In January 2012 the Christadelphian Magazine and Publishing Association (CMPA) made an announcement in its magazine, The Christadelphian, that its former editor, Michael Ashton, had committed large scale embezzlement for more than a decade. This followed three months after he had resigned on 20th August 2011 amid growing speculation at the lack of explanations given for him leaving:
There was also an announcement in tandem with this in its “ecclesial news” section by the congregation that Michael Ashton had been a member of that he had been “withdrawn” from:
This situation created some immediate implications for the Christadelphian Magazine Publication Association (CMPA) Committee. As a registered charity, with more than a certain amount of donations, it had to be legally registered with the Charity Commission and provide accounts. These rules are in place to provide some transparency and protection to the public so charities don’t abuse their charitable status. Accounts have to be provided, audited and have their trustees listed. As legally required, both the Charity Commission and The Pensions Regulator were informed.
Obvious questions were also raised about how such embezzlement could have happened and continued for such an extended period of time. This suggested that there had been a lack of oversight and procedures in place, and therefore a management failure by the trustees. After all, according to their own information, this had occurred over a ten year period and was not spotted by auditing. Missing money was not noted and yet accounts were provided. No details answering these issues were given initially by the CMPA to its donors, nor details of how it was discovered, but clearly this would be the area that would come under consideration. As the Charity Commission noted on its website,
The Commission has statutory objectives to ensure trustees comply with their legal obligations in managing charities and to increase public trust and confidence in charities. We also have a statutory function to identify and investigate abuse and mismanagement in charities.
It was clear therefore that even if the trustees did not give any explanations to the Christadelphian community they would need to provide reasons why it was not spotted over an extended period to the Charity Commission as well as what steps would be taken to avoid such an event happening in the future. At some stage we expected these changes to be fed back to the Christadelphian community.
From the CMPA statement it seemed the former editor had agreed to repay what he had taken, presumably by selling assets he owned. It also seemed that the trustees had found a way to repay the money they had been entrusted for other Christadelphian charities in the interim. This meant the people the organisations people had donated to had not suffered. Since missing money was not noted in the accounts formerly provided to the Commission it would mean either they were not accounted in those accounts or else the final balances were not compared to actual bank accounts.
There was also the possibility that because the former editor had clearly committed a serious crime it could be subject to a criminal investigation which at this level carried the possibility of imprisonment should he have been prosecuted and found guilty. Usually any final decision rests with the Crown Prosecution Service which decides whether or not any prosecution is in the public interest. In doing this they take into account the views of those affected, as noted on their website,
In deciding whether a prosecution is required in the public interest, prosecutors should take into account any views expressed by the victim regarding the impact that the offence has had. In some cases, prosecutors should take into account any views expressed by the victim’s family. But the prosecution service does not act for victims or their families in the same way as solicitors act for their clients, and prosecutors must form an overall view of the public interest.
This situation raised some points of consideration that deserve attention, although it is worth stressing that whilst the community has had a great deal of inner turmoil in its midst, it has not been noted for criminality. Most members are honest, ethical and law abiding. Further it needs noting that this could happen in any community of religious people. In fact, it may have simply been a big breach of trust and the failure of the community may that of having too much trust and too little oversights and procedures in place.
From a practical standpoint the first major victim in this therefore was trust. It also raised awareness that large sums of money are forwarded through The Christadelphian to other Christadelphian charities. Few members really stop and think how the money they give to a collection actually gets transferred to the Christadelphian charity they are giving to or what controls against embezzlement are in place. Further, in a community where honesty is held to be a core value and where fellowship is an intended consequence keeping checks on each other isn’t something which people wish to do. Like the early Christians found, simple sharing and fellowship has its difficulties and inevitably leads to and requires more complex forms of organisation. This helps also to reconsider one of the restorationist ideas on which the Christadelphians were founded. This is that by restoring a pristine form found in the New Testament, the purity of the apostolic faith could be re-established. It helps us to understand this was at best an embryonic state that had to evolve and, to some degree, move forward with various forms of church organisation through time.
It also raises some questions about the relationship between money and religious organisations. In its early beginnings, Christadelphians had few connected institutions with finances. There was no Williamsburg Foundation, CMPA, retirement homes, care groups and so forth. They did move funds to help folk under financial difficulties as noted elsewhere, but they didn’t have the defined organisations that exist today. The need to have each simply became apparent with time, just as it did with organised churches centuries previous to them. In fact, establishing them has been part of its movement from a reforming movement to an established denomination. The difficulty of course with further controls is it can restrict spontaneity and build in more rigidity.
