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Murder charges after man’s death in church beating – updated*


CBS News reports…

“The pastor of an insular New York church where a young man was beaten to death and his younger brother seriously injured was among seven people charged Tuesday with murder.

Pastor Tiffanie Irwin’s mother, Traci Irwin, also was charged in a 13-count indictment, as were Irwin’s two brothers, Joseph and Daniel Irwin. Also named were the victims’ father, Bruce Leonard; their half-sister Sarah Ferguson; and two other church members – Linda Morey and her son, David Morey.

Authorities have said “spiritual counseling” spiraled into an all-night gang attack on Lucas and Christopher Leonard inside the Word of Life Christian Church, a red-brick former elementary school in New Hartford that serves as both a church and a home for the Irwins.

The indictment charges all but Daniel Irwin with second-degree murder in the Oct. 12 death of 19-year-old Lucas Leonard. All eight face charges of manslaughter, kidnapping, assault and gang assault for the attacks on Lucas Leonard and his 17-year-old brother, who survived.

The eight defendants were in court Tuesday, but plea information was not initially available.

Police initially charged six people, including both of the victims’ parents, but the pastor and her mother were not among them.

Oneida County District Attorney Scott McNamara said the victims’ mother, Deborah Leonard, would be charged separately. Her attorney, Devin Garramone, said she would be arraigned next week on charges of first-degree assault in the death of Lucas Leonard and second-degree assault for the attack on Christopher Leonard.

That would be a reduction from the initial manslaughter charge she pleaded not guilty to in October. There will be no bail, the attorney said.

Attorneys for the other defendants could not immediately be reached for comment on the accusations, and some of them did not have lawyers in court Tuesday.

McNamara said he could not comment further on the case because of a gag order issued by the judge.

At a hearing last month, Christopher Leonard testified that Tiffanie Irwin asked the Leonard family and some others to stay behind for a meeting after an eight-hour Sunday service. Over what he estimated was six or more hours, the teen said he was pummeled with fists and whipped with a 4-foot, folded electrical cord on the back and elsewhere, suffering injuries to his torso and genitals.

He said he was eventually taken to another room and left sitting in a corner with earplugs and earmuffs, so he couldn’t hear conversation around him, before being brought back into the church. In the church sanctuary, he said he saw his 19-year-old brother, Lucas, lying on the ground not breathing.

Authorities said the meeting was called because Lucas Leonard had indicated he wanted to leave the secretive church. After the attack, the beating victims’ relatives wouldn’t tell officers where to find the injured Christopher Leonard, who ultimately was located on the church’s second floor, investigators said.

Over one week after the beating, Christopher Leonard was released from the hospital.

The church has existed for as many as 30 years in a rural part of New Hartford, a town of 22,000 people about 50 miles from Syracuse. The church once had 40 or more members but now counts closer to 20, New Hartford police Chief Michael Inserra said after the attack.”




Royal Commission findings against Brian Houston


The Sydney Morning Herald reports…

“Hillsong Church founder Brian Houston failed to tell police his father was a self-confessed child abuser and had a clear conflict of interest in dealing with the sex claims himself, an inquiry has found.

The high profile pastor gave evidence to the Royal Commission into the Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse in October last year.

In a report released on Monday, the commissioners found that Mr Houston and the church’s executive team failed the victim, known as AHA, who was molested by Frank Houston for a number of years from the age of seven.

When the allegations surfaced almost 30 years later in 1999, Mr Houston confronted his father, who admitted abusing AHA.

The commissioners found that Brian Houston, then national president of the Assemblies of God in Australia, did not inform authorities.

“We are satisfied that, in 1999 and 2000, Pastor Brian Houston and the National Executive of the Assemblies of God in Australia did not refer the allegations of child sexual abuse against Mr Frank Houston to the police,” the commissioners wrote in their report.

The commission heard that Mr Houston suspended his father from the church but it was decided at a meeting of senior Assemblies of God members the allegation would be kept confidential and Frank Houston would be allowed to quietly retire without the reason being made public. 

