Dominion Christian Centre of Canada:
Controversial church loses charitable status
February 18, 2009
An evangelical church in Hamilton that used donor money to pay for gym memberships, Gucci fashion accessories and trips to Hawaii and elsewhere for its directors has been stripped of its charitable licence by the federal government.
The Dominion Christian Centre of Canada was set up in Hamilton by charismatic leader Peter Rigo, a former decorator who was raised in Hamilton and who says a divine power summoned him in 2000 to "encourage believers to live effectively as Christians."
Rigo has said Dominion is a great church praying for the revitalization of downtown Hamilton.
The church is also at the centre of a high-profile kidnapping case. In 2005, police accused Dr. Renato Brun Del Re of Milton of kidnapping and forcible confinement after he was allegedly involved in abducting his adult daughter in an attempt to de-program her from what he said at the time was a cult. His wife Lucie, a French teacher, has been charged with forcible confinement.
Police allege the daughter was held by the family for 10 days before she escaped. The trial is set for Oct. 13. Another family member and two friends of the family are also charged. The couple no longer has contact with their daughter.
Several families with grown children who attended the church complained to the charity regulator in 2007.
After an audit of the church's books, the federal charity regulator has told the Dominion group that its assets have been misused, spent for the "private benefit" of Rigo, his wife Peggy (also a pastor) and assistant pastor Dave Barhouma.
The regulator found that money contributed by donors and destined for good works was instead paid to fund "numerous personal trips, payments for privately used vehicles, gym memberships, food, lodging and other unsubstantiated payments."
Among the expenses that raised eyebrows, auditors say, were numerous purchases at "expensive fashion outlets such as Gucci and Dolce (&) Gabbana."
In response to the allegations, church leaders told the regulator that poor bookkeeping made it hard for them to address many of the concerns auditors had. The audit states that about a year ago, the church agreed to stop paying for food, trips, gym memberships and haircuts for church leaders.
However, the audit goes on to say that a year later, the church had not addressed the issues raised by the audit, leading to the revocation of its licence.
The Toronto Star tried numerous times yesterday to reach the three church leaders. People at the church, a renovated building on Park Street North, either promised to get a message to them or hung up when a reporter called.
In Canada, most churches are charities. This lets them raise donations by providing an income tax receipt to donors and also lets them operate without paying any taxes.
Losing charitable status for the Dominion church does not close it down, but it makes it more difficult to raise money and means they will have to start paying property and other taxes.
The auditors also found that the church had issued bogus tax receipts inflating the value of land it owns in Hamilton. The audit does not identify the people who benefited from this arrangement.
On the church website is a description of how Rigo, raised in Hamilton, lived and "pastored" in various New England churches before being called by God back to Canada. His Hamilton church is described on the website as a place "playing its part in bringing hope and transformation to their city."
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