HEALTH authorities have widened the inquiry into the unreported death of a US holidaymaker on farmland near Inverell belonging to a religious cult, launching an investigation into two nurses who were allegedly present.
Irene Maendel collapsed of a suspected stroke in March 2010 while visiting her son, Chris Maendel, who is a senior figure and resident doctor with the Bruderhof, a strict Christian movement whose members live on a property named Danthonia, near Inverell.
To the disbelief of some of Ms Maendel’s friends and relatives, Dr Maendel and his father, Jake, decided not to send her to a nearby hospital for specialist care.
She was instead kept at Danthonia and given repeated doses of morphine while the 170-strong flock took turns to pray at her bedside.
She died six days later and was buried on the property, without the police or coroner being informed.
A Fairfax investigation last week revealed Dr Maendel’s involvement would be examined by the Health Care Complaints Commission (HCCC) disciplinary tribunal, which starts in Sydney’s District Court today.
It can also be confirmed that two registered nurses and Bruderhof members, Andrew Blough and Anthony Fischli, will appear before a separate Nursing and Midwifery Professional Standards Committee hearing in May.
The news comes as the Dutch-based granddaughter of Bruderhof founder Dr Eberhard Arnold lashed out at the movement, labelling it “a cult”.
Dr Arnold founded the Bruderhof in Germany in 1920, aiming to build a community in which love and justice overcame isolation and greed.
“I am so angry and sad,” his granddaughter, Elizabeth Bohlken, said.
“It has become the exact opposite of what my grandfather set out to achieve.”
She described the death of Irene Maendel, her lifelong friend, as horrific, saying: “The story needs to be told, and judged by human standards and laws today.”
In June 2010 the NSW Police launched an investigation into the death, after complaints from Ms Maendel’s US-based son, James, and his wife, Nicole.
The detective in charge found Ms Maendel was full of life in the days before her death, and at one stage she expressed puzzlement over why she was confined to bed.
At an inquest in October 2011, coroner Michael Holmes listed an “inter-cranial haemorrhage with hypertension” as the cause of death.
He refused to address information, submitted as part of the brief of evidence, that questioned whether Ms Maendel’s death had been turned into a “church event”.
Mr Holmes declined to make any recommendations, due to the HCCC inquiry running parallel to the hearing.
That investigation has since found Dr Maendel breached NSW Medical Board guidelines when he treated an immediate family member and signed her death certificate.
At the hearing, he will be asked why he did not take his mother to a specialist neurologist or arrange for a potentially life-saving MRI scan.
In the week since Fairfax broke the story, feedback has poured in from Ms Maendel’s former friends, ex-members of the Bruderhof and from another son, who argues that her last days were “the culmination of a full and rich life that ended in the way she would have chosen”.
Len Maendel is one of her 10 children and said he supported the “decisions made”, adding: “I am personally grateful to know my mother could live out her last days with my father at her side and surrounded by people she loved.”
Ms Bohlken described the early Bruderhof days as “joyful and happy”. But between 1950 and 1960, she said, a US commune became the power centre of the movement.
“The fundamentalist attitude to matters of faith in the American churches, where new members were recruited, as well as their financial fortunes, turned the Bruderhof into a sect – a cult. Over the years this only got stronger,” she said.
Members take lifetime vows of obedience and poverty, and the US-based group controls the finances and operations of more than 20 Bruderhof communes worldwide.
Danthonia senior pastor Randall Gauger maintained the Bruderhof had no policies that overrode decisions made by patients and families on end-of-life care.