A woman who says she was branded a witch as a child and accused of giving her mother cancer fears the faith leader behind the claims is still operating in the UK today.
Phoenix Faith told Sky News she was starved, beaten and subjected to an exorcism where her head was shaved after attending a church group in London.
The former model, who moved to the UK from west Africa when she was a child, believes other victims of this kind of abuse are going undetected – and has urged them to come forward.
The Met Police investigated Phoenix’s allegations of child cruelty but said there was “insufficient evidence” to bring charges.
It comes after Sky News revealed beliefs in witchcraft have been linked to reports of rape, assault, false imprisonment and threats to kill in the UK since 2018.
‘I was brainwashed and tortured’
Phoenix said she began attending the church group when she was a child after her mother had received treatment for lung cancer.
She said that within weeks, a faith leader at the church claimed she was a witch who had caused her mother’s illness.
Phoenix told Sky News she was then “brainwashed” and “tortured” into admitting she gave her mother cancer.
She added: “(The faith leader) would hit me until breaking point when I would yell: ‘Yes (I am a witch)!'”
Phoenix said over several months at the church group, she was made to endure extreme fasting, suffer beatings with a broom and recite psalms on an hourly basis.
In one alleged incident, she said her head was shaved during an exorcism ceremony that took place near the sea.
Fighting back tears, Phoenix told Sky News: “It was pitch black and (the faith leader) shaved my hair and threw it in the ocean.
“I literally had no hair anymore.
“When I went to school… I used to have this bandana… and I would put that on my head.
“I would have people yank it away and run away and be like: ‘Where’s all your hair gone? Where’s all your hair gone?'”
‘Witchcraft accusation is something that ruins your life’
Phoenix said her mother was initially convinced by the faith leader’s claims that she was a witch and would beg her daughter: “Please, release me.”
“I said: ‘Mum, if I did have the powers, I would release you – I don’t have the powers’,” Phoenix told Sky News.
“Of course it made me feel horrible.”
Phoenix said she later discovered her “confession”, where she was forced to admit she was a witch, had been recorded on tape.
She believes this recording was used to convince others that she was involved in witchcraft.
Phoenix said it was a “huge relief” when her mother eventually stopped believing the faith leader’s claims but the alleged abuse had a lasting impact and “cut short” her modelling career as an adult.
“Witchcraft accusation is something that ruins your life for a long, long time,” Phoenix said.
“This is something I would say has ruined my life, stopped me from having friendships. I isolated myself for a long, long time.”
Phoenix said she is “extremely concerned” that the faith leader may still be running church groups and she reported her allegations to the Met Police in 2020.
However she was told by detectives in December 2021 that there was “insufficient evidence” to bring charges and the case was closed.
Phoenix has now urged anyone who has been subjected to abuse linked to witchcraft beliefs to contact police.
In a direct message to victims, she said: “I would implore you if you are out there, any of you, if you have ever experienced this kind of stigmatisation and this kind of witchcraft abuse, I would implore you to please come forward and go to the police and report it, or if you know anyone who has confided in you.
“Because this thing is a virus – it’s a hidden virus that you don’t hear of.”
Witchcraft abuse victims ‘beaten, burnt and cut’
Leethen Bartholomew, head of the National FGM Centre at Barnardo’s, expressed sympathy for Phoenix, saying her alleged ordeal would have been “a terrible thing for her to experience”.
He said he was aware of exorcisms in other cases where victims have been beaten, burnt and cut due to a belief that it will “create an opening” to allow an “evil spirit” to leave a body.
He also revealed some victims had been subjected to “half-strangulation” where they were brought to the “point of near-death”.
Mr Bartholomew told Sky News: “The idea is that you fool that evil spirit within that child that they’re going to die so the spirit leaves that body.
“The list can go on and on.”
Children killed in UK linked to witchcraft beliefs
In November, it was announced the Met Police would get new training in spotting the signs of child abuse linked to beliefs in witchcraft because they are often “missed or misdiagnosed”.
Such beliefs have previously been linked to the torture and murder of children in the UK, including eight-year-old Victoria Climbie in 2000 and 15-year-old Kristy Bamu in 2010.
The children’s charity Barnardo’s voiced concerns about a potential rise in cases during the coronavirus pandemic, warning that people contracting the virus could be labelled witches by those with such beliefs.
The charity also said cases could have been missed when children were not attending school during the COVID lockdowns.
Who has beliefs in witchcraft and who is targeted?
- The Met Police say abuse linked to beliefs in witchcraft or spirit possession can involve ‘ritual or satanic abuse’
- The force warns that ‘significant harm’ can occur, including murder, because of efforts to ‘exorcise’ or ‘deliver’ evil from a child or vulnerable adult
- Examples have been recorded across various religions including Christianity, Islam and Hinduism
- Latest figures show around 1,950 suspected child victims were identified by English councils in 2018/19 – a 34% increase on the previous year
- The number of known cases suggests that only a small minority of people who believe in witchcraft or spirit possession go on to abuse children and adults, the Met Police says
What has the Met Police said about Phoenix’s case?
In response to Phoenix’s case, a Met Police spokeswoman told Sky News: “In October 2020 we received a report of non-recent child cruelty that was alleged to have occurred.
“Following a thorough investigation and based on all evidence made available to officers, the decision was taken that the case did not meet the evidential test and no further action was taken.
“The complainant has been fully updated.”