Child sexual abuse claims leveled at Pentecostal-linked facility granted $4 million by Scott Morrison

Crikey [Melbourne, Victoria, Australia]

March 7, 2022

By David Hardaker

Former residents of the Esther Foundation have alleged they were sexually abused and harassed by an employee at the facility.

This is part 13 in a series. For the rest of the series, go here.

Note: this article contains descriptions of child sexual abuse.

Serious allegations have emerged of the sexual abuse and sexual harassment of teenage girls at the Pentecostal-linked Esther Foundation. The new allegations have emerged in the wake of a weeks-long investigation by Crikey and raise questions about how much, if any, information was passed to police and child protection authorities at the time.

The Morrison government made a $4 million grant to the foundation before the 2019 election, with the prime minister making a personal visit to the Perth-based rehab facility. As a Crikey investigation has revealed, Esther has a history of using extreme religious practices as “treatment” for girls with addiction and mental health problems.

One former resident has given Crikey a first-person account of being serially abused and harassed between the ages of 13 and 15. 

Her allegations include that a senior Esther employee shared alcoholic drinks with her before later coming into her room and removing her pants as she lay on her bed. 

“He began kissing my stomach. That’s when I ran,” she said. She was 15 years old at the time, vulnerable and with no stable home to go to.

The same employee is also alleged to have confessed to a closed meeting of senior Esther workers that he had sexually abused another then-15-year-old resident.

Two former residents have told Crikey of being groped by the same employee. “Since leaving, I have heard many ex-residents give similar, if not much worse, testimonies of sexual assault by [the employee],” one woman wrote in a statement to Crikey.

Esther’s founder, Patricia Lavater, who ran the organisation for more than 20 years, has declined to comment on claims that she was aware of the alleged abuse but had failed to inform authorities or to remove the employee. The employee in question has failed for a full week to respond to Crikey’s requests for comment.

Crikey has passed on details of the new allegations to WA’s Minister for Community Services Simone McGurk, who two weeks ago issued a call for women who attended the Esther Foundation to put their concerns directly to her.

The minister acted after former residents of the Esther Foundation’s rehab facility spoke to Crikey of their past treatment and the trauma that continues to this day. In many cases the girls who attended the facility came from dysfunctional homes and had no one they could call on for help. As we’ve reported, the foundation had a practice of isolating young residents from the outside world by removing access to phones and heavily restricting family contacts.

At the same time, Lavater enforced a regime of prayer- and religious-based obedience. According to former residents who have contacted Crikey, they were only permitted to listen to a Christian radio station and were only allowed to read books by Christian authors. Other reading material (such as Harry Potter books) was classed as “worldly” and removed from the girls and dumped or burnt.

Response to investigation 

Crikey’s reporting on the Esther Foundation started four weeks ago with suggestions of religious-based abuse, which have been flatly denied by Lavater. Since then dozens of former residents and parents have come forward to tell Crikey of their experiences.

The women who have contacted Crikey range from as young as 20 up to the age of 40. Their experiences date as far back as the mid 1990s. The most recent left the Esther Foundation in early 2020.  

For many former residents, Esther has left a legacy of fear and paranoia. For some it is the sight of a white van — the mode of transport which Esther used to find and pick up girls who had escaped. For others it is the inability to articulate any criticism because it was drummed into them through all-night confession sessions in which they were not allowed to even think a bad thought about Patricia Lavater.

One young woman who left Esther in 2019 told Crikey: “If you weren’t Christian, your life was hell.” Another young woman, also there in 2019, says a psychologist told her she had “the devil” in her. Both young women were in the group the day Scott Morrison arrived with his $4 million grant. 

“We were told in the days before that the prime minister might be coming with a blessing,” one of the women said.

Other comments Crikey has received include:

“As a previous resident of the Esther Foundation when I was a minor it caused a lot of buried memories to stir. Thank you for sharing and amplifying our voices.”

“Having somebody actually give a platform and a voice to the girls and women who went there meant the world to me, and undoubtedly the other women/girls too. I spent hours shaking and 20 minutes crying as I don’t think I had ever really processed that place, and what it did to me and countless others.” (Left Esther at the end of 2015)

“The entire situation always seemed either like a scam and/or a cult where people were being made to think one way and cut off from the rest of the world so as to have them accept that it was the only way.” (Partner of former resident)  

“In hindsight I wish [my daughter] had never gone in as now she has PTSD and other mental health issues that she will be dealing with for a very long time. These years at Esther were the worst of her life. It makes me so sad as her mum to think we were trying to help her.” (Parent of former resident) 

“Esther felt like my only option so I justified the abuse that whole time because I was just trying to survive. Everyone that thinks Esther is good has been manipulated or brainwashed or lied to.” (Left Esther in 2019)

So what should happen now?

The Esther Foundation has been heavily supported by WA businesses, but it has relied on the public purse for its survival. The WA government provided Esther with a large, newly renovated home for its residents, valued a decade ago at $4 million. The Australian Charities and Not-for-profits Commission (ACNC), a federal government body, allowed for donations to the foundation to be tax deductible — an effective taxpayer subsidy. The foundation has also relied on a constant stream of Centrelink money, which was paid into the accounts of residents and in turn used to pay Esther for their accommodation. 

Despite this there appears to have been little or no accountability for more than two decades until 2020 when new management arrived and Patricia Lavater departed.

It’s not for want of trying. Crikey has been contacted by parents and partners of former residents who wrote to the ACNC and the Australian Taxation Office with their concerns about the running of the foundation, but to no avail.

On one level the abuse that occurred to the girls of Esther is what happens when the state outsources mental health and addiction services to organisations with an extreme religion-based ideology. It was, for example, part and parcel of the Esther experience that therapy services were provided by Christian psychologists who openly promoted the idea that God heals, rather than services based on medication or accepted secular practices, such as Cognitive Behaviour Therapy. 

Minister McGurk’s decision to invite former residents to tell their stories of abuse is the first time that former residents have a form of acknowledgment of what they were subject to. It is also the first hope for accountability.

Yet with new disclosures of sexual abuse committed on underage girls emerging, it is clear that a wider independent inquiry is warranted into the relationship between successive WA government departments and the foundation, as well as into why abuse went undetected for so many years. An inquiry should also examine the long-term harms done to the teenage girls who were sent there, sometimes by the courts as a substitute for juvenile prison.

The federal Department of Health should also disclose what it did and did not advise the government in 2019 when Health Minister Greg Hunt’s office approved a grant of $4 million to the foundation — just in time for Morrison’s pre-election announcement.

At the end of the day, an inquiry is needed into why the state supported and lauded what was effectively a cult.

If you have any information about this story you would like to pass on please contact David Hardaker via

Survivors of abuse can find support by calling Bravehearts at 1800 272 831. The Kids Helpline is 1800 55 1800. In an emergency, call 000. 

If you or someone you know is affected by sexual assault or violence, call 1800RESPECT on 1800 737 732 or visit

For anyone seeking help, Lifeline is on 13 11 14 and Beyond Blue is on 1300 22 4636. In an emergency, call 000.


David Hardaker


David has an extensive career as a journalist and broadcaster, primarily at the ABC where he worked on flagship programs such as Four Corners7.30Foreign Correspondent, AM and PM. He spent eight years reporting in the Middle East and can speak Arabic.