Church and state: What’s next for City Harvest?

Oct 27, 2015 10.05AM |

by Yoong Ren Yan

WE’VE finally heard the City Harvest trial verdict, and we’re just waiting for sentences to be handed down. But another delicate matter has surfaced again.

Last Wednesday, the office of the Commissioner of Charities (COC) announced that it would resume proceedings to remove seven church office-holders, including senior pastor Kong Hee. They can continue religious duties, but might be barred from serving as governing board member, key officer, trustee, agent, or employee. COC’s investigations had been postponed in August 2013 until the trial ended.

Why is COC interfering in what some might view as internal church matters? In general, churches that are registered as charities, including City Harvest, are granted tax-exempt status and other protections. In return, through COC, the G ensures that charities remain accountable to donors, members, and the public at large.

COC has been at pains to emphasise that it acts to protect charities from misconduct or mismanagement – not to interfere in internal affairs. The instruments at its disposal, however, are extensive.

According to the Charities Act, after conducting an inquiry, COC may not only remove office-holders, but bar them from membership, restrict financial transactions, appoint key staff at its own discretion, and control an errant charity’s property. These powers are subject to the Attorney-General’s approval, and can be appealed to the High Court.

None of these powers, except removal, is being invoked for City Harvest. But even these measures were hotly contested by church leaders before the trial. Some argued that, if Kong Hee and others were cleared of all charges, COC would have no grounds to remove them. This is not quite right: the standard of evidence for a criminal conviction is higher than the COC’s, and rightfully so. But after the verdict, it’s hard to imagine that the convicted leaders will keep their positions.

No matter what the result of COC’s inquiry is, the Charities Act also bans those “convicted… of any offence involving dishonesty or deception” from management positions in charities (Section 27(1)(a)). So the five office-holders convicted of criminal breach of trust, at least, will go. Another two office-holders were suspended by COC but not charged in court – their fate is less clear.

When will these removals happen? COC wants to “consider fully and fairly all representations received” first. And those affected still have the right to appeal to the High Court.

Beyond complying with disciplinary action, charities here are also obliged to submit annual reports to COC, including detailed financial information. COC says it’s been monitoring City Harvest’s finances closely since the trial began.

Financial information for City Harvest is missing from COC’s Charity Portal. We did a little sleuthing on the Portal, and found the finances for two other megachurches here, New Creation Church and Faith Community Baptist Church. These statements include, for instance, various categories of income and expenditure, and amounts in different funds. Why this secrecy for City Harvest? Wouldn’t the church want to show that its finances have been in order? Or is it sufficient to show churchgoers and COC, but not the public?

Charities here are also encouraged to improve internal governance. COC’s Code of Governance recommends that larger charities like City Harvest ensure that board members are independent, finances are audited, and conflicts of interest disclosed. In particular, because the board oversees charity staff, staff should make up no more than a third of board members, and should not chair the board.

Last Saturday, at his first public appearance since the verdict, Kong Hee pointed to improvements City Harvest has already made to its governance. According to him, “a significant majority” of the board are not staff. But its exact compliance with the Code is unclear, at least to the public.

Charities must submit a checklist to COC annually, detailing whether they comply with the Code. Although these checklists need not be made public, the two other megachurches have disclosed them on the Charity Portal. On board independence, they adhere to the Code of Governance. In contrast, City Harvest has not released its checklist – perhaps it should.

As with the National Kidney Foundation scandal in 2005, this case is bound to trigger some soul-searching about how charities – and churches in particular – are governed. Could the shady dealings have been detected earlier? Should COC take on greater powers? Should it empower whistle-blowers? How can the G maintain the trust of both religious groups and the broader public?

As these concerns are addressed, for better or worse, we won’t be seeing the back of the City Harvest saga just yet.


Featured image Old & New Side by Side by Flickr user William ChoCC BY-SA 2.0.

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