Further serious problems coming to light within the global Hillsong movement has caused Interim Global Senior Pastor Phil Dooley to respond swiftly to allegations from a whistleblower who is suing Hillsong in the Federal Court, the whistleblower claiming “the megachurch moved millions of dollars in payments through overseas entities to avoid scrutiny by the Australian charities regulator.” ABC Investigations article is published belong Phil’s response.
- Former Hillsong employee Natalie Moses has filed a case against Hillsong, claiming it breached the Fair Work Act
- She alleges her internal audits of Hillsong uncovered dubious bookkeeping unlikely to be compliant with legislation
- Hillsong’s lawyers told the ABC it will be defending the matter
A whistleblower suing Hillsong in the Federal Court has alleged the megachurch moved millions of dollars in payments through overseas entities to avoid scrutiny by the Australian charities regulator.
The existence of the ACNC probe was revealed in Federal Court documents lodged by former Hillsong employee Natalie Moses on Wednesday as part of a Fair Work case against the church.
The documents allege dubious financial record-keeping, the misappropriation of church finances, and claim Hillsong leaders used tax-free money for “large cash gifts” to Hillsong founder Brian Houston and his family.
The 25-page statement of claim filed by Ms Moses’s lawyers at Maurice Blackburn includes accusations Hillsong illegally hid its international transfers by making payments through its US-based entities.
Hillsong Church is yet to file a response in the Federal Court and Ms Moses is the sole source of the allegations in her statement of claim.
The church’s lawyers told the ABC it will defend the matter.
“We are further instructed that Hillsong is continuing to work with the enquiries made by the Australian Charities and Not-for-Profit Commission,” they said.
“As the matter is now before the Federal Court of Australia, it is inappropriate to make any further comment.”
Ms Moses, who worked within the church’s financial department, claimed the Australian leadership team suspended her employment after she refused a directive to deceive regulators about its overseas activities.
Her lawyers argue Hillsong contravened the Fair Work Act, claiming it breached its own whistleblower policy by preventing her from raising serious complaints about the church’s financial operations.
“There are very serious allegations that our client makes about Hillsong effectively misleading an investigation [by] the ACNC,” Josh Bornstein, who is representing Ms Moses in her employment law case, said.
“There are concerns that Australian taxpayers are being ripped off by Hillsong.
“On top of that, [the allegations] also raise moral and ethical issues about the conduct of a religious institution and what appears to be a cowboy culture operating within that empire.”
Court documents allege internal audits conducted by Ms Moses uncovered dubious bookkeeping unlikely to be compliant with legislation and which would bring the church into disrepute if those details were ever made public.
She claims this included leaders making “significant” gifts to church directors and their family and friends, as well as using credit cards to pay for international travel and designer products.
Hillsong was misleading donors, whistleblower alleges
Ms Moses was employed as the church’s fundraising and governance coordinator on March 25, 2020.
Her responsibilities included ensuring the “Hillsong Global Corporate Group” — entities overseeing religious and business activities across Australia, the US and the UK — were compliant under the Australian Charities Not-for-Profit (ACNFP) Act.
She alleged in her statement of claim the church repeatedly breached charity rules, particularly in regard to transferring money to fund overseas projects.
Many Australian Hillsong entities are prohibited from doing this because the money would no longer be subjected to local oversight designed to ensure the funds are appropriately spent on charitable services.
Ms Moses claimed she regularly raised concerns with chief financial officer Peter Ridley about how Hillsong should manage its financial operations.
The statement of claim suggested the two were often at loggerheads about the church’s compliance obligations.
During a telephone call in early March 2022, Ms Moses alleges she raised the alarm about Australian Hillsong entities asking for donations to renovate Melbourne’s iconic “Festival Hall”, which was purchased by a Hillsong-related entity in 2020.
She allegedly warned Mr Ridley the church may be committing fraud and misleading its followers by spending money it was falsely claiming was tax deductible.
She also complained it was unethical and illegal for the church to use tax-deductible donations given to its charity arm, the Hillsong Foundation Trust, in 2022 to cover the church’s $9 million deficit.