“We consider that a conflict of interest first arose when Pastor Brian Houston decided to respond to the allegations by confronting his father while simultaneously maintaining his roles as National President (of the Assemblies of God in Australia) and Senior Pastor,” the commissioners found.

The report concluded that senior staff at the Assemblies of God failed to follow their own protocol regarding sexual abuse claims and did not support the victim.

“The commissioners express the view that the NSW executive failed to appoint a contact person for the complainant, interview the complainant, have the state or national executive interview the alleged perpetrator, or record any of the steps it took,” the commissioners wrote.

In his evidence, AHA said Frank Houston would come into his room “nearly every night of the week” and sexually molest him while staying with his family in 1970.

AHA told the commission the abuse had “destroyed his childhood”, leaving him “full of shame, fear and embarrassment”.

The commission heard AHA was offered $10,000 in exchange for his signature on a dirty napkin at a meeting with Frank Houston and Hillsong Church elder Nabi Saleh at Thornleigh McDonalds in 2000.

Hillsong Church released a statement saying Mr Houston acted appropriately.

“We are confident that the actions of Pastor Brian, from the moment he discovered the news about his father, were done with the best intentions towards the victim,” the statement. 

In their report, the commissioners also made findings against the Northside Christian College in Victoria and the Sunshine Coast Church in Queensland.

Support services can be found here.”


As we litigate against those who sin against us

The BBC reports…

“The Church of England has said it is “disappointed and bewildered” by the refusal of leading UK cinemas to show an advert featuring the Lord’s Prayer.

The Church called the decision “plain silly” and warned it could have a “chilling” effect on free speech.

It had hoped the 60-second film would be screened UK-wide before Christmas ahead of the new Star Wars film.

The agency that handles adverts for the cinemas said it could offend those of “differing faiths and no faith”.

The advert features the Christian prayer being recited or sung by a variety of people.

They include refugees, a grieving son, weightlifters at a gym, a sheep farmer, a gospel choir and the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Most Reverend Justin Welby.

The advert was passed uncut by the British Board of Film Classification and given a “U” certificate, as well as receiving clearance from the Cinema Advertising Authority.

However, the Digital Cinema Media (DCM) agency, which handles British film advertising for the major cinema chains, Odeon, Cineworld and Vue, refused to show the advert because it believed it would risk upsetting or offending audiences.

In a statement, DCM said it had a policy of not accepting political or religious advertising content in its cinemas.

It said that “some advertisements – unintentionally or otherwise – could cause offence to those of differing political persuasions, as well as to those of differing faiths and indeed of no faith,” and that “in this regard, DCM treats all political or religious beliefs equally”.

The Most Reverend Justin Welby said he found the decision “extraordinary”.

“This advert is about as offensive as a carol service or church service on Christmas Day,” he said.

“Let the public judge for themselves rather than be censored or dictated to.”

The Reverend Arun Arora, director of communications for the Church of England, said: “We find that really astonishing, disappointing and rather bewildering.

“The prospect of many families attending the release of the new Star Wars film had seemed a good opportunity to launch the advert and a new website to promote prayer ahead of Christmas.

“The Lord’s Prayer is prayed by billions of people across the globe every day, and in this country has been part of everyday life for centuries.”

He added: “In one way the decision of the cinemas is just plain silly, but the fact that they have insisted upon it, makes it rather chilling in terms of limiting free speech.”

He encouraged people to visit the website, watch the film and make up their own minds “as to whether they are upset or offended by it”.

Stephen Slack, the Church’s chief legal adviser, warned the banning of the advert could “give rise to the possibility of legal proceedings” under the Equality Act, which bans commercial organisations from refusing services on religious grounds.

The refusal to show the advert is likely to reignite a debate about the place of religion and faith in the public arena, especially Christianity, and whether freedom of expression for believers is being stifled.

One of those who took part in the ad, Ian McDowall, is a former bouncer and a weightlifter who founded a Christian charity, Tough Talk, after finding his faith.

