Hillsong Church allegedly made 'large cash gifts' to founder Brian Houston, family: lawsuit

Hillsong founding Pastor Brian Houston
Hillsong founding Pastor Brian Houston | Screenshot: NBC/"Today" show

Though Hillsong Church founder Brian Houston boasted about his denomination's "record of excellence in financial accountability globally and an unwavering commitment to financial integrity" just over a year ago, a new lawsuit filed by a suspended employee alleges the Australia-based megachurch misappropriated donations and gave "large cash gifts" to Houston, his family and other church leaders.

The lawsuit was filed in Australia earlier this month on behalf of Hillsong employee Natalie Moses as part of a Fair Work Act case against the church, ABC News reported.

The Australian Charities and Not-for-Profits Commission is reportedly investigating the church since March to verify if the organization complies with Australian regulations governing the operation of charities.

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It is alleged that it was around this time that Moses, who works in the church's financial department, was asked to prepare internal responses for the ACNC investigation.

Peter Ridley, the church's chief financial officer, allegedly told key financial department members during a March 29 meeting that God would protect Hillsong during the investigation because "God protects the righteous and Hillsong is the righteous."

After this meeting, Moses reportedly sought to make an anonymous whistleblower complaint to the ACNC, and she was advised to speak with an attorney.

In her lawsuit, Moses alleges the church engaged in many questionable financial practices in what her attorney, Josh Bornstein, calls a "cowboy culture."

The allegations against the Hillsong Church headquarters include that leaders illegally disguised international transfers by making payments through its U.S.-based entities.

According to the lawsuit, Moses was employed as the church's fundraising and governance coordinator on March 25, 2020.

Among her responsibilities was ensuring the "Hillsong Global Corporate Group" — entities overseeing religious and business activities across Australia, the U.S. and the U.K. — complied with the Australian Charities Not-for-Profit Act.

The lawsuit alleges that internal audits conducted by Moses uncovered questionable financial records that were unlikely to comply with Australian legislation.  

Along with claims that church leaders made "significant" gifts to church directors and their family and friends, Moses said they used church credit cards to pay for international travel and designer products.

Moses claims she was suspended after refusing to lie to regulators about Hillsong Church's overseas transactions.

"There are very serious allegations that our client makes about Hillsong effectively misleading an investigation [by] the ACNC," said Bornstein, according to ABC News. 

"There are concerns that Australian taxpayers are being ripped off by Hillsong," he explained. "On top of that, [the allegations] also raise moral and ethical issues about the conduct of a religious institution and what appears to be a cowboy culture operating within that empire."

Hillsong Church attorneys told ABC that they won't comment on Moses' allegations because the case is now before the court.

"We are further instructed that Hillsong is continuing to work with the enquiries made by the Australian Charities and Not-for-Profit Commission," they said. "As the matter is now before the Federal Court of Australia, it is inappropriate to make any further comment."

Houston resigned as Hillsong Church's global senior pastor on March 23 after it was revealed that two women made serious complaints of misconduct against him in the last 10 years.

His resignation also came just over a year after the U.S. arm of Hillsong Church was rocked by allegations of financial abuse from former members who said pastors frequently splurged tithe money on lavish expenses. This accusation came on the heels of a sex scandal that erupted at the Hillsong NYC location.

In his response to allegations of financial misconduct, Houston boasted about the church's record of excellence.

"We are particularly grieved that, in many cases, inaccurate accounts in these stories have been reported as if they are true. Hillsong Church strongly refutes that our culture casually allows for such gross misuse of church funds," Houston said. "In fact, these stories are especially troubling since Hillsong has a record of excellence in financial accountability globally and an unwavering commitment to financial integrity."

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