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The ARISE Church in New Zealand, after an independent review of abuse and misconduct, is refusing to pay the legal bills of the person they hired to conduct the independent review of abuse and misconduct… even though her legal problems were a direct result of the investigation.

Last year, the problems at ARISE became news outside the evangelical world after journalist David Farrier wrote about them. It was a big deal because ARISE had a dozen satellite locations throughout New Zealand, an eight-figure budget, and a membership of over 10,000 people. It was only after a former member told Farrier about the abuse and emotional manipulation within the church that he began digging into the details.

He learned that members were expected to give the church far more than a mere tithe, that “interns” had to pay for the privilege of “serving” the church, that a pastor and his brother were aggressive to the point of physical abuse, and that non-disclosure agreements were used to maintain silence. Later, Farrier wrote about a former church member who alleged sexual abuse by her ex-boyfriend—a leader in the church—only to be chastised by another leader for having pre-marital sex with her new boyfriend.

The reporting had an effect. Last May, ARISE announced that the founders and lead pastors of the church, John and Gillian Cameron, along with John’s brother Brent, were all resigning.

ARISE’s governing board apologized for “the pain and suffering some staff and volunteers have encountered” and admitted to being “unnecessarily demanding or aggressive”… but they didn’t confirm specifics. Instead, they said they had hired an outside group, Pathfinding, to conduct an independent review.

Pathfinding conducted an extremely thorough review. The final report was put together after speaking with 545 people connected to the evangelical megachurch and detailed numerous instances of sexual and physical abuse, financial shenanigans, and straight-up racism. It also called on the church’s entire board to resign.

But that report, which ARISE leaders said they would make public, wasn’t published at first. We only know about it because Farrier got ahold of a copy of it and leaked it online after the church’s own self-imposed deadline had passed and it appeared the publication was being delayed.

The Pathfinding report referred to “ongoing targeted sexual harassment,” “unwanted nudity,” inadequate systems for handling sexual harassment or abuse, discouraging victims from going to the police, racism among ARISE Church leaders (including a directive to “focus on white kids” when trying to win converts), and a confirmation that interns were screwed over financially.

That brings us to what’s happening now.

The lead reviewer for Pathfinding was Charlotte Cummings, a counselor with strong credentials and a background in investigating complaints of abuse and misconduct. Her work to put together that report took five intense weeks. But, perhaps surprisingly, just as the report was set to be published, former leaders John and Gillian Cameron filed a lawsuit to prevent that from happening.

That meant Cummings had to hire a lawyer as well. It raised an interesting question: The church pledged to pay all of Cummings’ bills for the independent review they commissioned, so were they obligated to reimburse her for legal bills that arose because of the investigation? (More on that in a moment.)

Last week, a friend of hers began a fundraiser (a la GoFundMe) to defray those costs. He was hoping to raise $22,000. As of this writing, the fundraiser has been closed after hitting just over $25,000. (That includes a cheeky $666 donation from Farrier himself, who urged his readers to donate.)

That’s wonderful news. But it still raises the question of why ARISE wouldn’t cover that bill themselves. In a statement, the church attempted to claim this was out of their hands.

… When Pathfinding was engaged, we committed to release the report publicly, and at no stage did any current board member or current senior leadership attempt to block its publication. However we could not stop any former staff members – acting in a personal capacity and not on behalf of Arise Church – from using legal avenues against the report’s publication. 

During this process the board of Arise argued for the publication of the report, as we believe that transparency is essential to building trust as we move forward. Given this was an employment matter we had to abide by the legal process. We hope this clarifies.

It does not clarify. It makes as much sense as the chair of the Republican Party saying the GOP has nothing to do with Donald Trump anymore. You can’t pretend the two aren’t linked!

In fact, in one of the few public statements Cummings has made since undertaking this investigation, she gave Farrier a response to the church’s lie, saying the lawsuit wasn’t the only issue:

… My contract with Arise Church included a clause which required them to cover all legal fees associated with the work I undertook for them. When presented with invoices for these legal fees, the board of Arise Church declined to pay these fees in any part.

After a number of months of attempts to negotiate, and incurring further legal fees, they eventually agreed to a settlement. The settlement agreement was then breached due to Arise Church failing to make payment by the agreed date. I then required further legal support to see this paid. Finally, I was paid the settlement, and paid for my work on the independent review report, on 9th December.

It is correct that a portion of the legal fees covered by the Give A Little fundraising relates to action taken by members of Arise Church, however, the majority of the fees were incurred in fighting to see my contract honoured, and chasing settlement.

I have not received any offer of assistance from Arise Church.  

The church was lying. That’s the bottom line. Keep in mind that they could easily have covered the $22,000+ in legal bills caused by their own negligence and their own former leaders because she did them an important service. Instead, they’re trying to wipe their hands clean of everything, pretending those actions have nothing to do with them.

A year after their ethical failures became public knowledge, ARISE Church still hasn’t learned a damn thing about taking the high road.

Writes Farrier:

I used to naively think there might come a day when Arise church would be 100% truthful — but I realise that day will never come. If they were truthful, they would cease to exist — and for them, that’s simply not an option. Truth has been excluded from their DNA.

Here’s what I’d like to know: When will the people who regularly attend the church finally walk out for good? If this past year hasn’t convinced them this is a bad place, run by bad people, then what the hell will it take? How much Jesus dust are they sprinkling over the congregation to make them ignore or rationalize everything going on in their church, in part because of the financial support leaders get from people like them?

The complicity ought to be troubling to any decent person. But religion is very good at getting people to ignore what’s right in front of their eyes.

(Portions of this article were published earlier)

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Hemant Mehta is the founder of FriendlyAtheist.com, a YouTube creator, podcast co-host, and author of multiple books about atheism. He can be reached at @HemantMehta.