Over four decades, he worked as a celebrity faith healer in Abadiânia, a small town in central Brazil.
It was there – conducting bizarre and unproven medical procedures – that João Teixeira de Faria became known as John of God, building a legion of believers across the world, including a band of loyal followers in Australia who were happy to open their wallets for his supposed miracle-giving touch and ethereal blessings.
Each week, people from all corners of the globe flocked in their thousands to John of God’s compound, Casa de Dom Inacio, 130km south-west of Brasilia.
There, dressed in all white, many hoped to find a cure for cancer, blindness or to stand and rise from their wheelchairs.
Faria’s rising fame was elevated to a new trajectory, courtesy of some Hollywood star dust, when Oprah Winfrey came calling in 2010 for a series titled “Do You Believe in Miracles?”
In a since-deleted column on oprah.com, Winfrey wrote how she was overwhelmed by the experience of seeing Faria cutting into the breast of a woman without anaesthesia and that she left feeling “an overwhelming sense of peace”.
That appearance on Oprah’s mega platform ensured John of God attracted even more international attention, with Faria’s faith healing compound reportedly luring celebrities and stars, including supermodel Naomi Campbell and Brazilian footballer Ronaldo.
But it was regular people – often vulnerable – who were John of God’s bread and butter.
Among his followers, Faria became famous for conducting “psychic surgeries” that he said could cure diseases, including cancer.
The “psychic surgeries” involved supernatural invisible procedures using only the power of what Faria called the “Entity” – some kind of divine connection – to cure illnesses.
Faria’s other surgeries were much less whimsical.
He would slice people open without anaesthesia or push forceps deep inside the noses of patients who were willing to trust him with tools usually reserved for the hands of trained surgeons, which Faria was most definitely not.
Thousands of Australians, some terminally ill or suffering from debilitating sicknesses, reportedly visited his compound over the years, despite critics arguing the faith healer was nothing more than a charlatan, fleecing his believers for millions of dollars.
Crystal beds, blessed pills and cash
From a John of God pharmacy, blessed water in standard plastic bottles was sold for $1 and blessed herbal pills $25 a bottle.
It is estimated the pills generated sales of $40,000 a day, a haul of more than $14 million over one year.
An Australian doctor who travelled with 60 Minutes tested the pills and found they were nothing more than simple passionflower herbal supplements.
But Australians didn’t always need to make the long and expensive pilgrimage to Brazil to meet Faria.
In 2014, he came to them.
That year, despite concerns from NSW Fair Trading, the John of God roadshow rolled into Sydney, where an estimated 6000 people paid $295 for a day ticket, or $795 for the full three-day experience.
John of God flew back to Brazil with his bank account boosted by a seven-figure deposit.
Sexual abuse allegations hit like tidal wave
But in 2018, John of God’s self-proclaimed divine touch was being questioned and put under the spotlight.
Claims of sexual abuse at Faria’s compound had swirled years before a tidal wave of women went public with their stories.
In 2014, 60 Minutes had even put Faria on the spot with questions about his alleged sexual abuse, which he ignored, fleeing the interview and walking away from cameras.
But there was to be no escaping what was coming.
By early 2019, more than 250 women, including Faria’s daughter, had come forward to allege abuse that ranged from being inappropriately touched during treatments to rape.
Through his lawyer, Faria denied all accusations and was adamant there was no evidence to back up the claims.
But police and prosecutors pushed on, and the mounting accusations turned the then 77-year-old spiritual guru into Brazil’s first major figure to go down in the #metoo era.
In a damning account of her father, Faria’s daughter described him a “monster”.
And Zahira Lieneke Mous, a Danish choreographer, recounted how Faria had chosen to treat the trauma of her past sexual abuse.
During a first consultation, she said he placed her hands on his penis, and in a second encounter penetrated her from behind.
On 16 December 2018, as the number of sexual abuse accusations climbed to 600, Faria surrendered himself to the police.
Court documents showed that John of God tried to withdraw nearly $12 million from his bank accounts before he gave himself up.
In December 2019, Faria was handed the first of several sentences, jailed for 19 years and four months for four rapes of different women.