Forensic accountants and specialist lawyers reject Wilkie’s charge of Hillsong breaking the law

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The extreme language used by MP Andrew Wilkie in tabling thousands of Hillsong documents in parliament last month has been rejected by a multinational accountancy practice Grant Thornton and a law firm specialising in non-profits, Prolegis.

A summary of the Grant Thornton report and a letter from Prolegis have been released on the Hillsong site.

In Parliament, Wilkie began his speech, “Last year, a whistleblower provided me with financial records and board papers to show that Hillsong is breaking numerous laws in Australia and around the world relating to fraud, money laundering and tax evasion.”  

Prolegis engaged Grant Thornton, a forensic consulting organisation, to respond to public allegations against Hillsong. 

Referring to the summary report from the accountants, Prolegis writes, “The factual matters established in the summary report do not support allegations that there has been unlawful conduct by entities that use the name Hillsong or its personnel, or that there has been non-compliance with their obligations as registered charities.

“The summary report demonstrates that the matters that have been alleged reflect a misunderstanding about the factual circumstances, the detail of transactions, or the arrangements generally.”

The responses from accountants and lawyers rebut Wilkie’s charge of illegal conduct.

However, Prolegis also commented, “Our initial observation is that allegations characterised as unlawful in the tabled material do not relate to unlawful conduct. Most of the allegations appear to relate to a concern about whether historic expenditure was appropriate in a church context. That is a discussion that should sensibly occur in a church context.”

This comment was picked up in a church meeting at Hillsong with the global senior pastor Phil Dooley stating, “While we have acted lawfully, we must consider whether we have been good stewards of church finances at all times. Changes in our practices to ensure we are honouring God and stewarding his finances better have been a priority of our new boards and leadership.”

Separating the role of the chair of the board and senior pastor and refreshing the Australian and global boards have been vital reforms. The old Hillsong had a structure that might have worked for a small local church – where it is common for a pastor to chair a local committee, but not for the denomination Hillsong has become.

A further independent financial review of Hillsong Australia by Corpus which specialise in the non-profit sector was announced at the church meeting.

Concern about practices that are not illegal but questioned in a church context falls into three main categories.

  1. A high level of honoraria payments to visiting pastors. The Other Cheek covered this issue here. and here
  1. The need to use independent people to investigate possible problems. That Hillsong is doing better at this than in the past is evidenced by their use of independent experts Prolegis and Grant Thornton, who have professional reputations at stake if they were to fail to carry out proper investigations.
  2. Treatment of volunteers, staff and students. This might be where work of repairing relationships will need to continue for a significant amount of time. However, this writer is impressed with a new staff “credo” issued by Hillsong alongside the Grant Thornton and Prolegis reports.

Some key quotes from the new staff “credo” issued by Hillsong, which, if viewed as repudiating past practices, is a compelling statement of intent.

The upside-down kingdom: We lead with humility and empathy, for we are a part of the “upside-down kingdom”; not to be served but to serve.”

I work with the widow’s mite: I understand that our work is funded by people’s giving. This generosity drives me to steward my time, resources and responsibilities in a way that honours people’s sacrificial giving. “

Best person = best option: We don’t position people on the basis of family, relationship, or connection. We craft our teams based on character and competence.”

Leaders find the gold in people: As a team leader, I’m not autocratic, but I actively invite others to contribute because I value collaboration and collective wisdom. I actively invite others to contribute their view and perspective when collaboration serves the goal. As a team member, I surface problems and commit to solving them together.” 

Break the glass ceiling Female leadership matters. We are committed to learn how to “break the glass ceiling” around gender, marital status and stereotypes.”