Church found Gucci divine, watchdog finds

The Toronto Star/February 18, 2009

An evangelical church 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 says a divine power summoned him in the year 2000 to "encourage believers to live effectively as Christians." Rigo has said Dominion is a great church praying for the revitalization of downtown Hamilton; at least one family claims it is a cult and faces criminal charges for trying to remove their daughter.

After an audit of the church's books, sparked by critics of its activities, the federal charity regulator has told the Dominion group that its assets have been misused, spent for the "private benefit" of Rigo, his wife and others.

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."

The audit, obtained by the Star, says the transgressions of Rigo, his wife, Peggy (also a pastor), and assistant pastor Dave Barhouma were many.

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, giving rise to the revocation of its licence.

The Star tried numerous times yesterday to reach the trio. People at the church either promised to get a message to them, or hung up when a reporter called.

The Canada Revenue Agency, which regulates Canada's 84,000 charities, has publicly revoked dozens of charitable licences for cause over the past year. Losing charitable status for the Dominion church does not close it down, but it makes it more difficult to raise money and means it will have to start paying property and other taxes.

Peter Rigo and Barhouma were previously on the board of directors, as well as being officials of the church. The audit states they have recently resigned from their board positions. New members of the board, the audit states, include relatives of Barhouma.

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."

One family that has raised issues with the church are the Brun Del Res of Milton.

In 2005, police accused Dr. Renato Brun Del Re, 53, of kidnapping and forcible confinement after he was allegedly involved in kidnapping his daughter in an attempt to deprogram her from what he said at the time was a cult.

His wife Lucie, a French teacher, has been charged with forcible confinement. The trial is set for Oct. 13.

"I am pleased (the charity regulator) did what they did," said Lucie Brun Del Re.

"I am just sorry that it took so long."

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