News analysis: 'Kid glove' treatment for Kingsway

Should a free-spending evangelical pastor have faced more severe punishment? Mathew Little reports.

When in December 2002 the Charity Commission appointed receiver-managers to the evangelical Kingsway International Christian Centre, citing the "possible misapplication of funds", senior pastor Matthew Ashimolowo was defiant. The regulator, he claimed, had misconstrued the charity's upholding of "biblical principles" as the deliberate flouting of charity law.

Nearly three years later, in the aftermath of one of the longest commission investigations ever staged, costing £1.2m, the principles at stake seem more material than spiritual.

And the sanctions imposed by the Charity Commission show, to some, an undue deference to religious charities.

Among the "unauthorised trustee benefits" Ashimolowo enjoyed were free accommodation at the charity's expense, a £120,000 birthday party and a new car. He also used the charity's Visa card to buy a timeshare apartment in Florida. The pastor and his wife, both trustees, were paid £384,600 between 1992 and 2000, contrary to charity law.

New charity

The commission ordered the creation of a new charity and board, which was registered in February. But Ashimolowo gets to stay on, although his new employment contract includes a condition that he repay £200,000 to KICC out of his salary.

"The commission determined that to pursue further restitution in respect of the senior pastor or unauthorised benefits received by the other trustees was not in the best interests of the charity," the inquiry report states.

But some believe the regulator should have wielded a bigger stick. "The results of the inquiry are surprisingly lenient," says lawyer Rosamund McCarthy, consultant at charity specialists Bates, Wells and Braithwaite.

"While some religious charities get into a muddle over the leader being on the trustee board and having their accommodation paid - such as the minister and his or her vicarage - in this case, huge sums were paid for the senior pastor's birthday party, a car and a timeshare. It seems incredible that the senior pastor is still involved as an employee after showing such blatant disregard for charity law."

The charity itself is penitent about having breached charity law by paying a trustee, but denies deliberate wrongdoing. "We made honest mistakes," says Charlotte Coker, director of communications at Kingsway. "There was never any intention to defraud. If there was, the Charity Commission would have shut us down."

The timeshare purchase was aimed at saving money for the charity by enabling Ashimowolo to stay in exchange apartments, rather than hotels, on his frequent overseas trips, it claims, adding that he paid back the money as soon as the issue was raised. The £120,000 birthday celebration included food and drink for the congregation and a company car, and the £384,600 paid to the pastor and his wife amounted to a 'salary' of £48,000 a year (wrong, because it was to trustees not employees) but was not excessive.

"Pastor Matthew is a man of integrity," says Coker. "The report would make anybody question that, but people here wouldn't tolerate a leader who is stealing our money."

Kenneth Dibble, director of legal services at the commission, says investigators took into account the nature of KICC in ruling out further action against Ashimowolo.

"Evangelical churches are founded around a senior spiritual figure," he says. "We took the view that he was supported by significant parts of the congregation. He was essential for the future of the church."

But the commission will not explicitly state that fraud did not take place. "I'm not going to take a view on the extent to which it may have been fraudulent," says Dibble. "The timeshare apartment may have been used by Ashimowolo as an aspect of his ministry, or a benefit to him for carrying out pastoral work for the organisation.

"But that's not the way charity law sees things. This was unauthorised personal benefit that needed authorising. The other trustees lost sight of the dividing line between personal interests and the interests of the charity."

But McCarthy says the case demonstrates that the commission uses kid gloves when dealing with religious charities. "Would this happen in a secular organisation?" she asks. "If it was a cancer charity would the key individual still be involved after using the charity's assets in this way? My view is no - there would be an outcry.

"This shows the mismatch between religious organisations and charitable status," she adds. "Governance is not supposed to be personal. Sometimes the direction of a religious organisation is directly related to the teachings of a charismatic individual or guru. This kind of case makes you question how compatible religious organisations and charitable status are."

- See Editorial, page 22.

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