‘Satanist’: Melbourne ‘kidney cult’ YouTube sermon sparks defamation battle
Renee Spencer remembers opening the mail to find her estranged daughter had returned the prepaid mobile phone she had once given her.
When the phone arrived, Spencer says she didn’t know where her daughter was – or if she was even still in the country.
Her daughter cut off contact after joining the Melbourne religious sect known as the Jesus Christians. Now Spencer is taking legal action against the sect’s leader, accusing him of defamation.
Renee Spencer is no longer in contact with her daughter after she joined Jesus Christians.Credit:Luis Enrique Ascui
In the past, the Jesus Christians sect has been described as the “kidney cult” for encouraging members to donate their organs to strangers as an act of extreme selflessness.
Spencer has asked The Sunday Age not to name her daughter, who is aged in her 20s.
“In one of the last conversations I had with her, I asked whether or not she donated a kidney. And she said that she wasn’t opposed to doing so. But she hadn’t done it yet,” Spencer, 47, says.
Jesus Christians, who typically join as young adults, are urged to sell their possessions, donate the proceeds to the poor and live a life of poverty.
“When she joined and gave away everything, I held it together,” says Spencer, a teacher and mental health practitioner who lives in the Yarra Valley.
“I said, ‘this is your life. If this is what you want to do, it is your choice’.”
Initially, Spencer says her daughter discussed an interest in a community called “A Ship In The Desert”, rather than its better-known – and more-controversial – name, Jesus Christians.
Two months after joining in November 2017, she had married another member and taken a new name.
Spencer gave her daughter a cheap mobile and prepaid SIM. They used the phone to stay in touch when she went overseas.
But as she learned more about the group’s beliefs, which includes the imminent return of Jesus Christ and the end of the world, Spencer saw “red flags” and tried to convince her daughter to leave.
Renee Spencer.Credit:Luis Enrique Ascui
Soon after, her daughter disappeared and returned the phone without much explanation.
“There was a little tiny note that basically said: ‘thanks, I don’t need it any more’,” says Spencer.
She believes her relationship with her daughter deteriorated because of the control exerted by David McKay, the leader of Jesus Christians.
According to court documents, Spencer claims that McKay engaged in a campaign to turn her daughter against her.
Spencer is taking defamation action in the County Court against McKay over videos that she says damaged her reputation. The videos were posted in July last year on the Jesus Christians YouTube channel which has more than 130,000 subscribers.
She claims McKay wrote a script which referred to her as a “devil worshipper” and a person who has “conspired with neo-Nazis and attempted murderers to terrorise and persecute a Christian group”.
The sermon, which is transcribed in court documents, refers to a “mother in Australia whose daughter married one of our members”.
David McKay and his wife, Cherry, in 2005.Credit:Jon Reid
“This mother is a Luciferian – a Satanist, if you like,” McKay wrote, according to court documents.
“She insists that her love for Lucifer does not interfere with her respect for anything that Jesus may have said.”
The video’s narrator went on to say that the woman had conspired with two other parents of Jesus Christians trying to get their children to leave the group, who he claimed sold “neo-Nazi paraphernalia”.
Spencer claims she was identified in a stylised image of her face with the name “Renee” written on top.
The description of a Satanist is “ridiculous”, says Spencer, and had originated from words taken out of context in an email she sent to her daughter.
A screenshot of a Jesus Christians video on YouTube.Credit:
“At this stage, I realised that none of the emails I was sending to her were confidential. Everything was screened,” she said.
McKay is self-represented in the defamation case. In his defence document filed in court, he claims that Spencer was not identified by the video and that the sermon had fewer than 4000 views.
He is also relying on defences of truth and honest opinion when referring to Spencer as a “Luciferian” and conspirator with neo-Nazis.
In rejecting Spencer’s bid for damages, he wrote that her daughter was an “independent adult” and able to choose for herself what religion to believe.
“The defendant suggests that the problem has developed because the plaintiff is unaccepting of her daughter’s choices,” he wrote.
McKay, who lives in Lalor, declined to comment beyond what was publicly available in court documents.
Recently, Spencer received a video message from her daughter, the first contact aside from a few brief emails they have had since late 2020.
“It was beautiful to see her. But Dave McKay is a scriptwriter who enjoys putting words into people’s mouths,” she said.
“I’m not going to go down the path of saying she’s brainwashed or anything like that. It’s all about persuasion. It’s all about coercive control.
“I love my daughter and I’m scared shitless for her wellbeing every day.”
The case is listed for trial in May.
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