Four articles have appeared in a web publication Christian Today written by the site’s contributing editor, the Rev. Mark Woods. The articles are one-sided and hostile attacks on Dr Patrick Sookhdeo, and the Barnabas Fund.
The articles are extraordinary for their biased and selective nature. In the first three articles there is no balance and nothing positive is said at all about the diverse range of work of the Barnabas Fund in serving the persecuted Church. And they have nothing good to say about Dr Patrick Sookhdeo, the founder of the Barnabas Fund, who has devoted his life to giving aid and support to persecuted Christians. There is some faint praise in the fourth article amid much condemnation.
The one-sidedness of the attacks contradict Christian Today’s own mission statement: “We aim to be objective and fair in our reporting, rather than sensationalist or polarising.”
Mr Woods first published a critical article in August arguing that because Dr Sookhdeo had been convicted he should be silent. Mr Woods has a right to his opinion but he went further than this in urging his readers to donate to other persecuted church charities, giving little or no thought to Barnabas Fund’s quite unique role and how it would impact the suffering of the persecuted church should Barnabas cease to exist.
Barnabas Fund offered an article for publication by Christian Today in reply but were refused. There was a complete unwillingness on the part of the Editor to enter negotiations about a possible response.
At the suggestion of a third party, Patrick Sookhdeo expressed his willingness to meet with Mr Mark Woods off the record as Christian brothers to resolve their differences. But Mr Woods insisted that any meeting had to include an interview for publication. Dr Sookhdeo, after advice from colleagues, felt obliged to decline.
Some weeks later, the Barnabas Fund received a list of questions from Mark Woods. These were a short but wide-ranging list of questions which had every appearance of a ‘fishing expedition’. These questions referred only to a small number of the allegations and claims which Christian Today was later to publish.
Barnabas Fund explained to Mr Woods that it was not possible to reply to his questions immediately because of a forthcoming employment tribunal. It was thought that Christian Today would delay publication until after the tribunal to allow Barnabas Fund the opportunity to fully reply to questions. The Fund’s communications consultant, Andrew Carey, asked Mr Woods and the editor for advance notice of any further publication.
Mr Woods confirmed that he would give notice. But the first article: ‘Patrick Sookhdeo: The untold story of the battle for control of Barnabas’ (29 October 2015) appeared without any other contact in advance from Christian Today to Barnabas Fund.
After the first article was published, Barnabas Fund contacted Mr Woods and Christian Today to inform them that it was not in the public interest to publish such a one-sided account and asked to be given the opportunity to comment before publication on the further articles which were promised. Mr Woods refused us any opportunity to comment and falsely claimed in the follow-up articles that Dr Sookhdeo and Barnabas Fund had declined to comment. We were not given the opportunity to comment on the second, third or fourth articles.
Mr Woods’ articles were even worse than we had feared from previous experience of him. This was a one-sided telling of events with no attempt to balance the picture. The articles have an unrelenting tone of hostility and sensationalism and they include significant errors.
- Christian Today claims that the troubles began in 2012/13 when some of the trustees (now ex-trustees) began to raise concerns about ‘the need for tighter controls on how money was spent’. Mr Woods does not tell his readers that these concerns came from nowhere. They were not raised in any regular meetings of the trustees nor to the financial officers, accountants and auditors of Barnabas Fund. Instead those involved chose to call an emergency meeting of Trustees and focus their concerns about finance solely on Dr Sookhdeo who was not even a signatory on the bank accounts.
- Christian Today claims that some ex-trustee complaints centred around the treatment of a former member of staff, who was made redundant, and Dr Sookhdeo’s management style in general. Sadly, there are times in a financial downturn when redundancies have to be made and there were three in 2012, as Barnabas sought to keep its overheads low. Redundancies are always difficult. All three members of staff were treated properly and according to correct procedures.
- Christian Today claims that other staff ‘came forward’ with complaints about Dr Sookhdeo. It is untrue that they ‘came forward’. The former Chairman of Trustees has admitted that he wrote to and contacted many past members of staff all over the world, actively soliciting written complaints about Dr Sookhdeo. He was only interested in negative comments about Dr Sookhdeo not those which were positive. In fact, the former Chairman later gave Dr Sookhdeo a fulsome written apology for these actions.
