House debates

Thursday, 9 March 2023


Hillsong Church

12:35 pm

Photo of Andrew WilkieAndrew Wilkie (Clark, Independent) Share this | Hansard source

Last year a whistleblower provided me with financial records and board papers that show that Hillsong is breaking numerous laws in Australia and around the world relating to fraud, money laundering and tax evasion. For example, this document shows how, in 2021, four members of the Houston family and their friends enjoyed a three-day luxury retreat in Cancun, Mexico, using $150,000 of church money. These other documents show former leader Brian Houston treating private jets like Ubers—again, all with church money. For example, in one three-month period, Brian Houston's trips cost $55,000, $52,000, $30,000, $22,000 and $20,000. Meanwhile, the new head of Hillsong, Phil Dooley, has told church followers he only flies economy, but these documents show him clocking up $58,000 in business-class flights for him and his daughter to Guatemala, $42,000 in business-class flights to Mexico and $32,000 in business-class flights from Cape Town to Sydney via the US.

Hillsong followers believe that the money they put in the poor box goes to the poor, but these documents show how that money is actually used to do the kind of shopping that would embarrass a Kardashian—for example, a $6,500 Cartier watch for Bobbie Houston, $2,500 in Louis Vuitton luggage, a $2,500 watch for Phil Dooley, two watches worth $15,000 for Joel and Julia A'Bell, shopping sprees for designer clothes at Saks Fifth Avenue and even $16,000 for custom skateboards. Then there are the cash gifts—for instance, $15,000 for Darren Kitto's 50th birthday, $36,000 for Gary Clarke's 30th anniversary and $4,300 for his 60th birthday, plus up to $30,000 to board members, some of whom allegedly helped cover up the sexual abuse carried out by Frank Houston, Brian Houston's father. There are also the curious payments of $10,000 each to Paul de Jong and Chris Hodges, the external pastors who investigated allegations of Brian Houston's 2019 sexual misconduct in a Sydney hotel room involving a female parishioner.

The documents also show church donations being used to pay more than a million dollars a year in royalties to Hillsong musicians like Joel Houston, who's Brian Houston's son. Moreover, the documents show a $15.7 million loan from Hillsong—very unlikely ever to be repaid—which funded the purchase of Festival Hall in Melbourne. At face value this appears unremarkable, except that this is a commercial venture run by Hillsong's Community Venues company and is ineligible to benefit from tax-deductible church donations. All of this is in the context of the documents also revealing that Hillsong earns $80 million more in Australian annual income than it reports publicly.

The criminality isn't limited to Australia, as evidenced by these further documents which show how honorariums are used to disguise income and avoid tax. For example, US pastor Joyce Meyer enjoyed honorariums of $160,000, $133,000, $100,000 and $32,000, and US pastor TD Jakes received $71,000 and $120,000, with a staggering $77,000 worth of airfares to and from Australia thrown in. In return, Mr Houston goes to America and receives—you guessed it—his own eye-watering honorariums. Moreover, sending millions of dollars of Australian charitable donations overseas is illegal in some circumstances. The documents also show disgraced former head of Hillsong New York Carl Lentz being paid a salary of $220,000, most of it tax-free, and tens of thousands of dollars of church donations to run the New York church's celebrity greenroom to cover catering and the cost of gifts for visiting celebrities. The documents show that Hillsong Australia guaranteed a $5½ million loan for Hillsong London to purchase the former Hippodrome nightclub, all from tax-exempt Australian income at a time when London was experiencing serious financial trouble.

I've verified that these documents are genuine. I'm shocked that, when offered to the ATO, ASIC and ACNC last year under whistleblower legislation, not one of those agencies acted. That is a failure of regulatory oversight every bit as alarming as Hillsong's criminality. To remedy this, I now seek leave to table the evidence provided to me by the whistleblower.

Leave granted.


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