One of the most important functions of the Charity Commission is to reassure the public that charities are properly regulated and, in particular, that they do not play fast and loose with their donors' money.
The commission has just completed a long and expensive investigation into the activities of the Kingsway International Christian Centre, and the report makes disturbing reading. The dominant impression is that the charity has got off very lightly. The concern must be that this will hinder rather than help in that vital task of public reassurance.
The commission found that the centre's pastor, Matthew Ashimolowo, enjoyed "unauthorised trustee benefits" that included free accommodation, a £120,000 birthday party, a new car and a timeshare apartment in Florida. The explanations offered were that the party was for the congregation and the timeshare was so he could use exchange apartments instead of hotels when travelling abroad for the church. You can almost hear the disbelieving guffaws down at the Dog and Duck.
The commission's decision to allow Ashimolowo to stay on as pastor with a new contract obliging him to pay back £200,000 out of his salary is remarkably lenient in the circumstances. One of the justifications given for the decision is that the pastor was supported by significant parts of the congregation and that his presence was essential for the future of the church.
The implications of this argument are very worrying.
It suggests, first, that the commission's priority is ensuring the survival of charities rather than making sure they obey charity law. It also suggests that the ordinary rules about the consequences of wrongdoing should be set aside in the case of a church. In other spheres of life - in business, for example, and perhaps in non-religious charities - behaviour such as this would, quite rightly, attract more serious consequences.
The comment of one senior lawyer - that the commission appears to handle religious charities with kid gloves - hits the nail on the head. Surely there is an argument that the commission would do better to be especially vigilant about religion. There is an impression that there can sometimes be a man with a Mercedes behind some of the groups on the fringe. The fact that he might be charismatic and might have persuaded people to see him as a spiritual leader, and to tolerate whatever he chooses to do with their money, should not mean that he gets special treatment from society's guardians.