- Mr Woods paints a picture in which Dr Sookhdeo, his wife Rosemary, and Projects Director, Caroline Kerslake battled against a majority of trustees (who are now all ex-trustees) who were acting only in the interests of the charity. In fact, the majority trustees were independently contacting the Charity Commission and other third parties to undermine the Barnabas Fund rather than seeking reconciliation. They were encouraged to go to mediation by the Charity Commission.
- Contrary to Christian Today’s account it was Dr Sookhdeo and the minority trustees who from the very beginning offered mediation. The ex-trustees eventually consented to mediation, which took place four months after they had first raised concerns, but only three of them attended.
- Christian Today gives as an example of the ‘polarising ability of Dr Sookhdeo’ that a member of staff who was asked to send out an email from the ex-trustees refused to do so. This involved two members of staff, caught between the two groups of trustees, who begged the majority trustees to be allowed to take legal advice and were refused.
- Christian Today claims that Miss Caroline Kerslake authorised expenditure of around £585,000 on a single project. This is completely untrue. Miss Kerslake has never had any authority to do so. Any such amount was authorised through proper channels which included the main Projects and Disbursements Committee on which two of the ex-trustees sat.
- Christian Today is right that there was a rarely-used, confidential procedure for deciding on funding for ultra-sensitive projects but one trustee was always involved in such decisions. It does not take much imagination to see circumstances under which the utmost conditions of confidentiality would be needed when dealing with the persecuted church.
- The suspicion of some of the ex-trustees about the relationship between three interlinked charities Barnabas Fund, The Barnabas Fund and Servants Fellowship International was wholly unnecessary. Financial reports were presented at board meetings. There was no secrecy about any of the arrangements. The Charity Commission is fully aware of the relationships among the charities of the Barnabas family and they are not of an unusual nature.
- In his description of the February 7 2013 meeting in which Mr Woods says that Dr Sookhdeo launched into a ‘vindictive’ diatribe before walking out, a number of facts are omitted. The agenda, sprung upon Dr Sookhdeo less than two hours before the meeting began, included plans to vote him off. It was unsurprising that the atmosphere was heated. The minority trustees themselves perceived the attacks on them as ‘vindictive’ and left the meeting.
- Christian Today suggests that in signing a new lease in January 2013 the minority trustees acted improperly. There had been a number of leases and each time they were done properly with legal advice.
- The serving of a Notice to Quit was considered to be a necessary precaution given that the ex-trustees appeared to be attempting to split the Barnabas Fund. It was also an attempt to bring matters to a head and hence to achieve a lasting resolution for the long-term good of the Barnabas Fund.
- The partiality of Christian Today in suggesting that this conflict was taking its toll on the ‘health and peace of mind’ of the ex-trustees, entirely ignores the experience of attack and ‘betrayal’ that the minority trustees themselves experienced. Some of the accusations made to Patrick were in extreme and insulting terms. The word ‘incubus’ was even used to describe him at one stage. It was also said that Barnabas Fund could be a ‘Muslim operation with a clever façade’, an accusation particularly hurtful to Dr Sookhdeo. The ex-trustees made no attempt to bring an end to the conflict; it was months before they would allow mediation to take place. They were encouraged to enter into mediation by the Charity Commission and eventually did so.
- Christian Today claims that it was in about May and June 2013 that the ex-trustees came to the conclusion that it was no longer possible for Dr Sookhdeo to continue, but removing him had been their intention from December 2012 or January 2013.
- The claim is made by Christian Today that the ex-trustees were spending large amounts of the charity’s money to defend themselves against Dr Sookhdeo. This is highly misleading. They contacted lawyers to find a way of ousting Dr Sookhdeo.
- The Tomlin Agreement by which the situation was resolved was not undermined by Dr Patrick Sookhdeo. The Interim Board ran for its allotted time and was properly replaced by a new board. Though the Tomlin Agreement purported to prevent Rosemary Sookhdeo and Caroline Kerslake being appointed to the Board neither of them were signatories to that agreement.
- Christian Today claims that Barnabas Fund is suing Wellers the solicitors that acted for the majority Trustees for negligence. This is inaccurate. At this stage no claim has been issued against Wellers.
- On the subject of the second article ‘Patrick Sookhdeo: How Barnabas Aid International handled the sexual assault case” (30 October 2015) and the third article ‘Patrick Sookhdeo: How he intimidated prosecution witnesses in the sexual assault case’ (31 October 2015), Barnabas Fund has already stated that it is impossible for us to respond fully on these subjects at the moment because of an outstanding tribunal hearing.
