Mervyn Johnson a.k.a. Mervyn Wright, president of the International Spiritualist Foundation, ISF, was sentenced by the Karlstad district-court to five years imprisonment and payment of damages in the amount of 472,000 Swedish kronor (almost 70,000 USD) to his victims. The 60-year old alleged psychic and healer was convicted of raping a 14-year old girl, and sexual molestation or misconduct concerning six other women. The trial was held behind locked doors so no details are available, but interviews prior to the court proceedings revealed that Johnson had incorporated some very explicit sexual touching into his healing sessions. One of the victims gives an account of his routine in the local newspaper, Nya Wermlands-Tidningen (9th November, 2006):
- We were divided into groups in order to "heal" each other, she says.
It was more touching than holding the hands above the body. And the healer?
- Well, he walked around, drinking tea and smoking, the girl recollects.
With a perfume producing a scent that sticks...
Then he chooses a group with "extra fine energies" and brings it into another room. He lies down on the bunk in order to feel the energies from the others. Suddenly he takes the 14-year old girl into yet another room, to give her a massage: "Take off your clothes." The girl is terrified but trusts her leader. The healer goes into trance. What happens next makes her cry to this day.
This sordid "healing" took place within the Swedish spiritual society "The Ocean", based in Västerås and attracting followers from several towns in the region. The girl decided to tell another member of the society, a woman she trusted, about the incident. Word got around to the female group leader, who called the girl on the phone and told her: "it's not what you think, it's part of the massage." Although the girl never set foot in Johnson's spiritual chambers again, she received several calls from the women of her group, all telling her that everything was in order.
Johnson claims to be a so called "trance healer". When going into trance, his body becomes the tool of a spirit, in this case "Dr Lu", a Chinese doctor. One of his devoted followers explains: "it sounds crazy, [she says,] but every man has an electro magnetic field, an aura. When the healer lets 'Dr Lu' enter your nervous system and work through it, he can see where the problems in the energy flow are." When asked about "Dr Lu" entering other parts of the body, the same woman says that she has heard women telling her that Johnson pawed them. But, "It only appears that way. He is so incredibly sensitive and compassionate."
One would imagine that a society with predominantly female members would turn their back on a suspected rapist or molester. Not so. In fact, when the victims persisted in their allegations and charges finally were brought against Johnson, The Ocean society was split in two and well over 200 members joined Johnson when he formed a new society. "We know he's not like that," as one of them comments in Nya Wermlands-Tidningen (7th November, 2006). A separate police investigation is looking into the threatening letters some of Johnson's victims has received, notifying them that "we know where you live", "we're watching you", etc.
Johnson's international commitment in the ISF, however, seems to have come to an end – he has been replaced by "acting president" Garth Willey on their website. He is still noted as the society's ambassador to Sweden, though. If this means that Johnson is persona non grata in the ISF and they have forgotten to omit him from the ambassador listing, or that he is still in the society's favor but they have found it appropriate to "degrade" him while he is serving time, only the ISF officials knows.
Reason and critical thinking exits the human mind when superstition enters. But what the Mervyn Johnson case also illustrates is that ethics and legislation are subordinate to doctrines of superstition in the minds of believers. The young girl did what every rape or molestation victim should do: she told what had happened. But the women she thought she could confide in turned their backs on her in favor of the rapist. They even launched a small campaign to convince the girl that what she had experienced never happened, a campaign that went on for almost a year – a time during which the perpetrator was able to continue his "healing". In this clash between the conduct of a guru and the law, the devoted follower's position is eloquently expressed in a 7th November NWT interview: "The law wasn't designed with this in mind." In other words, there's nothing wrong with what Johnson did, it's the law that's at fault. It is the same principle that makes people like Jim Jones and David Koresh possible, and the Johnson case shows that it doesn't need the social isolation of an extreme cult to be induced in the mind of the believer.
In the aftermath of Johnson's arrest, New Age proponents discussing the case on internet fora and boards were reluctant to put any blame on him. Instead, they questioned how parents could leave their children alone with him. According to this argument, the blame is really on the victim's parents. This is of course a variation of the same bias: the psychic is never wrong. But it is also a display of two important psychological phenomena. The first, hindsight bias, is the tendency to exaggerate one's ability to have foreseen how something turned out, after learning the outcome. In this context, the argument suggests that the commentators would never had let their children alone with Johnson like the victim's parents did. Gobbledygook. The complete devotion these same commentators show regarding other renowned psychics indicates that they would gladly submit their children to the care of the particular psychics they favor, simply because the semi-gods they trust would never do the terrible things Johnson did. That's where the second, self-serving bias, kicks in. We perceive our own judgment more favorably than it is. We also see ourselves as better, more ethical, more competent, friendlier, more intelligent and less prejudiced than the average person. But would a person that is willing to pay a psychic several thousand Swedish kroner for a "mediumship training course" really hesitate to leave her 14-year old alone for half an hour with that same psychic? If the alleged aim is to boost her child's "spiritual development?"
Judging by the statement by one of Johnson's followers quoted above, reports on his behavior was conveyed by other women in the society too. The seven plaintiffs in the trial are probably just the tip of the iceberg. How many women are too afraid or ashamed to tell, how many have been convinced by their fellow society members that what they experienced was an illusion, and how many have decided that the loss of the social bond with the society is too high a price to pay for telling the truth? And how many women actually enjoyed the sexual encounter with their spiritual leader or took it for a token of being the chosen one, and just waits for their next session with "The Enlighted One?" No one knows.
In closing, consider the fact that personal experience is the prime source of knowledge for New Age believers. Evidence, proof, facts and corroboration amounts to nothing when it comes to supernatural phenomena -- personal experience rules. But what happens when a young woman experiences that her spiritual leader is groping her genitals? Suddenly, experience is out the door -- "it only appears that way." Go figure...