The Hillsong Foundation Trust’s stated mission is “to bring care and justice to vulnerable groups in the name of Jesus”.
Ms Moses alleges during the telephone call Mr Ridley “became angry and dismissive and said he just did not understand what Ms Moses’ problem was”.
‘God protects the righteous’
Less than a month after the Festival Hall conversation, the ACNC commenced an investigation into four Australian Hillsong entities to determine if the church was complying with its legal obligations.
At about the same time, Ms Moses was tasked with preparing internal responses to the ACNC investigation.
It was during a March 29, 2022 meeting that Mr Ridley allegedly told key members of the financial department that the charity regulator was putting Hillsong under the microscope.
The statement of claim said the chief financial officer declared in this meeting that God would shield Hillsong during the probe because “God protects the righteous and Hillsong is the righteous”.
Ms Moses said it was after this March 29 meeting that she approached the ACNC anonymously about making a whistleblower inquiry and was advised to obtain independent legal advice.
It is alleged that in this meeting Mr Ridley instructed Hillsong’s financial controller to not proceed with a pending cash payment representing five per cent of the megachurch’s income, but instead offset it against money owing.
“The consequence was that there was no record of any cash payment from Hillsong Church to the United States of America,” the statement of claim reads.
Ms Moses also alleged Mr Ridley directed the finance department to reverse a payment owed to a pastor responsible for Hillsong Tokyo as a “transaction error” and instead make the same payment from the US-based Hillsong Global entity.
An ACNC spokesperson said it was “unable to comment or confirm on compliance activity unless it is already in the public domain, or if we take action against a charity”.
“Such action includes issuing warnings and directions, suspending or removing responsible persons, and ultimately, revoking charity registration,” the spokesperson told the ABC.
Ms Moses claimed she ultimately decided against lodging a whistleblower inquiry because she hoped the ACNC’s investigation would force the church to rectify its compliance issues.
However, she continued to keep records and copies of her conversations with Mr Ridley. Her lawyers say she is prepared to produce them in court if necessary.
‘Lying could bite him in the butt’
According to the statement of claim, Ms Moses’s internal audit of the church’s finances uncovered questionable expenditures as well as a need for church leaders to better declare conflicts of interest.
She also alleges artists who were classified as “pastors” were receiving half their salaries tax-free, while also earning millions of dollars in royalties from the sale of music.
On May 30, 2022, Mr Ridley allegedly told ACNC investigators that Hillsong did not send money overseas beyond small service purchases and that its US operations were disassociated from its Australian entities.
Ms Moses claimed she told the chief financial officer he had lied to the regulator and warned the ACNC could easily disprove him by obtaining board documents or making the connection that Australian staff were managing its US entities.
“Ridley’s lying could bite him in the butt,” the statement of claim reads.
That same month, it is alleged Mr Ridley asked Ms Moses ahead of a meeting with the ACNC to help come up with an acceptable story to give them that would explain transactions between Hillsong’s global entities, which had previously concerned the regulator.
“Ms Moses said she was not comfortable coming up with lies to tell the ACNC,” her claim reads.
Court documents state the relationship between Ms Moses and Hillsong collapsed about June 10, when she discovered she had lost access to her company emails and share files.
On June 14, she said Hillsong advised her that she was suspended.
The statement of claim said Hillsong expressed concern that Ms Moses had downloaded some 40,000 confidential work documents, something Ms Moses claims was necessary to her daily duties.
Court documents state the next day, on June 15, Hillsong staff were informed Ms Moses was taking personal leave.
Ms Moses alleges she was emailed about 24 hours later by a Hillsong human resources representative who threatened to contact the police if she did not return another laptop issued to her.
The case brought by Ms Moses is expected to be heard in the Federal Court later this year.
Source: Hagar Cohen and Kevin Nguyen, ABC Investigations, https://www.abc.net.au/news/2022-08-12/hillsong-church-allegedly-mislead-charities-regulators/101324578
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