- Christian Today states that Barnabas Fund had misled the public in claiming that its grievance procedure had not upheld any of the allegations against Dr Sookhdeo. Barnabas Fund did not make this claim; we have specifically said that the grievance investigation “did not uphold any of the allegations of sexual harassment.”
- An exhaustive grievance procedure and appeal found against Dr Sookhdeo on three matters: that Dr Sookhdeo discussed with the complainant the introduction of a modesty dress code because international visitors of many cultures regularly visited; secondly he discussed an open door policy to avoid false accusations and provide protection to all members of staff, and thirdly, that there was accidental physical contact which was not of a sexual nature.
- In a third article ‘Patrick Sookhdeo: How he intimidated prosecution witnesses in the sexual assault case’ (31 October 2015), Mr Woods contends that in speaking at a meeting of Barnabas Fund staff and trustees, Dr Sookhdeo was acting against bail conditions that he should have no communication with two prosecution witnesses.
- It was as a result of a meeting with staff of Barnabas Fund, also attended by most of the trustees, that the charge of intimidating a witness was brought. At the meeting, which marked the restoration of Dr Sookhdeo to his position as International Director, there were four speakers. Dr Sookhdeo himself did not want to attend the meeting, let alone speak, but was pressed to do so by the board of Barnabas Aid International.
- It is incorrect that the two members of staff who were to be witnesses for the prosecution were required to attend the meeting. Attendance was voluntary for all staff, and in order to meet conditions of bail one of them had been specifically advised against attending the meeting by one of the senior managers of Barnabas. The other one had been working from home yet came in especially to attend the meeting, at the urging of a friend of hers on the staff. But Dr Sookhdeo was not told of this. He had expected that neither of the two individuals would be in the room. He was mainly looking down when speaking because of his acute embarrassment in the situation and when not speaking he was sitting in a position where he could only see a few other people.
- Christian Today claims that many left the meeting. Only three left and one of these returned. There were 50 or 60 people at the meeting.
- Christian Today claims to know better than us that Dr Sookhdeo’s sentence is in the middle of the sentencing range. We have heard from several lawyers and one judge that this was a light sentence for the two offences.
- In the fourth and, we hope, final article from Mr Woods, ‘Patrick Sookhdeo: How has he survived at Barnabas?’ (2 November 2015), the diatribe against the character of Dr Sookhdeo continues unabated. Mr Woods makes one interesting point in his series of judgements on Dr Sookhdeo: “…his refusal to accept his guilt for the sexual assault is inexcusable.” This beggars belief. Does Mr Woods really believe that it is inexcusable to plead ‘not guilty’?
- The rest of the fourth article seems intended to condemn anyone who will not sit in judgement over Dr Sookhdeo and the Barnabas Fund.
Barnabas Fund and Barnabas Aid International are issuing this statement with a heavy heart. It is only because of the continued attacks by Mr Woods that we have had to resort to putting a statement on our own website. These articles force us into bringing into the public domain details of a situation reflecting very poorly on ex-trustees who went to extraordinary lengths to discredit and try to oust Dr Sookhdeo. In the process they spent large sums of the charity’s money and severely impacted the hardworking staff of the charity. Positively we now have an outstanding Board capable of governing the Barnabas Fund, asking challenging questions of senior leaders and understanding financial matters and complying with charity law as the Barnabas Fund continues to grow. We will be seeking a refund of the money spent on legal fees. We can reassure supporters that Barnabas Fund will not suffer any financial loss because an offer has been made from another source to reimburse Barnabas Fund for any legal fees that cannot be refunded.
There are some allegations to do with the articles that we cannot respond to fully but it is distressing that in spite of recognising the valuable work of the Barnabas Fund Mr Woods should scatter question marks over aspects of governance, and especially financial accountability in the Fund which have never been the subject of any serious suspicion.
Finally, Mr Woods seems to contend in his final article that the Charity Commission were negligent in not taking up the allegations made by the former trustees. In fact, after the complaints of the ex-trustees there has been an exhaustive process in which we have worked closely with the commission to satisfy all their enquiries and requests. Our accounts are always properly audited and we are meeting the Commission’s request to bring our policies up-to-date. We have put in place annual staff training to ensure that our work-place is a safe place for all.