A whistleblower suing Hillsong in the Federal Court has alleged the megachurch funneled millions of dollars in payments through overseas entities to avoid scrutiny from Australia’s charities regulator.
Former Hillsong employee Natalie Moses has filed a lawsuit against Hillsong, claiming it violated the Fair Work ActIt alleges that its internal audits of Hillsong discovered that questionable accounting is unlikely to comply with the law Hillsong’s lawyers told the ABC it will defend the matter
ABC Investigations can reveal that the Australian Charities and Not-for-profit Commission (ACNC) launched an investigation into Hillsong in March, which is looking into its compliance obligations as a registered charity.
The existence of the ACNC investigation was revealed in Federal Court documents filed by former Hillsong employee Natalie Moses on Wednesday as part of a fair work case against the church.
The documents allege questionable financial record-keeping, misappropriation of church finances and claim that Hillsong leaders used tax-free money for “large cash gifts” to Hillsong’s founder, Brian Houston, and his family.
The 25-page statement of claim filed by Moses’ lawyers at Maurice Blackburn includes allegations that Hillsong illegally concealed its international transfers by making payments through its US-based entities.
Hillsong Church has yet to file a response in Federal Court and Ms Moses is the sole source of the allegations in her statement of claim.
Lawyers for the church told the ABC it will defend the matter.
“In addition, we have been informed that Hillsong is continuing to work with the inquiries made by the Australian Not-for-profit and Charities Commission,” they said.
“As the matter is now before the Federal Court of Australia, it is not appropriate to make any further comment.”
Ms Moses, who worked in the church’s finance department, claimed the Australian leadership team suspended her employment after she refused a directive to mislead regulators about her overseas activities.
Natalie Moses was employed by Hillsong for over two years.(supplied)
His lawyers argue that Hillsong contravened the Fair Work Act, claiming it breached its own whistleblower policy by preventing him from making serious complaints about the church’s financial operations.
“There are very serious allegations made by our client about Hillsong effectively misleading an investigation [by] the ACNC,” said Josh Bornstein, who is representing Ms Moses in her employment law case.
“There are concerns that Hillsong is defrauding the Australian taxpayer.
“On top of that, [the allegations] it also raises moral and ethical questions about the conduct of a religious institution and what appears to be a cowboy culture operating within this empire.”
Hillsong’s global empire includes campuses, ministries and musicians on six continents.Facebook: Hillsong)
Court documents allege that internal audits conducted by Ms Moses uncovered dubious accounting that is unlikely to comply with legislation and would discredit the church if such details were ever made public.
It claims this included leaders giving “significant” gifts to church leaders and their family and friends, as well as using credit cards to pay for international travel and designer goods.
Hillsong misled donors, according to whistleblower
Ms. Moses was hired as the Church Governance and Fundraising Coordinator on March 25, 2020.
His responsibilities included ensuring that the “Hillsong Global Corporate Group”, entities overseeing religious and business activities in Australia, the US and the UK, complied with the Australian Not-for-Profit Charities Act (ACNFP).
He alleged in his statement that the church repeatedly broke the charity’s rules, particularly regarding the transfer of money to finance projects abroad.
Peter Ridley, Hillsong CFO.Linkedin: Provided )
Many Australian Hillsong entities are prohibited from doing so because the money would no longer be subject to local oversight designed to ensure funds are properly spent on charitable services.
Ms Moses claimed she often raised concerns with CFO Peter Ridley about how Hillsong should manage its financial operations.
The statement of claim suggested the two were often at odds over church compliance obligations.
During a phone call in early March 2022, Ms Moses alleges she raised the alarm about Hillsong’s Australian entities asking for donations to renovate Melbourne’s iconic ‘Festival Hall’, which was bought by a Hillsong related entity in 2020.
He allegedly warned Mr Ridley that the church could be committing fraud and deceiving followers by spending money it falsely claimed was tax deductible.
Hillsong Church was accepting donations to renovate Melbourne’s iconic Festival Hall.(Provided by: Ruel/Michelle Grace Hunder)
He also complained that it was unethical and illegal for the church to use tax-deductible donations given to its charitable arm, the Hillsong Foundation Trust, in 2022 to cover the church’s $9 million deficit.
