Trust in integrity of public charities was at stake

Eight years, six years, five years and so on - as Judge See Kee Oon read out the sentences passed on all six City Harvest Church (CHC) leaders in the hushed silence of Court One, one message rang loud.

When funds are misused, it is not just money that is mishandled, but also trust in the integrity of charitable institutions.

And abusing the public's trust is something that the courts here will not tolerate.

The sentences imposed may be considered stiff by some, considering there was no evidence of personal gain by the accused or loss by the church.

But Judge See said: "It is important as a matter of sentencing policy to deter generally people who are entrusted with charity monies from misusing those monies."

This is because these are serious crimes that trigger "public disquiet or unease" that would, in turn, affect public confidence in large charities, said the prosecution.

In this case, the accused had misused $50 million in church funds. The prosecution pointed out that this was the largest amount of misappropriated charity funds in Singapore's legal history.

CHC is a registered charity. Like all charities, it is given the privilege of soliciting donations. Donors give their hard-earned savings, and trust that the money will be put to its rightful and intended use.

It was not so in this case, and the fallout is clear. Attendance at the megachurch has plummeted and many former members have heaped scorn on CHC online.

The saga has affected the image of the church. Trust, once lost, is not easily earned again.

In 2005, social service veteran Gerard Ee took over the reins of the National Kidney Foundation (NKF) after his predecessor T.T. Durai resigned following a scandal involving NKF funds.

Mr Ee left the NKF seven years later, after painstakingly restoring the public image of the charity.

The punishments will go some way in reminding charities the public's trust and their donations must be safeguarded.

Said criminal lawyer Shashi Nathan: "(The sentences) appear to send a right message that people who are in control of money have to be very transparent in how they look after monies which don't belong to them."

The Commissioner of Charities has resumed proceedings to remove the accused from management positions in the church. On its part, the church has put in a new management and board, and its new leaders will hopefully learn from past mistakes.

This article was first published on Nov 21, 2015.
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