“I don’t think people know a lot about Christianity these days anyway, and the opportunity to share the Lord’s Prayer in a cinema environment would make people think – and realise that Christians come in all shapes and sizes.”

But Terry Sanderson, president of the National Secular Society, said: “The Church of England is arrogant to imagine it has an automatic right to foist its opinions upon a captive audience who have paid good money for a completely different experience.

“The Church does not hesitate to ban things that it deems inappropriate from its own church halls – things like yoga. The cinema chains are simply exercising the same right.”



Kong Hee – 8 years jail – City Harvest Church fraudsters sentenced – updated*


Today Online reports…

“The six City Harvest Church leaders convicted of misuse of church funds face jail terms of 21 months to eight years, with the harshest sentence yesterday (Nov 20) meted out to church founder Kong Hee.

The sentencing brings an end to a long-running saga and one of the most closely-watched trials in recent times. Church supporters in the public gallery of the courtroom were grim as the leaders were sentenced, and some sniffling could be heard.

The leaders, who were found guilty of the charges last month, were stoic and managed to smile as they chatted with family and supporters after learning of their fate.

Kong, who faced three charges of criminal breach of trust for sham bond investments, was sentenced to eight years’ jail by Presiding Judge of the State Courts See Kee Oon yesterday. The senior pastor was the overall leader and “driving force” of the church’s Crossover Project, which saw the unauthorised use of S$24 million in church building funds for the music career of Kong’s wife Ho Yeow Sun.

Judge See said Kong must be considered the most culpable among the five leaders accused of sham bond investments, as he controlled the direction and approach to be taken for the Crossover Project, which aimed to evangelise through Ms Ho’s secular pop music.

The other leaders received jail terms ranging from 21 months to six years. Former church investment manager Chew Eng Han, who said he will appeal, is facing six years’ jail. The judge found him less culpable than Kong for the sham investments, but the most culpable among four leaders for the second set of charges involving 
round-tripping (a series of transactions worth S$26.6 million to create the impression that the sham investments had been redeemed) and falsification of accounts. The second set of transactions was less serious than the first set of charges, as they would not have resulted in permanent financial loss to the church, for the most part, noted the judge.

Chew, CHC’s former second-in-command Tan Ye Peng and former church finance manager Serina Wee faced 10 charges each, the most among the six accused. Tan Ye Peng was sentenced to five-and-a-half years’ jail, while Wee received a five-year jail term. The three of them were all heavily involved in facilitating the use of church building funds for the Crossover, said the judge, who added that Wee’s involvement in the round-tripping transactions was relatively minimal.

Former church board member John Lam, who faced the same charges as Kong, received three years’ jail because of his limited role in the conspiracy, said judge See. Former church finance manager Sharon Tan, who was only implicated in the second set of charges, received the lightest sentence of 21 months’ jail.

The sentences were lower than what prosecutors had sought for the six leaders. Deputy Public Prosecutor Christopher Ong argued that they should be jailed for about five to 12 years each to reflect the gravity of their offences. He cited aggravating factors such as the misuse of charity funds, the profound abuse of trust by the leaders and premeditation involved, as well as cover stories cooked up to avoid detection of their offences.

A deterrent sentence is needed to signal that those who misuse charity funds will be severely dealt with, said Mr Ong, who said the charges involve the largest amount of charity funds ever misappropriated in Singapore’s legal history. The long-running case, for which investigations began in 2010 and for which the trial began in 2013, has caused public disquiet and affected public confidence that funds donated to charity are properly safeguarded, he added.

The defence urged the judge to impose a “fair, lenient and compassionate” sentences, stressing no loss was caused to the church and there were no wrongful personal gains by the leaders. Kong’s lawyer Edwin Tong said the sentence must be appropriate, proportionate and must fit the particular circumstances of the offence and offender. Defence lawyers highlighted a letter sent to judge See by 173 executive members of the church last Friday appealing for the leaders to be spared jail terms.

