Helidon, Australia -- The tiny hamlet of Helidon is appropriately named. It looks like Hell on earth. The paint is peeling from the shabby shop fronts, now empty and closed down, and the once busy rural haven is reduced to a newsagent's, a post office and one pub. Yet this virtual ghost town, which has all the eerie, feel of a deserted cowboy film set after John Wayne and the Hollywood cameras have moved on, is supposedly the site of the Second Coming of Jesus Christ.
Nestling in the picturesque farming belt of the Lockyer Valley in rural Queensland, Australia, the tiny town, 80 miles west of Brisbane, can fairly be described as a dot on the map. It is certainly an unlikely spot where miracles and visions of the Virgin Mary are, apparently, regular occurrences.
But the run down town has recently become infamous as the adopted home of a bizarre religious cult leader, Debra Geileskey, and her followers in what she calls the Magnificat Meal Movement, an ultra-conservative breakaway Catholic cult which has been luring an alarming number of Irish people to give up their homes and decamp to her 'New Jerusalem'.
The cult's name refers to the Magnificat, a prayer attributed to the Virgin Mary, and Meal refers to the Last Supper.
One of the newest permanent residents the charismatic Geileskey has welcomed into her swelling flock of Irish believers is Niall Haughey. Just weeks ago, the well-heeled nephew of the former Taoiseach Charles Haughey closed up his home and business in Co. Tipperary and moved his wife and three children 12,000 miles away to Queensland to join MMM. He is said to have turned his back on the outside world to embrace the bizarre cult.
Mr Haughey's family and friends have expressed shock that the successful insurance broker would renounce his worldly goods and sign up to the enclosed sect that has been denounced by the Vatican and is currently under investigation by cult experts keen to know how it has accumulated property and assets worth more than 3.5 million dollars (Australian).
It has emerged from inquiries made by Ireland on Sunday that Mr Haughey was encouraged to join MMM by a family relative, former Holy Ghost Priest, Father Dermot Forkin. Father Forkin is the uncle of Niall Haughey's wife, Maire, and persuaded the couple who have three children, to sell up their business and home to join the movement which has been officially declared a cult by Rome. The Vatican had accused the cult of brainwashing and defrauding its members.
Like her other faithful followers, Mr Haughey, 42, is believed to have pledged most of his money to Geileskey and the MMM. But while Geileskey enjoys the high life of regular trips to America, world travel and cruises around Queensland in a fleet of Mercedes Benz cars with personalised number plates, brainwashed sect "slaves" like Mr Haughey and his wife work the land like dirt-poor farmers or help out with cooking and cleaning duties and mass
Mr Haughey and his family spend their days working in the commune and following strict prayer regimes. Geileksey, who has reverted to using her maiden name of Burslem, tells her slavish followers that the Virgin Mary wishes them to hand over their money and sign over property. She is seen being chauffeured around Helidon in Mercedes cars bearing the number plate CORMA 1, 2, and 3. The special plates stand for the title she gives the Virgin Mary: "Co-Redemtrice, Mediator and Advocate." Geileskey also states her special interest is to shelter young girls "to protect their virginity."
Mike Garde, a cult specialist who advises the archbishop of Dublin, confirmed the link between Father Forkin and Niall Haughey. "Father Forkin appears to have told them about this cult and we can only surmise that's how they became involved. "This woman Debra is controlling everybody in that cult. She's has made herself out to be the only source of God to them. That's a very powerful concept and one that has clearly sucked people in."
Garde was first alerted that the Magnificat Meal Movement was recruiting followers in Ireland in 1997 and has since visited Australia attempting to gain access to the Irish members of the cult, whose exact numbers are unknown but are thought to number more than twenty. Relatives of members had contacted him for help to try to rescue people who had been drawn into the group and then were cut off from their families. "Exit counselling from a cult is important because if people process their experiences they are more likely to recover in a shorter time. If they pretend it never happened they can feel guilty for leaving and they can be left with terrible trauma," he says.
So far, however, Garde has had no success in extricating any people from the cult. "It's a slow process but I'm determined, I won't give up," he says. "The danger is Debra lives between reality and fantasy - she is not living in the real world," he said. "Just because the movement is jelly-like at the moment, the potential is there for catastrophe."
Last weekend 15-year-old Irish leukaemia victim, Nora Hanley, from Kilrooskey, Co Roscommon was buried, weeks after her mother's quest for a "miracle cure" at the MMM caused a storm of controversy.
