Private jets, Cartier watch: Hillsong under probe in Australia after claims of misuse of church funds

Tasmanian independent MP Andrew Wilkie also accused the church’s founder, Mr Brian Houston, of spending lavishly on luxury retreats, designer goods, private jets and custom skateboards.

Amanda Lee

Amanda Lee

The Straits Times


Hillsong founder Brian Houston was accused of spending lavishly on luxury retreats, designer goods, private jets and custom skateboards. PHOTO: SCREENGRAB FROM BRIANCHOUSTON/INSTAGRAM

March 13, 2023

SINGAPORE – Australian megachurch Hillsong is under investigations for financial misconduct by the local authorities following allegations that its founder used church funds for his lavish lifestyle, among other things.

Last Thursday, The Sydney Morning Herald reported that Tasmanian independent MP Andrew Wilkie had in Parliament accused the church of breaking financial laws in Australia and around the world.

He also accused the church’s founder, Mr Brian Houston, of spending lavishly on luxury retreats, designer goods, private jets and custom skateboards.

Mr Wilkie had used parliamentary privilege, which refers to special legal rights and immunities which apply to each House of the Parliament, its members and committees, to make these allegations.

Saying that the allegations were leaked to him by a whistleblower, he said they included claims that the church earned A$80 million (S$71 million) more income in Australia than it reported publicly.

“Hillsong followers believe the money they put in the poor box goes to the poor,” said Mr Wilkie, who was quoted in Australian TV news network 9News.

“These documents show how that money is actually used to do the kind of shopping that would embarrass a Kardashian,” he added, referring to the prominent American family known for its wealth and extravagance.

Mr Wilkie tabled thousands of pages in 17 large ring-binder folders, claiming that they were internal documents and financial records from the church.

They included credit card statements, records of the use of private jets, designer gifts and details of first class and business flights.

A 42-page whistleblower disclosure statement also highlighted further examples of the alleged spending.

Holding up a piece of paper in Parliament, Mr Wilkie said: “For example, this document shows how in 2021 four members of the Houston family and their friends enjoyed a three-day luxury retreat in Cancun, Mexico, using A$150,000 of church money.”

He added: “A A$6,500 Cartier watch for Bobbie Houston, A$2,500 for Louis Vuitton luggage, a A$2,500 watch for Phil Dooley, two watches worth A$15,000 for Joel and Julia A’Bell, shopping sprees for designer clothes at Saks Fifth Avenue and even A$16,000 for custom skateboards.”

Mr Wilkie said that the documents showed Mr Houston “treated private jets like Ubers, again all with church money. For example, in one three-month period, Brian Houston’s trips cost A$55,000, A$52,000, A$30,000, A$22,000 and A$2,000”.

Among the documents, the Houstons allegedly “failed to disclose it was the tithes incomes” from the Hillsong congregation that paid for their upgrade of hotel quarantine accommodation of A$5,389 on top of the mandatory government quaratine fee of A$4,016, after returning from a United States trip in 2020.

The documents also claimed that the church’s spending include A$82,000 on allowances for pastors and executive staff to purchase meals, A$26,000 on entertainment, A$37,000 on flowers, A$171,000 on gifts, A$288,000 on honorariums to guest speakers, A$13,000 on high tea.

“Conversely, the amount spent on helping ‘people in need’ included just A$2,900 for pastoral care direct costs, and A$1,500 on pastoral care visitations,” the whistleblower’s documents alleged.

In March 2022, Mr Houston resigned from Hillsong after acting inappropriately towards two women and had covered up sex abuse.

Mr Wilkie also claimed that the new head of Hillsong, Mr Phil Dooley, has misled the congregation about his spending.

Hundreds of thousands of dollars in honoraiums were also paid to US pastors overseas, he claimed.

“Sending millions of dollars of Australian charitable donations overseas is illegal in some circumstances,” said Mr Wilkie.

The leaked documents also claimed that the church employs celebrity songwriters and designates them as pastors, so they receive a portion of their salary tax-free.

A spokesman for Hillsong said that the church had been “open and transparent with our congregation about past governance failures, and over the past 12 months we have engaged independent, professional assistance to overhaul our governance and accountability procedures”.

The church said that the claims made by Mr Wilkie were out of context and related to untested allegations made by an employee in an ongoing legal case, reported The Sydney Morning Herald.

“These allegations, made under parliamentary privilege, are in many respects wrong, and it is disappointing he made no effort to contact us first. If he did so, we would have answered his questions and provided him with financial records to address his concerns,” said the spokesman, adding that the church is fully cooperating with the regulatory authorities as part of their inquiries.

The Sydney Morning Herald article also said that Mr Wilkie claimed that the documents were offered to the Australian Tax Office, the Australian Securities and Investment Commission and the Australian Charities and Not-for-profits Commission (ACNC) in 2022 under the whistleblower legislation.

“Not one of those agencies acted, and that is a failure of regulatory oversight every bit as alarming as Hillsong’s criminality,” said Mr Wilkie said.

However, ACNC commissioner Sue Woodward said in a statement to 9News that the ACNC is investigating concerns raised about Hillsong Church charities.

Assistant Minister for Charities Andrew Leigh, who oversees the ACNC, said Mr Wilkie “has raised a number of serious issues, and I understand the ACNC will review the allegations and documents”, reported The Sydney Morning Herald

A spokesman for the tax office said that the agency could not comment on the tax affairs of any individual or entity.

“We can assure the community that we take whistleblowers and their tip-offs very seriously, and analyse every tip-off. As above, due to taxpayer secrecy, we cannot inform a whistleblower about any action that is being taken or has been taken as a result of a tip-off.”

Mr Houston, who is in his 60s, founded the 150,000-strong church in Sydney with his wife, Bobbie, in the 1980s.

Hillsong Church operates in at least 28 countries and has its own record label.

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