On October 25th, the Australian 60 Minutes television program featured a follow-up to Liz Hayes’s 1998 skeptical investigation of João Teixeira de Faria, who is better known as "João de deus" or "John of god." João has been credulously promoted by Oprah Winfrey as a medium who channels the spirits of dead doctors and saints to perform miraculous healings for people from around the world who visit him each week at his “Casa” in Abadiânia, Brazil.
Here is a summary of what was revealed in this airing - though the title sort of gives it away...
In Part 1 of the follow-up, reporter Michael Usher revealed that a woman declared as cured of breast cancer by a spirit entity channeled by João died in 2003. A woman in a wheelchair with multiple sclerosis who, in the 1998 report said she visited to João with the expectation of walking again didn’t feel any effect, is still in a wheelchair, and her condition deteriorated. Her trip to the Casa cost $5,000. Usher said that none of the other people [forty Australians] who made the pilgrimage that Hayes joined for investigation improved.
Usher’s report mentioned that some of the thousands in João’s audience three days per week hope to receive “spiritual surgery” from him. These practices such as inserting scissors (or forceps) deep into a nose and scraping an eye without an anesthetic have been shown in previous stories about João. I was disappointed that Usher did not point out that James Randi and Joe Nickell have described these procedures as old carnival tricks.
João is also shown making various skin incisions without anesthetic or sterile procedure.
“…modern medical world could not condone this behavior in any way whatsoever,” said emergency medicine specialist Dr. David Rosengren in an extended interview.
Meeting John [de] Faria is free, but he often prescribes visits to these crystal beds [shown with colored lights shining on them]. At $25 a session, they earn him around $1.8 million a year. Then there’s the blessed water, a dollar a bottle. There’s a gift shop and next door to that, a pharmacy. It sells one thing: blessed herbal pills, only available by a John of God prescription apparently. They’re $25 a bottle and would make Mr. Faria about $40,000 a day. That’s more than $14 million a year.
Usher noted, as did Nickell, the pills contain nothing more than passionflower. In his book The Honest Herbal, Varro Tyler wrote that the herb is reputed to have sedative effects and has been used in sedative products in Europe, but in 1978, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration prohibited its use in over-the-counter sedative preparations because it had not been proven safe and effective.
According to Natural Medicines Comprehensive Database, passionflower has GRAS (Generally Recognized as Safe) status for use in foods in the US, is “possibly safe when used orally and appropriately for short-term medicinal purposes,” “possibly unsafe when used in excessive amounts,” but unsafe when used orally during pregnancy since“…passionflower constituents show evidence of uterine stimulation.” The database suggests its possibly effective for adjustment disorder with anxious mood, anxiety, and opiate withdrawal, but it “can cause dizziness, confusion, sedation, and ataxia” and there are some reports of more severe side effects including vasculitis and altered consciousness. A 34-year-old woman required hospitalization for IV hydration and cardiac monitoring following use of passionflower for therapeutic purposes. Passionflower received a moderate rating for interaction with anti-hypertensive and depressant drugs.
Part 2 of “John of God” Report
In Part 2 of his report, Usher stated that there were two deaths in recent years at the Casa that warranted investigations, but no one was charged.
He also reported that in 2010, when João visited Sedona, Arizona, the police department investigated him because a woman said he took her hands and placed them on his genitals; João also tried to pull down her skirt. The case never went to court; one of his associates encouraged the woman to drop the allegations.
Usher attempted to interview João, but the exchange became testy after Usher asked if João is more about money than miracles and if he ever sexually assaulted his followers. The report shows that João walked away, responded sarcastically to the interpreter following him that he sexually assaulted her mother, and returned to the interview insisting to see what has been recorded. He does not come off as godly in this investigation.
The Primetime Investigation and John Quiñones
On February 10th, 2005, the American ABC news magazine program Primetime aired a much more cordial interview of João by reporter John Quiñones, who also interviewed miracle monger Mehmet Oz, M.D. and James Randi for the program. Primetime aired Dr. Oz commenting about the forceps-in-the-nose trick: “I’m wondering if touching the pituitary gland may influence all those chemicals that go between the body and brain.”
As Randi described in Skeptic magazine, this speculation makes no anatomical sense, but viewers never got to hear this because Primetime chose to air only 19 seconds of Randi, selected to from the one-hour taping of Quiñones interviewing Oz and Randi to, in Randi’s words, “demonstrate what a cantankerous old curmudgeon I am, that I simply chose to rail against John of God as a quack.”
Although Quiñones is an award-winning journalist, the phony balance of his “John of God” investigation, featuring Oz, a cardiac surgeon, commenting about improvement from a brain tumor, was a disservice to his viewers.
More: From the Archives: Randi's inside scoop into ABC News' 'John of God' investigation (2005)
On June 2nd, 2005, on Primetime, Quiñones gave another report with similar false balance. The report hyped Protandim, a concoction of herbs, as a fighter of “oxidative stress” that might differ from “other supposed ‘miracle’ drugs and treatments that never delivered on their promise to delay or even stop human aging.” I was not surprised to learn this week about a Protandim promoting Web site called abcliveit.com, that was designed to look like an ABC News Web site by featuring on its homepage a link to Quiñones’s Protandim investigation on YouTube. The site also links to unimpressive peer-reviewed Protandim-related research on PubMed. Harriet Hall, MD has discussed hype for Protandim by analyzing the promotional claims by Protandim promoters, the weak evidence they present, their special pleading, and their objections to criticism.
In 2004, medical writer Clare Bowerman wrote in Skeptic magazine:
Better investigative features do more than hang an argument between opposing views. They consider the ordering of these views carefully, and seek to position and frame information so that readers can understand the merit of each viewpoint.
In contrast, the 1998 and 2014 investigations by the Australian 60 Minutes program were based on healthy skepticism and enabled viewers to understand the merits of contrasting viewpoints. In his report, Michael Usher acknowledged the value of hope, but also noted:
But hope can be a weakness too, making vulnerable people easy prey for the worst of humans. I’ve just met one such man, a man who claims to work miracles and heal the sick. He calls himself John of God, but there’s nothing godly about him. Thousand of people flock to him hoping for a cure to their pain, but leave fleeced of their money. You see John of God’s supposed healing isn’t free. He’s a thrifty businessman making tens of millions of dollars. And worst of all, our governments just granted him a visa and next month he’ll bring his show to Australia.