Charities probe likely over Hillsong tax evasion claims

Hillsong accused of money laundering, tax evasion

Australia’s charities watchdog is expected to review damning allegations of tax evasion and money laundering levelled against Hillsong church.

It comes a day after independent MP Andrew Wilkie used parliamentary privilege to accuse the Hillsong church of multiple abuses of parishioners’ donations to fund lavish trips and lifestyles.

Hillsong has disputed the Tasmanian MP’s allegations, saying his remarks were out of context and based on “untested allegations”.

“We are a different church than what we were 12 months ago and we are under a new pastoral board leadership,” the church said in a statement.

“The claims that were made in federal parliament by Mr Andrew Wilkie are out of context and untested allegations made by an employee in a legal case.”

Mr Wilkie claimed on Thursday that tens of thousands of leaked financial records and documents show misuse of church funds and lavish spending.

He said the money was spent on “the kind of shopping that would embarrass a Kardashian” and show former Hillsong leader Brian Houston, who stepped down last year, “treating private jets like Ubers”.

“Hillsong followers believe that the money they put in the poor box goes to the poor, but these documents show how that money is actually used to do the kind of shopping that would embarrass a Kardashian,” he said.

In a three-month period Houston used church money for trips costing $179,000, Mr Wilkie said, and the documents showed four Houston family members and friends spent $150,000 of church money on a luxury retreat in Cancun, Mexico in 2021.

It’s also alleged the new head of Hillsong, Phil Dooley, spent tens of thousands of dollars on business-class flights for him and his daughter.

“Hillsong followers believe that the money they put in the poor box goes to the poor but these documents show how that money is actually used to do the kind of shopping that would embarrass a Kardashian,” Mr Wilkie said in parliament’s Federation Chamber.

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

Mr Wilkie also alleged Hillsong earns $80 million more in Australian annual income than it reports publicly.

He said the leaked financial records and documents were provided to the Australian Taxation Office and the Australian Securities and Investments Commission under whistleblower protections, but they failed to act.

Education Minister Jason Clare said it was important the serious allegations were examined by those two bodies and the charities watchdog.

“If you are a member of the congregation and you’ve made donations to the church, then you’d be legitimately worried about where your money has gone here,” Mr Clare told Seven’s Sunrise program.

On Thursday, he said the nature of the allegations and “the nature of the response from the church” seemed like “the sort of thing that the tax office needs to take seriously”.

Assistant Minister for Charities Andrew Leigh told the ABC he understood the Australian Charities and Not-for-Profits Commission would review Mr Wilkie’s claims and documents.

Neither the ATO nor the ACNC has commented publicly.

In its public response, Hillsong said the allegations were made under parliamentary privilege and were “in many respects wrong”. It said it was disappointed that Mr Wilkie made no effort to contact the church first.

“If he did so we would have answered his questions and provided him with financial records to address his concerns,” the statement said.

“Hillsong has sought independent legal and accounting advice on these matters since the employee involved in the legal case made these claims, and we believe that we have complied with all legal and compliance requirements.”

Houston is fighting accusations he concealed his late father’s child sexual abuse and has pleaded not guilty to a charge of concealing the crime until his father’s death in 2004.

The case will resume in June.

Hillsong announced in April 2022 it had accepted Houston’s resignation after it was found he had breached the church’s moral code by having inappropriate relations with two women.

-with AAP

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