Judge See delivered his decision at 3pm yesterday after arguments made by both sides in the morning. He said he has carefully calibrated the sentences to ensure they are proportionate to each person’s role and culpability. “I am of the view that the sentences should be sufficiently substantial to serve the needs of general deterrence, but they should not be crushing sentences,” he said.

While he took reference from the jail term of seven-and-a-half years imposed on Catholic priest Joachim Kang in 2004 for misappropriating S$5.1 million of charity dollars for personal gain, the judge said it was not a benchmark for this case, which is unique in some ways. The leaders did not contemplate personal gain and believed they were working towards an objective that was supported by the church, which did not ultimately suffer financial loss, he noted.

Nonetheless, the issues in the case were not “mere lapses of corporate governance”, said judge See. “I have found that the accused persons were guilty of acting dishonestly and being actively complicit in conspiring to cause wrongful loss to CHC through the misuse of CHC’s funds and to defraud the auditors,” he said. “They have been found guilty of serious offences involving breaches of trust and misuse of donors’ monies including large sums given for a specific purpose … and general deterrence must therefore underpin the court’s sentencing approach.”

The leaders have 14 days to decide if they wish to appeal. They could begin serving their sentence on Jan 11, after the judge granted a deferment to allow them time to prepare their families — and for Tan Ye Peng, to spend time with his four children on the first day of school next year.”



Pastor compares drinking petrol with Holy Communion


Destiny Connect reports…

“Over the past few weeks the Commission for the Promotion and Protection of the Rights of Cultural, Religious and Linguistic Communities (the CRL Rights Commission) has been investigating the commercialisation of churches and questionable practices and claims by a number of church leaders.

Yesterday the commission was less than impressed with Rabboni Centre Ministries’ pastor Lesego Daniel’s explanation of why he made his congregants eat grass and drink petrol.

“When I do things, it is no longer me, but me and my master. I was led by the Holy Spirit,” Daniel told the commission on Monday, according to the Sowetan. He also compared making people drink petrol to the rite of Holy Communion.

Daniel is one of a number of pastors who have been summoned to appear before the commission to answer for their actions. The commission was formed in response to a complaint lodged by the South African Council of Churches about a number of incidents that have caused public outrage.

“When churches start selling pap, T-shirts and water after services . . . or when people stop taking their HIV or blood pressure medicine because traditional healers say ‘drink my water, it will heal you’ – and charge people for it, it becomes problematic,” CRL Rights Commission Chairperson Thoko Mkhwanazi said in an interview with The Star newspaper two months ago. She added that they did not want to regulate religion, but needed to look at some of the things certain religious leaders promise churchgoers.

The other controversial pastors who have been summoned before the commission include, End of Times Disciples Ministries’ pastor, Penuel Mnguni, and Incredible Happenings Ministries’ pastor Paseka Motsoeneng (Mboro). Several traditional leaders have also been summoned.

Last week Motsoeneng refused to give the commission his church’s financial documents.

“For my belief, I will be glad to go to jail. Even now, I can be taken there,” Mboro said. It has been reported that Prophet Mboro claims he can perform miracles.

“Now the headlines will be saying Mboro has R10 million in his account . . . I have enemies. Now they will know my strength and weakness . . . I want to protect myself, my church and my ministry, so I have to look and consult thoroughly with my lawyers,” he said.”


Pastor blames Paris attack victims


KLAQ reports…

“Christian Pastor Steven Anderson delivered a sermon attacking the victims of the Paris terrorist attacks. In the hour long sermon, he explains that he doesn’t condone the actions of the terrorist[s], but he also doesn’t condone the concertgoers who went to attend a “death metal” concert.

I know, I know Eagles of Death Metal aren’t REALLY death metal, or even close, but we’ll get to that after we see what  Pastor Anderson had to say….

“When you go to a concert of death metal, somebody might get killed! You know, you’re worshiping death, and then, all of a sudden, people start dying!… Well, you love death so much, you bought the ticket, you love worshiping Satan! Well, let’s have some of Satan’s religion come in and shoot you!

