The church whose pastor called bisexuals gutless and labelled US police murder victim George Floyd a villain is the most complained about charity in New Zealand.

Under the Official Information Act (OIA), BusinessDesk obtained a list of the five most complained about charities in the past five years from Charities Services, a business unit within the Department of Internal Affairs (DIA) charged with administering the Charities Act.

It's extremely rare for charities to be deregistered for serious wrongdoing, but people often lay complaints with Charities Services about charities or people involved with charities doing or saying controversial things.

Thousands of people, for instance, signed a petition calling for Destiny Church to lose its charitable status after its self-proclaimed bishop, Brian Tamaki, took a leading role in opposing covid-19 restrictions and vaccine mandates. 

Several Destiny charities were deregistered, but not for any serious wrongdoing – they just failed to file their annual returns.

So who do people like to complain about the most?

Because the regulator sometimes groups similar complaints together, it’s hard to say definitively which charity is the most complained about, but here, in list form, are the top five by complaint numbers and common themes, as provided by Charities Services under the OIA.

1. Celebration Centre Group, 203 complaints. The common theme: hate speech.

In 2020, the millionaire founder of Celebration Centre church in Christchurch, Murray Watkinson, was heavily criticised for a contentious sermon in which he called Floyd a villain, bisexuals gutless, and praised former US President Donald Trump. 

Watkinson apologised in a later sermon, during which he revealed a black t-shirt with the words “Pro-Life” on the back and “I can’t talk on the front” before going on to rail against various laws legalising things like abortion and prostitution.

The most recent annual return for the Celebration Centre Group, for the year to December 2020, records revenue of $4.6 million, including more than $2.2m of Ministry of Education funding and childcare fees and more than $1.1m in tithing and offerings.

2. The Christian Church Community Trust (Gloriavale), 76 complaints. The common theme: oppressive conduct.

Gloriavale has been in the news recently following a landmark employment court decision which found three leavers were employees and asserted the success of Gloriavale businesses was, in part, built on access to child labour.

According to senior members of the West Coast religious community, people at Gloriavale live a communal lifestyle in accordance with religious teachings. Leavers paint a different picture: one of the power and control wielded by the leadership. The community has also come under heavy scrutiny for a myriad of sexual abuse claims.

Last week the church provided a statement with an apology, which it said: "draws a firm line in the sand between the past and the future."

Regulator Charities Services has said it is investigating the registered charity behind Gloriavale, the Christian Church Community Trust, following the employment court decision.

In its most recent return for the year to July 2021, the trust reported revenue of $19.5m.

3. NZ Trustees Association Charitable Trust, 68 complaints. The common theme: a breach of the Unsolicited Electronic Messages Act.

The NZ Trustees Association, a non-profit membership group founded to support trustees, is no longer a registered charity. 

In 2018, the Commerce Commission warned the association over a likely breach of the Fair Trading Act.

In a press release describing the issue, the commission said the association got contact details for a number of charities from publicly available information and emailed them a free six-month membership.

Despite taking no steps to accept, the charities were sent bulletins from the association for the offer period. There was an option to unsubscribe, but it wasn’t made clear to the charities they needed to do this to avoid being charged.

After the six months were up, the association invoiced the charities for membership.

4. Destiny Church charities, 43 complaints. The common theme: a lack of charitable purpose.

Brian Tamaki and Destiny Church have courted controversy over the years, most recently for Tamaki's involvement in a movement opposing covid-19 restrictions and vaccine mandates. 

Tamaki was charged with multiple breaches of a public health order for speaking at mass gatherings during a time when covid-19 restrictions applied and he was jailed briefly for breaching his bail conditions. 

His stance led to widespread condemnation, including an online petition signed by more than 70,000 people which called for Destiny to lose its tax-exempt status as a registered charity. 

Destiny Church Taranaki, Destiny Church Auckland Trust and Destiny International Group were later deregistered for failing to file their annual returns.

Advice for dealing with media interest in the deregistrations was released to BusinessDesk under the OIA. A list of potential questions that might be put to the DIA included one asking if the decision was made because the Tamaki-founded Freedom and Rights Coalition was involved in the protests at parliament.

“The charities have been removed because of failure to file annual returns,” the suggested response said.

“Charities Services has received complaints relating to the activities of the Freedom and Rights Coalition and its connection with Destiny, and is investigating these complaints. The removal is independent of that inquiry.”

5. The Sensible Sentencing Group Trust, 18 complaints. The common theme: a lack of charitable purpose.

This one is less clear cut.

In 2018, the founder of the Sensible Sentencing Trust (SST), Garth McVicar, prompted backlash when he responded to news of a man shot dead by police by saying, “one less to clog the prisons”

SST is not a registered charity, but an affiliated organisation, the Sensible Sentencing Group Trust (SSGT), which provided peer support to victims of serious crime, is.

In response to McVicar and his comment, an online petition was set up calling for the independent charities registration board to investigate the links between SST and SSGT and decide if the group trust had a valid charitable purpose.

A spokeswoman for SSGT, which has since been wound down, said the complaints were due to a misunderstanding between the two trusts. 

“Fortunately [Charities Services] was aware of the SSGT's separate work from the SST and their sole mission of victim advocacy work, so the complaints were binned,” she said.

The spokeswoman took the opportunity to thank the people who supported the trust and passed on best wishes to the people it had helped over the years.