Settle issue in court, not the church

MUCH disquiet has followed the arrests of key leaders of the City Harvest Church (CHC) over allegations that they had misused over $50 million of church funds to promote the music career of Ms Ho Yeow Sun, the wife of pastor Kong Hee, the church’s founder. Her secular music had been described earlier by the pastor as part of a ‘cultural mandate’ to extend the church’s reach.

The criminal breach of trust charges brought against the five leaders are plainly neither about the church itself nor the ‘Crossover Project’ (the church’s plan to widen its reach through pop music) per se. Also, the authorities have been at pains to emphasise that the court action was directed at the individuals and not the church, which would be able to carry on with its religious work unimpeded.

The issue before the courts is one of governance.

  • At issue is not a question of whether church members minded that their money was used to support the music career of their pastor’s wife (some clearly don’t).
  • The central question is whether funds were diverted without the knowledge of the church’s executive members. If so, who knew what, when and why?
  •  Nor is it a matter of whether the funds used were eventually returned. A crime would have been committed if funds were diverted for uses that the church’s executive leadership was kept in the dark about.

The weekend’s effusive demonstration of support for the five leaders by CHC members would seem natural enough,

  • given their strong personal loyalty to their charismatic pastor.
  • Earlier, some leaders of the church had come out to expressly state that they ‘stand with’ the five who have been charged and reject any suggestion that funds had been misused.
  • They went on to claim there was restitution of funds and those charged gained no personal profit.

Such comments are ill-advised at this juncture.

  • It is established practice for all parties to refrain from commenting on the merits of a pending case, as the court is the right and proper forum for all evidence and arguments to be presented and debated.
  • By coming out strongly in public to refute the charges, the CHC’s leaders are raising the ante needlessly.
  • A confrontational stance carries implications that have a bearing on the delicate balance between religion and the state.

A calm and measured response would be more appropriate while the case is before the courts. This case raises several larger issues on governance in religious groups and charities that will continue to reverberate even after it has been dealt with by the court. For now, it would be prudent for all parties to prevent passions from running high, and counsel patience for the law to take its course.

Editorial, StraitsTimes, 02, July 2012

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