Are megachurches stealing from people who want to get closer to God?
Stated by Christian Headlines, Andrew Wilkie, an independent member of the Australian Parliament, accused Hillsong Church founder Brian Houston and other leaders, including the newly named "Global Senior Pastor," Phil Dooley, of "shopping sprees that dwarf the Kardashian's" by laundering money and committing tax evasion. Wilkie's claims were backed up by reams of financial records and real board documents from Hillsong Church that he got from a whistleblower.
This money-making evangelical megachurch network's records also revealed that well-known American televangelists like Joyce Meyer and T.D. Jakes received honoraria totaling tens of thousands of dollars for their appearances before the church. Others, such as Chris Hodges, the founder and head of the Church of the Highlands, received "curious payments" in the meantime.
Wilkie said in his presentation to Parliament on Thursday that Hillsong breaks many laws in Australia and around the world about fraud, money laundering, and not paying taxes. "Last year, a whistleblower provided me with financial records and board papers that show this," Wilkie said.
When the COVID-19 pandemic hit in 2021, four members of the Houston family traveled to Cancun, Mexico, for a three-day luxury retreat, and they charged the church $150,000 for it, according to a document he then produced.
"These additional documents demonstrate how former leader Brian Houston used church funds to pay for private planes and Ubers. For instance, Brian Houston spent $55,000, $52,000, $30,000, $22,000, and $20,000 on travel over a three-month period," "Wilkie remarked.
Wilkie said that Dooley, who was just named Hillsong's new global senior pastor and got a lot of praise from the church's members, spent a lot of money with the troubled church's founder.
"Phil Dooley, the new leader of Hillsong, has claimed to church members that he only flies economy, but these documents show that he has accrued $58,000 in business-class flights for himself and his daughter to Guatemala, $42,000 in business-class flights to Mexico, and $32,000 in business-class flights from Cape Town to Sydney via the US," Wilkie said. "These documents show how that money is actually used to do the kind of shopping that would embarrass a Kardashian, despite the fact that Hillsong followers believe that the money they put in the poor box goes to the poor."
On October 7, 2016, Sydney, Australia's Brian Houston, senior pastor of Hillsong Church, delivered a speech at the Catalyst Conference in Atlanta, Georgia. | Activator
A $6,500 Cartier watch for Brian Houston's wife, Bobbie, $2,500 in Louis Vuitton luggage, a $2,500 watch for Phil Dooley, two watches worth $15,000 for Joel and Julia A'Bell, Saks Fifth Avenue shopping sprees for designer clothing, and $16,000 for custom skateboards are just a few examples of the extravagant purchases listed by Wilkie.
Cash gifts, according to Wilkie, also benefited those near the church's inner circle.
For instance, $15,000 for Darren Kitto's 50th birthday, $36,000 for Gary Clarke's 30th wedding anniversary, and $4,300 for his 60th birthday Additionally, up to $30,000 was given to board members, some of whom Wilkie claimed assisted in covering up the sexual abuse committed by Brian Houston's father, Frank Houston.
Wilkie also talked about "strange payments" made to Paul de Jong, the founding pastor of Life, a church with locations in New Zealand and Australia, and Chris Hodges, the founder and pastor of Church of the Highlands, one of the largest churches in the United States. Both Christian leaders were part of the team that looked into Houston's alleged sexual misconduct in 2019, which ultimately led to his expulsion from the church a year ago.
The payments of $10,000 each to Paul de Jong and Chris Hodges, the outside pastors who looked into claims that Brian Houston had sexually harassed a female parishioner in a Sydney hotel room in 2019, are also puzzling, Wilkie added.
The Australian politician cited the more than $1 million in royalties that Hillsong musicians like Joel Houston, Brian Houston's son, receive every year.
"According to the documents, Hillsong provided a $15.7 million loan that is highly unlikely to ever be repaid and was used to pay for the purchase of Melbourne's Festival Hall. On the surface, this doesn't seem noteworthy, but it is a business operation run by Hillsong's Community Venues company and is not entitled to tax-deductible church donations. All of this is in light of the documents also showing that Hillsong has an annual Australian income of $80 million more than it discloses publicly, "Wilkie remarked.
In his talk, Wilkie said that honoraria were a way for Hillsong Church to hide income. He used Jakes and Meyer as examples.
"These extra documents show how honoraria are used to hide income and avoid paying taxes." "This shows that the crime isn't just happening in Australia." Wilkie pointed out that U.S. pastors Joyce Meyer, T.D. Jakes, and others got honoraria of $160,000, $133,000, $100,000, and $32,000, respectively, and that T.D. Jakes also got a huge $77,000 in airfare to and from Australia.
"Mr. Houston receives his own eye-watering honoraria in return and travels to America. In some cases, it is also illegal for Australians to send millions of dollars in charitable donations abroad," he debated.
Wilkie also said that the records he has show that disgraced former Hillsong NYC pastor Carl Lentz was also getting "tens of thousands of dollars" to run his "celebrity green room to cover catering and the cost of gifts for visiting celebrities" on top of his roughly $220,000 tax-free salary each year.
In response to Wilkie's claims, a spokesperson for Hillsong told the media that the church network has been "open and transparent with our congregation about past governance failures" and that over the past year, it has hired independent, professional help to change the way it handles governance and accountability.
The statement reads, "Mr. Andrew Wilkie's claims made in federal parliament are out of context and relate to unproven allegations made by an employee in an ongoing legal case." It is disappointing that he didn't make an effort to get in touch with us before making these allegations, which were made under the protection of parliamentary privilege. If he had, we would have responded to his inquiries and given him access to our financial records to allay his worries."
Since the employee at the center of the legal dispute said these things, Hillsong has gotten advice on the matter from outside lawyers and accountants on the matter.According to Hillsong, all legal and compliance requirements have been met. "We've submitted a defense, and when the time comes, we'll present supporting documentation. Due to the ongoing legal dispute, we are unable to do so at this time. As part of their investigations, regulatory authorities are receiving our full cooperation."
Wilkie said that the church was not punished even though the whistleblower gave the documents to several watchdog groups, such as the Australian Charities and Not-for-Profit Commission.
"These documents have been authenticated by me. I'm surprised that none of the ATO, ASIC, or ACNC took advantage of the whistleblower protections offered to them last year," "Wilkie remarked. "That regulatory oversight lapse is just as worrisome as Hillsong's criminality. I now request permission to table the evidence the whistleblower gave me in order to correct this."
So this comes back to this question, are mega churches stealing from people that want to only get closer to God? Is it right what they are doing?
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