Agape leaders launch counter-accusations
August 20, 2010
THE Agape empire has struck back against its detractors, accusing one of conning the controversial group out of $730,000.
Church leader Pastor Rocco Leo and two senior members of the group have launched a counter-claim against former follower Martin Penney.
District Court documents claim that in 2001 Mr Penney borrowed money to buy a property and reneged on his promise to repay it when he got "back on his feet".
They further accuse him of masterminding a "scheme" in 2005 to use the church as his tax shelter by doctoring its financial records with bogus donations.
"The amounts were never donated to the Agape Church," the claim says.
"(The church) is of the belief that Penney created the scheme as a means for (him) to avoid paying tax.
"(The church) did not know the details of the scheme."
Last week, The Advertiser revealed the church's financial empire spanned two states, eight properties, 13 vehicles and 10 bank accounts.
Although those assets have been frozen by court order, one Victorian property was sold last month for $1.6 million.
Mr Penney is suing Mr Leo, Joe Veneziano and Mari Antoinette Veneziano for $1.2 million. He says he was duped into "donating" the money by Mr Leo's claims the world's population would be impregnated with poisonous microchips.
He claims Mr Leo said anyone who refused the chip would be branded a terrorist and be gassed or beheaded in government concentration camps.
Other detractors claim Mr Leo was planning to move the faithful to a South Pacific island to save them from this fate.
In defence papers obtained by The Advertiser, Mr Leo admits Mr Penney attended Agape services "from about 1994", but denies preaching doomsday.
"We deny specifically that Leo was preparing an island where Mr Penney or any person could be moved or be saved from damnation," it says.
"If such representations were made - which is specifically denied - they are so fanciful that no reasonable person would be capable of mistaking them as truth."
They ask the court to set aside Mr Penney's lawsuit and instead award Agape damages for its $730,000 loss.
The case returns to court next month.
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