Churches and religious groups got millions in JobKeeper in 2020, and lost little revenue

Numerous Australian churches and religious groups scraped millions in JobKeeper for themselves in 2020 while remaining in the dark.

The ABC recently investigated the financial records of more than 100 religious organisations to discover that they somehow qualified for the emergency wage subsidy.

While thousands of small businesses were fighting to receive such subsidies, these organisations actually saw little financial downfall during last year’s first COVID-19 economic decline. Remember that churches, especially those of the Christian faith, are also businesses.

Australian religious organisations lost very little revenue during 2020

Roughly 3,500 religious entities cashed in a total of $627 million in JobKeeper payments throughout the duration of the scheme, according to figures from the ATO. The scheme ended in March.

These figures do not include payment to social welfare groups controlled by the religious groups in question – Uniting Care, Mission Australia and the Brotherhood of St Lawrence.

Religious groups delivering the federal government’s school chaplaincy programs were among the primary recipients.

For example, the Scripture Union of Queensland received more than $15 million in JobKeeper, despite only slightly falling in government revenue during 2020.

Excluding JobKeeper, revenue only decreased by 11 per cent last year. But with the wage subsidy, the Scripture Union helped gain a surplus of $11.7 million. The organisation retorted:

“Scripture Union QLD met the statutory decline-in-revenue tests for charities to qualify for JobKeeper support,” 

“We are grateful for JobKeeper as it meant we maintained employment for all of our staff despite the uncertainty of the COVID-19 pandemic.”

JobKeeper recipients like the Catholic Archdiocese of Adelaide received $13 million, while posting a surplus of roughly more than $7 million last year.

The archdiocese declined to comment.

The originally American organisation that established itself in Australia in 1967, The Evangelical Christian group ‘Power to Change’ received $3.4 million in ‘government subsidies’ including of JobKeeper. They returned a surplus of $2.3 million.

Meanwhile, the Lutheran Church of Australia received $1.4 million in ‘government grants’ with a $1.7 million surplus last year, according to its financial statements.

In Melbourne, Crossway Baptist Church raked in $2.8 million in ‘government stimulus’ in 2020 which they confirmed included JobKeeper revenue with $3.4 million in surplus.

Groups like the Jewish charity Mizrachi Organisation in Melbourne claim they were “severely impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic and experienced a significant drop in revenue, well in excess of the criteria set under Jobkeeper“.

They received $4.1 million in JobKeeper and other government financial assistance, gaining a $3.2 million surplus.

Andrew Leigh, Labor MP encouraged religious organisations that remained in this surplus while receive JobKeeper should ‘consider’ paying the money back.

“I also think that the Morrison government needs to be held to account for running a scheme which continued to hand out money to firms with rising earnings,” Mr Leigh said.

Josh Frydenberg, Federal Treasure declined an interview but did comment that he would welcome these religious groups and other charities to repay JobKeeper earnings “if they are in a position to do so”.

“These organisations perform vitally important work,” he said.

“That’s why the Morrison government provided them with unprecedented support to ensure they could continue to help those Australians in need of their services during this once-in-a-century pandemic.”

But to what extent does this ‘support’ stretch?

Some organisations receiving JobKeeper have been criticised by survivors of historical sexual abuse within religious institutions, for using those funds to make payments through the national redress scheme.

“If the churches are paying the redress with money that was given to them for a specific purpose, that is quite wrong,” said Jim Luthy from Care Leavers Australia Network, an organisation that provides support to abuse survivors.

“The community would then be paying for their actions.”

These organisations allege to ABC investigators that funds made through the National Redress Scheme came out of their own pockets and not from government subsidies.

The Christian Brothers state they spent $39 million on legal and litigation expenses last year and that none of their JobKeeper was used for compensation payments, $1.3 million.

The auditor-general of Australia has been investigating these payments and the administration of the scheme. The final report will be tabled in December.