Pauline Hanley took terminally ill Nora to visit Geileskey in the hope of saving her daughter. While staying in the cult commune, Nora stopped taking her medication and vital blood units. The trip caused anxiety for some family members at home and Nora's aunt, Marilyn Patton from Killygordon in Donegal, even contacted the Queensland police to alert them to the child's plight. At least six other members of the cult have died after they ceased taking medication for serious illnesses when Geileskey encouraged them to swap to herbal remedies she sells, according to former members of the cult.
The MMM first began to recruit Irish members when it approached a tour of pilgrims at Medjugorje. Since then, Geileskey has visited Knock Shrine but continues to refuse to meet Mr Garde. "If she's not doing anything wrong, then why is she afraid?" he asked.
Geileskey, a former primary school teacher portrays herself as being at the Spiritual epicentre of a global movement with advisers in the Vatican. She also claims that priests and bishops from around the world come to her to seek counsel and, she says, the sick come to her for healing. She broke away from the Catholic Church in the mid-90s after claiming she had had visions of Our Lady and received prophecies from angels.
In a rare Liveline interview with Joe Duffy on Ireland's Radio 1 in May Geileskey told him: "Our biggest financial supporters and donors and the most beautiful support from priests has always come from Ireland." "We've always had very strong Irish support and I don't think we'd have been able to function financially without it" Like fellow Australian fraudster Peter Foster, over the years Geileskey has sold everything from home loans to slimming products to believers convinced she was raising money to build a basilica costing up to $45 Million Australian. The moment it was finished, she promised, Our Lord would return to earth. But after boosting her personal property portfolio with a Million-dollar country estate a year ago, questions were raised about just who was benefiting from God's work. "She's got more front than Sydney Opera House," said one disgruntled local.
Former member of the cult, Australian Dawn O'Brien said devoted followers had donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to the cause after Geileskey declared Christ would return to Helidon when the building was completed. "People gave her that money to build a basilica? not to buy property for herself. It's disgraceful," said Mrs O'Brien. "What about all the people who gave her a third of their houses and have now left and want their money back?" Since setting up her cult in a former convent in Helidon, Geileskey and her followers have bought up dozens of homes in the town and will not let anybody open up new businesses.
Paul O'Sullivan, who runs the Helidon newsagents store with his wife Vonnie in the main street, said: "Debra is an absolute conwoman. I don't know why people keep falling for her lies. A few years ago, we used to have coachloads of people coming to her prayer meetings but it has been pretty quiet over the past three years. I don't know exactly how many people are living in her communes now."
Asked if any of the MMM members used his shop, Mr O'Sullivan replied: "I'm banned because I sell Penthouse magazine. They don't come in here. I've been ex-communicated. They have to drive to the next town about 12 miles away." But even people who've been burned by Geileskey's destruction of their town and their business can see the funny side. As O'Sullivan says with a laconic grin: "If Jesus Christ did suddenly arrive, he wouldn't find much to eat in Helidon. The local café has closed down and they won't let anyone rent it," "One local girl wanted to open a hairdresser's there, but they said no." Debra is a clever woman ? and very wealthy now thanks to other people's money - but she has turned this place into a ghost town. Yes, we certainly need a miracle. If Jesus were to turn up, I suppose Helidon would become a Holy Ghost town."
Geileskey's latest departure from reality has been to join a movement bizarrely known as the Commonwealth of Caledonia Australis, an organisation that claims members are not subject to any Australian laws. Geileskey bought a disused Lutheran Church in Helidon recently and has put up a sign saying it belongs to the CCA of Australia. An obvious benefit to Geileskey's operation is the claim that CCA members do not have to pay tax.
Retired architect Frank Mack, who met Geileskey at a charismatic prayer meeting in Melbourne before she began the movement 15 years ago and also moved to Helidon, today describes her as "evil" adding: "Debra is a dangerous woman who uses clever techniques to exploit people for their money. I think she learned the tricks of her trade during her visits to America. She is definitely a con artist." Mr Mack, an articulate, reasoned and intelligent Catholic, readily admits he and his wife, Ann, were taken in for over a year by Geileskey's claims that she witnessed miracles and had visions of the Virgin Mary. In those days, Geileskey was a struggling schoolteacher. She and her then estate agent husband, Gordon, were badly in debt. When the arrived in Helidon they owed more than $300,000.
Today, Geileskey is a multi-millionaire who owns at least 20 properties, including homes, apartments, shops and farms and is said to own 10 companies. She is worth more than $3.5 million Australian. Ex-husband Gordon, who helped her amass her property empire, left the cult in 1999, exposed her as a fraud and is no longer in the picture. When we contacted Mr Geileskey he told us: "I'd rather not think about Debra and her cult. I have spent the past few years trying to forget about them and put all this behind me."