I mean, that’s what these people should think about before they go into such a wicked concert…”

Oh, and he also decided to take it all the way to childish name calling, by referring to read singer Jesse Hughes as a “drug-pushing hillbilly f*ggot.”

The band Eagles of Death Metal aren’t actually a death metal act! Band member Josh Homme described the band’s sound as “bluegrass slide guitar mixed with stripper drum beats and Canned Heat vocals.” The name is actually a parody and their music could be described as bluesy rock more than death metal….”


Brian Houston lashes Royal Commission counsel


The Sydney Morning Herald reports…

“…In evidence before the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse at the end of last year, Brian Houston said he’d had no inkling of his father’s dark secrets before October 1999.

He spoke of feeling shock and devastation, described how he had confronted his father at the first opportunity and – after convening a meeting of other AOG elders to discuss the crisis – forced Frank to stand aside (albeit on a pension) from further preaching duties.

But the counsel assisting the commission, Simeon Beckett, has taken a sterner view of the matter. Late last year he recommended Houston be referred to NSW police for failing to pass on that earliest claim of abuse (others involving at least six boys in New Zealand surfaced later). And he chastised Houston for failing to recognise the conflict of interest inherent in having carriage of the complaint against his father while also being head of Hillsong and head of the Assemblies of God.

Houston can barely contain his anger at Beckett’s recommendations. He maintains he respected the wishes of the victim, by then an adult, who had wanted the matter kept in-house; and that elders of the Assemblies of God had full knowledge and oversight of his handling of the affair.

Houston tells Good Weekend: “It didn’t really matter what the facts were, the counsel assisting [the commission] had his mind made up about what happened and never moved off it at any point….”

Steven Furtick dodges finances questions – updated*


Christian Today reports…

“Elevation Church lead pastor Steven Futrick has always been questioned about his wealth, given the fact that he lives in a whopping 16,000-square-foot home on 19 acres valued at $1.6 million despite only having a pastor’s salary.

Futrick and other church officials insist that he bought the home for only $325,000. The megachurch pastor even commented before that his home is “not that great of a house,” although he and his family consider it as a “gift from God.”

When he was asked about his salary recently during a rare interview by WCCB-TV, the “prosperity gospel” pastor remained tight-lipped, saying that to disclose that information would go against the teachings of Jesus Christ.

“I know that we have to have integrity and we have to be generous, and I know the extent of which that is true for me and Holly,” Futrick said, referring to his wife of 13 years. “So to go on record and say here’s how much money we’ve given and here’s what we do with our finances, to me, that would be the most arrogant thing I could do and it would rob me of the blessings of what Jesus said, which is that when you give, you don’t get up and tell everyone how much you’ve given.”

Even though his fellow church members have shared information about their congregation’s finances, Futrick insists that he will not go against God’s Word.

“So when you give one part of a picture, whether that’s how much one of the staff members, what they make, that’s between them and God,” Furtick said. “That’s not mine to release, and the same with my family. I wouldn’t do that to my wife and my kids. I wouldn’t do that to one of our staff members.”

Elevation Church actually posted some financial details on its website, revealing that it took in $33.5 million in offerings last year, but gave away about $3.8 million in outreach and spent $9 million on personnel. It declared $13.9 million in cash assets.

His church might choose to be open about its finances, but Futrick will “never make a decision about the church’s finances based on the agenda of a reporter.”

At the same time, Futrick does not mind that Elevation Church is now considered a megachurch, with 20,000 worshippers coming in each week. They are actually batting for 100,000 followers, but Futrick said that task is something that his children should build on.

“Some of the churches that would have the greatest impact wouldn’t be the ones with the largest attendance,” Futrick said. “They might have a mega-impact, but maybe nobody knows their names. Some of the people who are making the greatest difference aren’t really known, aren’t really famous, so I don’t know if we can quantify a church’s impact by the size of it.”



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