaints or concerns that had been raised about the group with leaders at the Christchurch Diocese. The information was not provided.
However, Newshub has established independently that in recent years, seven separate complaints or concerns have been raised - either directly with Paul Martin, his predecessor, or with the Church's safeguarding office in Christchurch.
Calls to intervene
Mental health worker Michael Hempseed says when he sent a detailed complaint to then Christchurch Bishop Steve Martin, he did not hear back.
He told Newshub he felt "utterly betrayed."
"The church is there to protect people. The church should be there to look after particularly innocent children."
Former member of the Sons of the Most Holy Redeemer Greg Price says he also faced brick walls when complaining to Paul Martin. He told Newshub "nothing" happened.
"I sent an email asking and basically laying out some of my concerns and asking for a meeting with him. The only reply I got was basically thank you for acknowledging that they had received the email."
Massey University Emeritus Professor Peter Lineham says the response from Archbishop Paul Martin that issues are being managed is not good enough.
"If you permit priests to use religious authority with all the, you know, terror potentially of internal hell that you can invoke if you say that this is at stake, and when in fact, the person is psychologically injured. Well, that is right up there in the sort of abuse that the royal commission is investigating."
The Sons are part of the Christchurch diocese and rules dictate that they can operate with relative autonomy.
However, church law states the bishop has power over them when it comes to the "care of souls". In other words, the care of ordinary churchgoers.
Professor Lineham says given the multiple allegations the bishop should have acted.
"The first and fundamental concern of the church must be to intervene to protect lay people whose very spiritual health and well being is at stake."
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