Priest 'put charity at risk' by fundraising to pay Islamic State hostage ransoms, regulator finds

The Charity Commission has published its report on the Christian aid charity the Foundation for Relief and Reconciliation in the Middle East, which was founded by Canon Andrew White

Canon Andrew White (Photograph: David Wong/South China Morning Post via Getty Images)
Canon Andrew White (Photograph: David Wong/South China Morning Post via Getty Images)

An Anglican priest who fundraised at a charity event for donations to pay ransoms for hostages held by Islamic State "put the charity at risk", a Charity Commission report indicates.

A commission inquiry report, published today, says that a trustee of the Christian aid charity the Foundation for Relief and Reconciliation in the Middle East solicited donations totalling $17,500 (£13,400) at a fundraising event for the charity’s US-based sister organisation.

The report does not identify the trustee in the report, but Third Sector understands the person is Canon Andrew White, founder and former trustee of the charity, who has been dubbed the Vicar of Baghdad after serving as vicar of St George's church in the city between 2004 and 2014. 

The money was given directly to White. The regulator’s report says emails he sent show he probably planned to use it to secure the release of two female hostages being held as sex slaves by IS, although the commission found no evidence that he had actually managed to do so.

White, who was also an employee of the charity and had previously been its president, was suspended from his job by the rest of the board in June 2016, and the commission suspended him as a trustee the following month after opening its inquiry. He eventually resigned from both roles in October 2016.

White was interviewed by police under caution in relation to allegations of financing terrorism, the report says, but no further action was taken.

The inquiry also found he had made frequent personal purchases on a charity credit card and, although the money was recovered by the board each month, it did not try to stop him spending it in the first place.

The commission could find evidence to support only 5 per cent of the £38,521 of expenditure made with the card between January and October 2016. All other staff with charity credit cards spent a total of £12,083, 100 per cent of which was supported by evidence.

The inquiry found that White often failed to provide sufficient evidence of what charitable funds had been spent on.

The report concludes that White’s behaviour amounted to serious misconduct and mismanagement and was likely to have caused significant damage to the charity’s income and reputation.

The report adds that trustees did make attempts to deal with White’s behaviour, but did not do so effectively, despite having opportunities to do so, and this represented a collective failure and mismanagement by the trustees.

Tim Hopkins, assistant director of investigations, monitoring and enforcement at the commission, said concerning behaviour from one trustee had put the charity at risk and demonstrated a disregard for the standards expected of him.

"Although the charity’s other trustees were clearly let down, they failed to intervene effectively as we would have expected," he said.

But he added that the board had made "significant progress" since the inquiry opened.

The trustees cooperated with the inquiry and three new skilled trustees and an experienced chief executive have now been appointed, the report says. Board subcommittees have been created to allow closer oversight, and staff management policies have been updated, it adds.

In a statement, the charity said it accepted the commission’s findings.

Mike Simpson, its new chief executive, said trustees had reacted swiftly to events in 2016 and had made "major improvements" to the charity’s governance, which he said would "put the charity in a much stronger position going forward".

The charity had also improved its financial controls, risk management, funding regime and whistleblowing policies, said Simpson.

He said: "I am delighted to have been able to assist the trustees in making these improvements.

"I believe that this robust and effective governance enables the charity to move forward with confidence.

"We have a mission to bring hope, help and healing to the Middle East, and we are demonstrating our ability to do that through the generosity of our supporters across the world."

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