The Not So Divine Acts of Medium ‘John of God’

Felipe Nogueira

John of God (João de Deus, real name João Teixeira de Faria) is a well-known Brazilian medium who claims to have healed several people through his spiritual surgeries. According to one John of God website, he is “arguably the most powerful unconscious medium alive today and possibly the best-known healer of the past 2000 years.”

John of God’s healing center is located in Abadiânia, a small town in Brazil’s central-west region that has a population of about 20,000. Opened in the 1970s, the healing center is named Casa Dom Inácio de Loyola. It is visited by about 2,000 people each week, including international travelers seeking John of God’s alleged healing skills. Part of his popularity might be explained by the fact that Brazil is the country where Spiritism has the largest number of followers. It was Chico Xavier, one of the most important Spiritism leaders in Brazil, who directed John of God to create his now-famous healing center.1

Several videos on YouTube show John of God performing spiritual (or “psychic”) surgeries in his healing center. He claims the surgeries are performed when he is channeling the spirits or entities of past doctors and saints. John of God’s repertoire of surgeries does not seem to vary much, from doing an incision with a scalpel in the abdominal skin to inserting forceps up the nose to superficially scraping the eye with a knife. Most people, if not all, wear white clothes. The surgeries are free of charge, as is attending the healing center. However, John of God also prescribes an herbal medicine that is only sold in his healing center’s pharmacy. Due to a high number of visitors, the tourism business in the city has largely expanded.

In 1991, TV Globo, Brazil’s largest TV broadcaster, made a TV show about Brazil’s spiritual surgeons, John of God being among them. A couple of his “patients” were interviewed about possible surgery effects. Not everyone reported improvements, and that’s the case of women with eye problems given the eye scraping surgery. But even in the case of claimed benefits, it is difficult to confirm the person was really cured. For instance, a woman claimed that she was able to move one of her paralyzed arms, while the other arm continued to be “semi-paralyzed.”

Medium John of God performs so-called “psychic surgery” while supposedly channeling the spirits of past doctors and saints.

In 2005, James Randi was asked to give his opinion for an ABC-TV show about John of God. After that, Randi wrote a comprehensive analysis of John of God’s procedures (Randi 2014). Randi explains that the surgery involving the forceps up the nose is actually an old trick from India and first done in America in 1926. It is known as the “Blockhead trick,” and, according to Randi, it’s performed today by performers in carnivals and sideshows around the world. Moreover, Randi stated that his famous million-dollar prize would be given if someone could scrape the eye’s cornea with a knife with no anesthesia without producing a flinch in the person.

Joe Nickell published a Skeptical Inquirer article in 2007 about his attendance at one of John of God’s events in Atlanta. Nickell was directly instructed to wear white clothes because “it helps frequency.” Nickell was spot-on when he wrote: “They are pseudosurgeries that have no objective medical benefit other than the well-known placebo effect.” Interestingly, he also mentioned that emotions—such as those of the pilgrims at the John of God healing center—might trigger endorphin release, which could help reduce pain sensitivity (Nickell 2007).

In 2016, VEJA magazine (Lopes and Nogueira 2016) reported that a year earlier, feeling abdominal pain, John of God was given an endoscopy that revealed an aggressive stomach cancer. Instead of spiritual surgery, John of God chose real, proven medical surgery that took ten hours to remove the six-centimeter tumor. He also used chemotherapy for five months. When asked why he chose science rather than another faith healer like himself, John of God replied, “Does the barber cut his own hair?”

John of God became internationally famous when an episode of The Oprah Winfrey Show was devoted to him in 2010. Oprah Winfrey herself traveled to Abadiânia in 2012 to interview him and attend one of his healing sessions; she later said, “What I just witnessed almost made me pass out.”

She was not the only celebrity to pay him a visit. The long list includes Shirley MacLaine in 1991, Naomi Campbell in 2015, Paul Simon in 2017, and Ronaldo (the Brazilian soccer star) in 2018. Two former Brazilian presidents were “treated” by him: President Lula, after being diagnosed with larynx cancer, was briefly visited by John of God and had a spiritual surgery, and President Dilma Rousseff also had several surgery sessions in 2008.

But the image of a “saint” healer in a person who brings God in his own name now has been tainted. On Friday, December 7, 2018, Brazilian journalist Pedro Bial, for his talk show Conversa com Bial, interviewed ten women claiming to have been sexually abused by John of God.2

One woman, who did not want to be identified, went to Abadiânia in 2013 after going through a divorce. In the open session, the claimed entity in John of God told her to meet the medium in his private room after the session. In it, John told her he would be behind her to perform an “energy alignment.” Then John told her to put her hands on his penis, as that was the cleansing and she needed his energy that comes only that way. Another victim, a Dutch choreographer named Zahira Mous, came forward with a similar abuse report and confessed she did not go to the police because she was afraid that evil spirits would be sent and her life would become miserable. Furthermore, even though she suffered, Mous thought for a while that he was healing many people. Mous came forward in April 2018 when she posted on Facebook what happened to her at one of John of God’s sessions.

