Women Drugged, Sexually Assaulted in 'Prayer Sessions'

Two men were arrested Friday and charged with 230 sex offenses police said they committed during prayer sessions with a woman who believed one of the men could cure her of a religious curse.

The men, aged 61 and 38 years, are highly regarded members of Sydney's Greek Orthodox and Coptic Orthodox communities, New South Wales state police said in a statement. Officials declined to release their names.

The 61-year-old man claimed to be a spiritual mentor who could speak to angels, remove curses and banish evil spirits, police said. After telling the 30-year-old woman she had been cursed, he charged her money to remove the evil and then repeatedly assaulted her over a period of four years, police said.

The 61-year-old was charged with 151 sexual offenses, and the 38-year-old charged with 79 sexual offenses, police said.

At a press conference Friday, Fairfield Police Acting Superintendent Gary Bailey declined to discuss details of the alleged assaults.

"I have never seen anything as bizarre as this or as callous as this before," he said.

The woman told authorities she believed she and her family had been cursed by a member of the Greek community and that they would suffer terrible consequences including death and illness unless the curse was removed. Police said she attended numerous prayer sessions with the men at various hotels in Sydney between 2001 and 2005, during which she was blindfolded and sexually assaulted.

Police said she paid the men up to 70,000 Australian dollars (US$56,200) for the sessions.

The two men were arrested in June — along with the 38-year-old's wife — over allegations of sexual assault on another woman, and charged with similar offenses, including sexual assault and extortion, police said. They were released on bail and the two men re-arrested on the new charges Friday.

Bailey said both women had been assaulted by the men at hotels, and both may have been drugged during the attacks. He declined to say how they might have been drugged.

Bailey said police believe the men also assaulted additional women.

"We will allege these women have been the cruel prey of callous individuals who used religious fear to manipulate and abuse them for their sexual gratification and financial gain," Bailey said in an earlier statement. "Sexual offenses are heinous but an offender who hides behind the cloak of religious respectability is particularly vile."

The men were expected to appear in court later Friday.

The Coptic Church is the native Christian church of Egypt, and has a doctrine similar to the Greek Orthodox and Russian Orthodox churches.

Bailey said both women come from religious families and were raised to follow the Orthodox faith, which includes a belief in the evil eye — a glance believed to harm those on whom it falls.

"We believe this was a major reason why they were persuaded into believing they were cursed," Bailey said.