Early Christadelphians were very much focused on the relationship between money and religion. Most were even reluctant to own their own buildings. The aspect in particular they were against in other churches was paid ministry, which is why it was set up as a lay community with members filling various roles in an unpaid fashion. It is ironic that a pamphlet designed for the general public entitled Do Christians Need Priests? was actually written by the former editor, Michael Ashton. In it he wrote,
Another distinction between clergy and laymen in many churches today is that the clergy receive payment for their work. In the first century, those involved in the spiritual welfare of the community were entitled in principle to material or financial support. The apostle Paul wrote to the Corinthians about this. He said: “Do we not have the right to our food and drink? The Lord commanded that those who proclaim the gospel should get their living by the gospel” (1 Corinthians 9:4-14). Nevertheless, Paul recognised the possibility of corruption entering into the community through this provision, and declared about himself: “I have made no use of any of these rights in my preaching I make the gospel free of charge . . . I do it all for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings” (verses 15-23). The history of churches where payment has been made to its clergy unfortunately bears out the apostle’s concerns. In the Middle Ages the churches were extremely corrupt, and many priests became infinitely more wealthy and powerful than the members of their congregations. The problem still exists today. Scandals involving church finances occur only too regularly. A return to the New Testament principle of “the right to food and drink” for those “who proclaim the gospel” would help to prevent many of these crimes.
In writing this booklet, what Michael failed to mention was that he himself was supported by profits from the publications the CMPA produced. The position of editor of The Christadelphian itself is a paid position and it seems as though large flows of donations also went through the organisation to other Christadelphian charities. Not having a paid ministry doesn’t of itself mean financial corruption is avoided, and the potential would not be zero even if no one gained a living from providing services to the community.
On a community wide scale it won’t make a significant difference because the role of The Christadelphian has diminished. In its early days it was the major publication of the community and to a large extent controlled the flow of information, hence it had a large role in the formulation of its structural organisation. Those who disagreed with editorial policy and procedures had to effectively set up and get large membership for a new magazine to counter its voice and to some extent this enabled the editor to have a huge influence on the direction the community took. Today the community has a wide array of different magazines and readerships.
The Christadelphian Magazine and Publishing Association (CMPA) has never been transparent (currently June 2015) about the embezzlement other than its initial brief statement. It has not discussed what it has learnt, what changes it has made to prevent future issues occurring, how much money was recovered, what charities were affected and so forth. Neither to the Christadelphian Community or its individual donors. Nor does it seem as though the individual members have generally expected answers to these questions. It seems they are willing to accept this was a lone incident and trust other members to have resolved any underlying issues.
However the CMPA as a registered charity has had to provide information to the Charity Commission which is where we have been able to gain extra information. The Charity Commission did a case study on the embezzlement found in a report called “Tackling Abuse and Mismanagement” and information is also available from accounts provided.
From the Charity Commissions 2012-2013 report, Tackling Abuse and Mismanagement we learn that the CMPA refused to report the embezzlement to police. This may possibly have been because of a lack of desire to see a former brother prosecuted or it could have been a reluctance to have internal procedures examined by the police and in court and a desire to avoid publicity. Although Michael Ashton had agreed to pay the money back the regulator was obviously concerned that without a formal agreement this could prove impossible.
We also learn from this report that the money the CMPA got back from Michael Ashton was from the sale of his home and that the CMPA took out a formal legal charge. How this legal charge was obtained would be of interest because Christadelphians historically are taught it is wrong to sue and this may have been a reversal of what I and others were taught by the community. It is also interesting in view of the belief by Christadelphians we should turn the other cheek and forgive unless it has been the expressive will of Michael Ashton to repay the money back. Although it seems that the regulator was insistent these measures were taken, the teaching of the community has always been to resist the world when it requires a member to go against what they believe the Bible teaches.
In the Report of the Trustees and Financial Statements for the Year ended December 2012 the CMPA trustees wrote:
The overall deficit was £81,673 compared with £330,666 in 2011. The 2011 was exceptional in that it included £175,888 distributed to third parties from funds received in previous years, and the write off of £73,766 considered irrecoverable from the fraud discovered in 2011. In 2012 the trustees are confident of a full recovery of the £73,766 due to securing a legal charge over the private residence of the person responsible for the fraud and the 2011 write off has been reversed in 2012.
The Christadelphian Magazine and Publishing Association is also registered with Companies House and therefore deposits certain information here which can be purchased and there is also information here, Annual Accounts 31/12/11 which states that a certain amount has been repaid with the editor agreeing to pay the balance:
the former Editor has committed to repay this money and that "as a result of this discovery the Trustees have implemented a review and overhaul of governance and controls. A new Control Manual was considered and approved in December 2011, strengthening the control environment, especially in relation to financial matters. New bank mandates have been executed and a review of all intimal procedures is underway. The Trustees are aware that no controls can remove completely the risk of fraud, but are committed to ensure a robust system operates, in line with best practice seen in other charities.
They also note that since the fraud “was undetected by both Trustees and Auditors, the Trustees, at the suggestion of the auditors, have taken the precaution of having the accounts independently reviewed by a “leading professional support firm.”
If we put it all together it seems that of the £290,000 taken, £73,766 was due to be recovered from the home of Michael Ashton with an anonymous donor paying a substantial remaining amount. If this was the £175,888 distributed to third parties from funds received in previous years, then a substantial amount remained unrecovered.
Incredulously books by Michael Ashton continue to be sold including one called “The Beauty of Holiness” by the CMPA.