Hillsong Foundation Trust’s stated mission is to “bring healing and justice to vulnerable groups in the name of Jesus.”
Ms. Moses alleges during the phone call that Mr. Ridley “became angry and said he didn’t understand what Mrs. Moses’s problem was.”
“God protects the righteous”
Less than a month after the Festival Hall conversation, the ACNC launched an investigation into four Australian Hillsong entities to determine whether the church was meeting its legal obligations.
Around the same time, Ms Moses was tasked with preparing internal responses to the ACNC inquiry.
It was during a meeting on March 29, 2022 that Mr Ridley allegedly told key members of the finance department that the charity regulator was putting Hillsong under the microscope.
The statement of claim said the CFO stated at that meeting that God would protect Hillsong during the investigation because “God protects the righteous and Hillsong is the righteous.”
Ms Moses said it was after that March 29 meeting that she approached the ACNC anonymously about a whistleblower investigation and was advised to get independent legal advice.
Brian and Bobbie Houston established Hillsong in 1983 in North West Sydney. (Facebook: Hillsong )
It is alleged that in this meeting Mr. Ridley instructed Hillsong’s financial controller not to proceed with an outstanding cash payment representing five percent of the megachurch’s revenue, but to offset it with money owed.
“The consequence was that there was no record of any cash payment from Hillsong Church to the United States of America,” the statement said.
Ms Moses also alleged that Mr Ridley directed the finance department to reverse a payment due to a pastor in charge of Hillsong Tokyo as a “transactional error” and instead make the same payment from the entity US-based Hillsong Global.
An ACNC spokesman said it was “unable to comment or confirm compliance activity unless it is already in the public domain or we take action against a charity”.
“This action includes issuing warnings and directions, suspending or removing responsible individuals and ultimately revoking the charity’s registration,” the spokesman told the ABC.
Ms Moses claimed she ultimately decided not to launch a whistleblower investigation because she hoped the ACNC investigation would force the church to rectify its compliance issues.
However, he continued to keep records and copies of his conversations with Mr Ridley. Her lawyers say she is prepared to take them to court if necessary.
“The lie could bite him in the ass”
According to the statement of claim, Ms. Moses’ internal audit of the church’s finances uncovered questionable expenses, as well as the need for church leaders to better declare conflicts of interest.
It also alleges that artists who were classified as “pastors” received half of their salaries tax-free, while earning millions of dollars in royalties from music sales.
Maurice Blackburn attorney Josh Bornstein is representing Ms. Moses in her employment case against Hillsong Church.ABC News: Sean Warren)
On May 30, 2022, Ridley told ACNC investigators that Hillsong did not send money overseas beyond small purchases of services and that its US operations were separate from its Australian entities.
Ms Moses claimed she told the CFO she had lied to the regulator and warned the ACNC could easily disprove it by obtaining board documents or making the connection that Australian staff were running its US entities.
“Ridley’s lie could bite him in the ass,” the statement reads.
That same month, Ridley is understood to have asked Ms Moses ahead of a meeting with the ACNC to help put together an acceptable story telling them of transactions between Hillsong’s global entities, which had previously raised concerns with the regulator.
“Ms Moses said she was not comfortable with lies being told to the ACNC,” her claim reads.
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Court documents say the relationship between Ms Moses and Hillsong collapsed on June 10, when she discovered she had lost access to her company emails and file sharing.
On June 14, she said Hillsong notified her she was suspended.
The statement of claim said Hillsong expressed concern that Ms. Moses had downloaded about 40,000 confidential work documents, which Ms. Moses claims was necessary for her daily duties.
Court documents state that the following day, June 15, Hillsong staff were informed that Ms. Moses was taking personal leave.
Ms. Moses alleges that a Hillsong HR representative emailed her about 24 hours later, threatening to contact the police if she did not return another laptop.
The case brought by Ms Moses is expected to be heard in the Federal Court later this year.