Former MMM founder member Mr Mack told us: "Debra is a very dangerous woman. Her attraction is that she is offering something better. She is a clever saleswoman. She sold real estate and now she's selling her cult to people. I blame the Catholic Church because a lot of people are getting disenchanted with it. "So I can understand why this prominent Irishman would want to come here and follow Debra. She is a powerful woman and very convincing. I was sitting in a private house one day with a visiting Fillipino priest and she told us she was seeing a vision of the Virgin Mary and began having a conversation with Our Lady. "I was convinced, and so was everybody else in the room. I couldn't feel any presence, but Debra was such a good actress, we totally believed it at the time. Looking back, it was astonishing how somebody sitting that close to you can deceive you so successfully."She certainly had myself and the priest fooled. She's not crazy, it was all acting." Things did not quite add up, though, when the priest later investigated one of Geileskey's so-called "miracles" when communion wafers seemed to appear in a bowl overnight from nowhere. "She was claiming miracles that weren't miracles. She presented this incident as the multiplication of the loaves, you see. People believed it. "When the priest checked, he realised some of the wafers were stale. They turned out to be leftover wafers she must have planted there to claim her miracle. The priest realised something wasn't right and challenged her. Three times he tried, then Debra claimed he was a paedophile and was being led by the devil.
"People like Debra know how to plumb the depths. It's not new. There have been many, many frauds before her and there will no doubt be many, many in the future. "And they are very corrosive and very damaging to religion. It puts people off." Frank and his wife dropped out of Magnificat after 12 months and stuck to the Catholic Church. They did not contribute any money to Geileskey's cause.
Geileksey also conned followers that she had been instructed by God to follow what she called the Eucharist diet. For 14 months she claimed to have lived on nothing buy "holy" wafers and water. Except on 33 days when God told her to eat normally. As the diet progressed, observers became puzzled as to why she hadn't lost weight. Then her secret was discovered: The chubby Geileskey had been covertly feasting on take-away pizzas, biscuits and fizzy drinks, which were discovered in a cupboard by an MMM member who quit the group soon afterwards.
Local priest Father Tom Keegan is one of Debra Geileskey's staunchest critics, having witnessed first hand her recruitment of Catholics into her movement from within his Holy Name parish in nearby Toowoomba soon after her arrival in the early 1990s.
"I would strongly advise the Irish people to break off any relations with Debra and the MMM," he said. "She is a fraud. I told Debra a long time ago that she can't build a basilica. "The Pope can declare an existing building or church a basilica but you cannot build one yourself, so she is taking money under false pretences. "I went on to a radio show and publicly called her a bitch and a liar. "I have not changed my view, but I have promised God I will not mention her name again ? I'm sick of her."
Geileskey has previously claimed to have branches in 73 countries with a following of 5 million people. But locals said at best there were just 50 families involved, and a number of those have left, although the 20 or so Irish cult members are believed to be still in Helidon.
Toowoomba Catholic Bishop William Morris declared the group a cult in 1996 and an investigation by the Vatican's Congregation for Doctrine and Faith concluded in 1999 that the writings published by the Movement 'led to the inevitable conclusion that it neither had, nor desired, any place in the Catholic Church.' When presented with these uncomfortable findings by Father Keegan, Geileskey's parting gesture was to deliver a curse, made in writing, to the astonished priest and his parish.
As for Ms Geileskey herself, her followers have abandoned the distinctive blue monks' habits, which made them, stand out from the crowd and adverse publicity has seen her go underground, keeping a low profile in the past three years. She is rarely seen in public and, as we witnessed for ourselves, hates her photograph being taken. Her secretive properties have "keep out" notices plastered all over the entrance gates, along with anti-stalking warnings quoting court actions.
When Geileskey got wind of our visit in an effort to interview Mr Haughey, she roared up to her 1 million dollar sprawling countryside commune in Sandy Creek Lane , which boasts a church, a swimming pool, an Olive grove and an eight-car garage, in a four-wheel drive jeep driven by a security guard and warned photographer Steve Holland: "You can't take photographs of my property. Get away from here!"
However, when he attempted to take a photograph of her, Geileskey quickly raised a bright red designer hat and put it over her face. She refused to talk to us and then roared off in a cloud of dust, later chasing us along dirt roads, across an open field and through Helidon when we stopped to interview locals. Our last vision of this millionaire would-be Messiah as she roared past us close to one of her luxury country retreats "where neighbours have regularly protested to police about the noise from wild parties" was a hand gesture that is not to be found in the pages of The Bible.