Government should act on welfare institutions.
This is the second part of a series on the Hillsong whistleblower files. Read the first part here.
A year ago, for about a day, the Hillsong megachurch was rocked after it was revealed that its founder, Pastor Brian Houston, allegedly high on a mixture of alcohol and anxiety pills, had taken a woman’s hotel room. Spent 40 minutes in the room. Supporter of Hillsong.
It was a great moral blow against Houston and the church.
Now there is a second shock, this time potentially more deadly than the first.
A trove of internal Hillsong documents, tabled in Parliament by Independent MP Andrew Wilkie, has threatened the church with serious damage if they support his parliamentary claims. (Hillsong has yet to respond.)
Apart from claims made by Wilkie under parliamentary privilege, the documents may offer the clearest insight yet into how Hillsong does business for the first time.
What is that method? Since its early days, Hillsong has operated through charities that attract tax exemptions. The tax breaks are numerous: they give Hillsong exemptions from fringe benefit tax, GST and – most importantly – church income. Some Hillsong charities are able to offer tax deductions for donations. All of these tax breaks are enabled by the Australian Government and to some extent underwritten by the taxpayer. They are perfectly legal.
Over the years, Hillsong has established around 20 different charities in Australia. To this already labyrinthine structure, he has added dozens more in the United States and other countries around the world. Some charities are shrouded in complete secrecy. In Australia the same charities can be subject to both federal and state laws, meaning that liability falls between the cracks.
Hillsong’s archive of internal documents can shed light on the complexity of how Hillsong does business. If indeed inappropriate, it would raise serious questions about the adequacy of Australia’s charity laws when it comes to regulating a complex, multi-national not-for-profit entity that launders tens of millions of dollars through its accounts. . decades – and who has access to the best financial and accounting minds in the business.
On top of that are questions of governance that surround Hillsong. The church may have dozens of charities, but over the years they have all been run by the same small group of board members who are loyal to the church’s founder, Houston. This has been in public knowledge for some time.
Hillsong’s public documents show that Hillsong has millions of dollars in “loans” between various charities. They also show that Hillsong “donates” funds to other Hillsong charities. In the opaque world in which Hillsong operates (along with other churches), the details of these cross-charity transactions have become impossible.
This is partly because important financial information is kept secret – even from the government regulator – at some religious charities.
The documents submitted by Wilkie are not yet publicly available but are part of the explosive claims made by Hillsong whistleblower Natalie Moses as part of federal court proceedings that began in August last year. Can provide evidence.
Moses’ extensive statement of claim alleged a number of breaches of Australian charity laws and raised the possibility that Hillsong had tried to mislead the charities regulator. Hillsong has denied the allegations. The Australian Charities and Not for Profit Commission (ACNC) began investigating Hillsong’s charities about a year ago. But the regulator – which operates in secret – has not commented on what it found.
Hillsong, it should be pointed out, is not the only religious organization to use Australian charities as the basis of its business model. The megachurch has set an example for other Pentecostal/Evangelical churches in Australia to use many non-profit organizations in their structures and areas of work.
Traditional religious denominations, led by the Catholic and Anglican churches, also have millions of dollars locked up in secret charities and take full advantage of tax breaks.
It is therefore important that the Australian Government takes steps to ensure that charity-based organizations such as Hillsong are properly regulated and have real accountability to the taxpayer.
It also matters to thousands of Hillsong congregations. Many may be shocked by claims – yet to be verified – that the money they give and the faith they offer may have been used by the church to benefit a relatively small handful of people.
If there is a sense of deception, it can seriously damage the moral contract between Hillsong and its congregants.
Judicial results are one thing. Violating Christian values is another, as Brian Houston found out for himself when he tried unsuccessfully to return to the Church after committing moral violations.
The revelations could prove explosive not only for Hillsong, but also for the Australian government and its charity regulator.
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