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Former archbishop’s aide faces questions over ‘missing’ £300,000
An aide to the former Archbishop of Canterbury faces questions from the charity watchdog over allegations that proceeds from the sale of a £300,000 church property “disappeared”. The Charity Commission is assessing allegations that two leading bishops “beguiled” elderly congregants to sign over their status as trustees of church properties for “precisely nothing”. It is claimed that proceeds from the sale of property meant for the benefit of local congregations have allegedly “disappeared without an audit trail”. The commission is examining complaints from trustees over possible irregularities in charity accounts overseen by the Bishop Primus and Bishop of the Northern Diocese, the Rt Rev Dr John Fenwick – a former adviser to Lord Carey, the previous Archbishop of Canterbury – and the Bishop of the Southern Diocese, the Rt Rev Paul Hunt. West Midlands Police said it was reviewing an allegation of fraud to establish if any offences may have been committed. Bishop Fenwick leads the Free Church of England, a splinter group from the Church of England that was forged in the mid 19th century. He is supported in his role by Bishop Hunt. It is alleged that Bishop Fenwick assured congregants that £300,000 from the sale of St Stephen’s Church in Middlesbrough was being held in the FCE Central Trust. However, the complainants say the company’s records do not show any record of the money being deposited. The commission has received allegations that the transfer of property from congregants to the trust has happened because “frail, elderly” trustees are “being persuaded that it will relieve them of the stresses of trusteeship and safeguard the future of the property”. The watchdog is also assessing claims that the trust was registering local churches’ land and buildings in its name without ever paying for them, nor reflecting their value in the accounts. “Perhaps [this is] because Bishop Fenwick has been persuading befuddled, elderly and weary local church trustees to sign over their properties to Central Trust for precisely nothing,” one complainant alleged. The commission is also assessing an allegation that around £30,000 “disappeared without an audit trail” from the bank account of Emmanuel Free Church of England, Morecambe, in 2017. The FCE Central Trust responded on behalf of both bishops, saying it “vigorously refutes the allegations”. “If they are indeed the subject of Charity Commission and police investigations (though the Trust has been contacted by neither) then it would be inappropriate to comment further,” it said. Bishop Fenwick said St Stephen’s Church was sold after consultation with the congregation because it was “found to be in a dangerous state of repair”. He said a portion of the proceeds of the sale were used to hire a minister – for £24,000 per year, plus accommodation costs and expenses – in the hope of “reviving the congregation” in April 2018. After two years, “there had been no significant growth in the size of the congregation”, and the minister was made redundant in February 2021.