Brazil's #metoo moment: Spiritual guru accused of sex abuse

ABADIANIA, Brazil (AP) — For over 40 years, spiritual healer Joao Teixeira de Faria drew people from all over the world to this small city in central Brazil, offering treatment for everything from depression to cancer.

His work was both praised — Oprah Winfrey called de Faria "inspiring" while visiting in 2012 — and heavily scrutinized. Now, de Faria, who goes by the name "Joao de Deus," or "John of God," is in trouble with the law.

Since December, more than 250 women including his daughter have come forward to allege abuse that ranged from being felt up during treatments to rape. The mounting accusations are turning the 77-year-old spiritual guru into Brazil's first major figure to go down in the #metoo era, which has been slow to take off in Latin America's largest nation despite myriad problems with gender equality.

Meanwhile, the people in Abadiania, about a two-hour drive west from the nation's capital of Brasilia, are in disbelief. They also fear for their futures without de Faria.

"All of Abadiania depended on the work of Joao," said Claudio Pruja, the owner of a small inn who also sometimes worked as an assistant to de Faria. "We don't have a beach. This isn't Copacabana."

Indeed, de Faria's pull was so strong that the much more affluent "new" part of the town, built in the years since the healer opened his clinic in 1976, stands in sharp contrast to the older, run down part of town: There are brightly colored houses, swept streets, hotels with ATM machines inside — a rarity in small Brazilian cities — as well as specialty boutiques that cater to tourists and police constantly patrolling.

By some estimates, his "casa spiritual," or "spiritual house," attended to 10,000 patients a week. It was there that de Faria, who over the decades came under sharp scrutiny from critics who deemed him a charlatan, performed "psychic" surgeries that he said could heal a wide range of maladies.

Sometimes treatments were based on prayer, and sometimes they involved minor cutting into the body.

In 2012, Winfrey visited de Faria's center and interviewed him for her talk show, writing about the experience of seeing him cut into the breast of a woman without anesthesia.

"An overwhelming sense of peace" is how she described the experience in a column that has since been deleted on oprah.com.

Winfrey has issued a statement saying she sympathizes with the alleged victims and hopes they get justice.

According to more than 250 women, it was during the healing sessions that de Faria molested them or began grooming them for what would lead to forced sexual contact outside the clinic.

Luciano Miranda, a public prosecutor, told The Associated Press that his office had received testimony from women from six countries: Brazil, Germany, Belgium, Bolivia, the United States and Holland.

De Faria's victims were of all ages, and he would often begin by turning off the lights and asking for a massage, Miranda said.

"The biggest fear of victims was not being believed," Miranda added. He said some of the women said they held off talking publicly about it for years because of worry they "could lose their husbands."

The scandal erupted when several women talked about their experiences on the show "Conversa com Bial" in December, leading to an avalanche of similar accusations in the weeks that followed.

The U.S. Embassy in Brazil published an alert asking Americans to contact Brazilian authorities if they had been abused by de Faria.

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De Faria's adult daughter, Dalva Teixeira, told Brazilian magazine Veja that her father frequently raped her between the ages of 10 and 14, all on the pretense of spiritual treatments.

"My father is a monster," she told the magazine.

De Faria's lawyers have noted that many of the allegations are decades old, and in some cases involved women who repeatedly visited the healer — putting into question the veracity of their abuse claims.

They argue their client, who has been arrested, should be released before a trial. They have called on Brazilians to know all the facts before judging.

"Lynchings are always potentially unjust and lead a society to find scapegoats in individuals," lawyers Alberto Zacharias Toron and Luisa Moraes Abreu Ferreira wrote in a December op-ed in daily Folha de S. Paulo.

The accusations against de Faria come as cases of alleged abuse have emerged in several Latin American countries. In Argentina, a well-known actor, a senator and a legislative chief of staff have been accused of sexual harassment to assault. In Costa Rica, a criminal complaint alleging sexual assault was filed against former president and Nobel peace laureate Oscar Arias, leading other women to come forward with accusations.

Of the women who made the initial accusations on "Conversa com Bial," only one agreed to be identified. Zahira Lieneke Mous, a Danish choreographer, recounted how she visited de Faria to deal with sexual abuse in her past.

During a first consultation, she said he placed her hands on his penis, and in a second encounter penetrated her from behind. After remaining silent for four years, she detailed her accusations in a Facebook post last year and told her story on the show. Contacted since then, Mous has declined to be interviewed.

Two other alleged victims reached by the AP have also declined to give interviews.

In Abadiania, where many express surprise at the allegations against de Faria, the married guru was seen around town as a lady's man.

Norberto Kist, another inn owner who often assisted de Faria, said the man he considered a "father" was attractive to women.

"He had an energy," said Kist, waving his hands for emphasis. "And that generated fascination in women."

"A lot of things that happened, and others that are being presented in a ridiculous way (in the press), happened because of that strength, that energy, that magnetism, which is fascinating," Kist said.

Inside de Faria's spiritual hospital is a picture of Jesus Christ next to one of de Faria. Signs in English and Portuguese give instructions like, "Crystal bed in session. Silence please." Inside the center, both workers and tourists dress in all white.

By all accounts, the number of visitors is way down, but the flow hasn't stopped entirely.

"The energy is more pure. It's as strong as ever, if not stronger," said Tammy Pennington, an American from California recently in Abadiania for spa treatments.

Of the more than 250 cases, at least 112 have passed the statue of limitations, said Miranda, the public prosecutor. In such cases, it's normally 20 years, but de Faria's advanced age reduces the statute of limitations to 10 years.

No trial date has been set, but regardless of what happens, it's unlikely de Faria will ever be able to practice again.

"I feel sorry for the people suffering," said Angela Maria dos Santos, another healer who worked with de Faria for over 20 years at the center, adding: "It's a time of great pain."

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