The beleaguered Hillsong Church is under fire again, this time facing allegations of misusing funds in conduct that has the potential to amount to obtaining a benefit by deception – which is a type of fraud, as well as money laundering and tax evasion.
The accusations have come from Independent Federal MP Andrew Wilkie under the protection of parliamentary privilege.
What is parliamentary privilege?
Section 49 of the Commonwealth Constitution provides immunity from both civil and criminal liability to both houses of parliament, their committees and members, for actions undertaken and statements made in the course of parliamentary duties; including within parliament.
This immunity is known as parliamentary privilege, and essentially enables politicians to say what they like within parliament without being subjected to adverse legal consequences.
Allegations of misusing Church funds
Mr Wilkie tabled documents in parliament which he says show Hillsong Church earns over $80 million more in Australian income than it reports publicly.
He adds that despite being offered the financial files last year, neither the ATO nor ASIC or has investigated the possibility of fraudulent activity and money laundering in relation to the undeclared millions, which he views as a total failure in regulatory oversight.
In statements to the media, ASIC pointed out that as a registered charity, Hillsong is regulated by the Australian Charities and Not-for-profits Commission (ACNC), not by ASIC.
The ATO said it could not comment on tax affairs of any individual or entity, because of its legal obligations in relation to confidentiality.
Mr Wilkie says financial documents provided by a whistleblower show hundreds of thousands of dollars spent on first class and business class airfares for the Church’s Australia founder, Brian Houston and his wife, as well as for current Church leader Phil Dooley and his family.
The Independent MP further alleges there are also records which indicate transactions involving a commercial venture, which is not eligible to benefit from tax-deductible church donations.
He adds that Church money has been used to pay more than $1 million annually in royalties to Hillsong musicians including Brian Houston’s son, and that Hillsong made a $15.7 million loan to its community venues company, which he claimed was used to purchase Melbourne’s Festival Hall.
He says documents also detail spending by Brian Houston’s wife Bobbie, who received a $6500 Cartier watch, and that “cash gifts” of up to $30,000 were made to Hillsong board members, some of whom allegedly helped to conceal the alleged abuse conducted by Brian Houston’s father.
He asserts that donations are being used inappropriately – and donors are being misled about how the funds they give to the Church are being used.
Hillsong Church disputes Mr Wilkie’s allegations, contending they are patently false or taken out of context.
The Church admitted having governance issues, but says it is engaging with regulators as part of an ongoing legal case.
Plagued by serious allegations of abuse of power
The allegedly undeclared $80 million is just the latest in a string of scandals plaguing Hillsong Church.
Brian Houston was charged in August 2021 with concealing a serious indictable offence over his decision not to inform police about a sexual assault allegation made against his father Frank Housten in the late 1990s, and his father’s subsequent admission when his son raised it with him.
Last year, a court heard that Brian Houston was advised his father would be imprisoned if charged over child abuse and further, that he believed the victim did not want the matter reported to authorities.
Mr Houston has pleaded not guilty to concealing his father’s offence and will defend the charge primarily on the grounds he had a “reasonable excuse” not to report the crime.
The case returns to the Downing Centre Local Court later this year.
Mr Houston, who is a personal friend of former Prime Minister Scott Morrison, also a member of the Hillsong congregation, stepped down from the Church leadership last year after an internal investigation found he had engaged in inappropriate behaviour with two women.
A number of women have also made allegations in recent times of being sexually assaulted by members of the Church community. No criminal charges have ever been laid, but the women involved say they were not supported by the Church when they spoke up, nor were their perpetrators disciplined.
The Church has defended itself by saying that ‘forgiveness and redemption’ are cornerstones of their beliefs.
These instances have put a major dent in the Church’s reputation.
What’s next for Hillsong?
What the future holds for Hillsong Church remains to be seen.
It would appear that Hillsong, like many other religious organisations, is grappling with allegations of abuse of power – financial and sexual – by Church leaders.
It is possibly a reason why Australians are walking away from organised religion in droves. More Australians than ever before are reporting they belong to ‘no religion’ — 38.9 percent of Australia’s population reported having no religion in the 2021 Census, an increase from 30.1 percent in 2016 and 22.3 percent in 2011.