Portion of the abuse report by Dutch choreographer Zahira Mous.

 

The show also included Amy Biank, a tourist guide who had previously worked in the healing center. Biank used to bring many pilgrims to the Casa. One day she was waiting outside John’s private room. Biank heard a yell for help and entered the room, where she witnessed John of God with his pants down and a woman on her knees who was being forced to perform oral sex on him. Biank explained that she was instructed to sit on the couch and shut her eyes. She did so, later recognizing that at the time she was indoctrinated to listen to John of God and to think that the healing center was holy. After a second yell, Biank opened her eyes, which stopped John of God, who said the girl has passed a “test” and was “special.” To stop this from happening with more women, Biank talked to the Casa’s workers. One of them told Biank she cleaned a little girl’s mouth of supposed “ectoplasm,” which in fact was John’s semen.

In the following days, five more cases were announced in the media. To investigate the reports against John of God, the Public Prosecutor’s Office of Goias state organized a task force consisting of five attorneys and two psychologists. In only a day and a half, the task force received seventy-eight complaints. The number of complaints has since grown dramatically to 330 on December 13 and 600 on December 16.

It got worse. In a shocking cover story headlined “My Father Is a Monster,” VEJA magazine interviewed Dalva Teixeira, one of John of God’s daughters. She claimed to have been abused and raped between the ages of ten and fourteen. At age fourteen, she got pregnant by one of the workers at John of God’s center. After discovering the pregnancy, John beat her so badly that she lost the baby and still carries scars from the attack. Teixeira, according to some media reports, sued her father, requesting a compensation of fifty million reais (around $13 million).

One week after the first accusations were broadcast by Bial’s show, the Public Prosecutors’ Office requested the arrest of John of God, after he withdrew thirty-five million reais from several bank accounts. He was considered a fugitive for almost a day, surrendering himself to the police on December 16. During investigations at John of God’s residences, the police found six firearms, precious stones, and more than 1.5 million reais in cash, leading to an investigation for money laundering. 

The revelations have shocked many Brazilians, who considered John of God a sacred healer and holy man. But in fact this was not the first time he was accused of a crime. As Nickell noted, John of God had been charged and jailed briefly due to the illegal practice of medicine. Moreover, in 1980, John of God was accused of homicide but was not charged due to lack of evidence. This homicide and other criminal accusations of John’s past were brought to light in a new update report on his case by TV Globo in March 24. For instance, one of his victims claimed that in 1973 John of God raped and attempted to murder her with three gunshots. A CT scan confirmed the woman’s claim that one of the bullets was still inside her neck. On March 22, John of God was transferred from the prison to a hospital, where he has been since. (As of May 20, he is only allowed to stay in the hospital until May 31.) 

This horrible situation brings up important questions from the skeptical movement. For instance: Where were other spiritual mediums? Why couldn’t (or didn’t) they stop it? Remember that Chico Xavier3 allegedly channeled messages regarding John of God’s mission. But during all those years of abuse no medium in the world channeled any spirit that could warn or say something about John of God? Furthermore, skeptics such as Randi and Nickell have argued that John of God was no more than a charlatan. This situation also illustrates what many skeptics have pointed out: people of faith have a low bar to believe something is true. We have to continue to expose charlatans such as John of God and keep asking for good evidence, even if it offends some believers. What is really offensive is not asking for evidence; it is taking advantage of people in what might be the most desperate moments of their lives and abusing them in the name of their faith.

 


Acknowledgments

I thank Bruno Oliveira for his comments and suggestions for this article. I also thank Ricardo Costa and Daniel Fleischman for countless reviews and discussions in previous articles.

 


Notes

  1. John of God’s official website says the Casa was opened by him in 1976 in Abadiânia. The website, however, also says that in 1978 spirits sent a message to John through his friend Chico Xavier, designating the town of Abadiânia to host the center. The website confusion continues, stating that Chico Xavier channeled a new message in 1993, which confirmed that Abadiânia was the city for John’s mission. In that year, a family donated the land where today the healing center is located. Was the center already opened for several years or not?
  2. Journalist Pedro Bial interviewed ten women, but due to TV time constraints only four appeared on his talk show.
  3. Chico Xavier and his claimed psychographic skills have been analyzed previously and concluded to be a fake by Kentaro Mori (Mori 2010).

 


References

Felipe Nogueira

Felipe Nogueira received his PhD in medical science from Rio Janeiro State University (UERJ). He has a master’s degree in computer science. As a science writer, Nogueira was a regular columnist for Skeptical Briefs—the newsletter of the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry. He has also made contributions to Skeptic magazine. His articles can be found at https://skepticalinquirer.org/authors/felipe-nogueira/ and http://skepticismandscience.blogspot.com/.