“The Fourth Estate wrote to us, but we refused to respond” — Lighthouse witness tells court

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 A bishop of the Lighthouse Chapel International has admitted that the church “refused” to respond to a letter The Fourth Estate wrote for a response before publishing the “Darkness in the Lighthouse” series. The series contained allegations of economic exploitation and psychological abuse six aggrieved former pastors of Lighthouse made against the church.  

While under cross examination on Tuesday in the church’s defamation case against The Fourth Estate, Bishop Marcel Aboagye said the church ignored the media outlet because it suspected “collusion” between The Fourth Estate and the lawyer for the six former pastors, Kofi Bentil.

“We suspected there was collusion between the former pastors, Kofi Bentil and the defendants [The Fourth Estate]. We thought a response to the letter would mean giving away the potential defence to an imminent suit,” he told the court.

 Bishop Aboagye said a few days before the church received The Fourth Estate’s letter requesting a response, he had a personal discussion with Mr Bentil on phone about the former pastors’ grievances.

He claimed Mr Bentil declined to write officially to the church but warned that “if we don’t respond to his oral complaint, he was on the verge of filing suits on behalf of the former pastors.”

The former pastors had a number of grievances against the church, including its failure to pay their social security contributions, underpayment of their salaries and psychological abuses.

The Fourth Estate’s attempt to get the church’s side of the story failed. The Fourth Estate also sought the help of a prominent charismatic leader to get Lighthouse Chapel to respond before the publication of the story, but the church declined.

Bishop Dag Heward Mills (left) and Bishop Marcel Aboagye of Lighthouse chapel
Bishop Dag Heward Mills (left) and Bishop Marcel Aboagye (right)

However, Bishop Aboagye, who is a lawyer and the Director of Crusade of Lighthouse, said after his encounter with Mr Bentil, he sent him messages in expectation of a phone call Mr Bentil had promised but he did not call.

“Then three or four days later, the defendants [The Fourth Estate] rather wrote to us detailing almost all the grievances my colleague lawyer Kofi Bentil had told me against the plaintiff [Lighthouse],” he said.

He continued: “The language of the letter was as though the defendants [The Fourth Estate] were literally eavesdropping on the call between myself and Kofi Bentil. I reported to the plaintiffs [Lighthouse] Kofi Bentil’s foreboding words that, if we don’t get back to him, and the suit hit the media, ‘it will be electrifying.’ My Lord, it’s against this background that the plaintiffs refused to reply defendant’s letter.”

The lawyer for The Fourth Estate, Samson Lardi Anyenini, asked if it was on the back of that suspicion that the church failed to explain itself.

“The writs were filed on the 19th of April. We were not served the whole week until Monday. It is clear in the publication, by references to the suit, that the defendants, although not party to the suit had access to the suit long before we got them,” he said.

Although Bishop Aboagye admitted that the eight-point reasons the church gave for not paying Bishop Larry Odonkor’s SSNIT contribution as contained The Fourth Estate’s s story were factual, he said the entire letter was not published. He added that after publishing the reasons the church gave for not being responsible for paying Larry Odonkor’s pension contribution at a certain period, The Fourth Estate proceeded to “bastardise” the church in the next section of the story.

“In your testimony, you said that in the paragraph headed ‘inconsistencies’ and reaction to the church’s response, the “defendants proceeded to ‘bastardise’ the plaintiff [Lighthouse].  Kindly point the court to this claim of yours,” Mr Anyenini said.

My Lord, first of all, the use of the word ‘inconsistencies'” Bishop Aboagye said, reading The Fourth Estate‘s report in the court document. “Next, the publication says, ‘There appear to be some inconsistencies in the response from the church when held against some documents of the church, as well as the treatment of Bishop Oko Mensah and others in similar situations. While the UD-OGLC maintains that Larry Odonkor was not entitled to SSNIT because he was a volunteer, the Bishops Governing Handbook of the church states that full-time ministers who are even “interns”, are to benefit from “monthly social security payments also made on their behalf.’”

The voice of God

In one of the stories, The Fourth Estate published about the plight of the six aggrieved pastors, it quoted a statement from Bishop Larry Odonkor: “And I heard God say to me on 6th March 2020, that ‘if you don’t leave, you will not fulfil your ministry.’”

Asked to point out what he disagreed with in that statement, the witness said “Maybe not disagreeing, but I found that quote defamatory to the plaintiff [Lighthouse].”

“I put it to you that there is not a whiff bothering on defamation in the pastor’s said encounter with his God as quoted in the publication,” Lawyer Anyenini said.

Bishop Aboagye said “to the extent that those words question the objective of the church,” it was defamatory.

“You agree with me, don’t you, that those words to the pastor in question, are the words of God speaking to him,” Mr Anyenini pointed out.

“This is according to the claimant,” Bishop Aboagye said.

“Is it your contention, sir, that this quotation is not factual?” the defendants’ lawyer asked.

“My contention is that defendants or journalists cannot hide behind a deity and cast aspersions, okay? And publish insulting matters against anybody,” Bishop Aboagye said.

“I put it to you that these words are the facts in pastor’s interview with the defendants.”

“That is correct,” Bishop Marcel Aboagye said.

Who was defamed?

Lawyer Samson Lardy Anyenini also questioned the witness on the relationship between the founder of the Lighthouse Chapel International and the church.

“It is your contention that the plaintiff’s founder, Bishop Dag Heward Mills, is the same as the plaintiff. Not so?”

Bishop Aboagye asked to be allowed to refer to the court document.

“You may look at paragraph 5 of your amended statement of claim,” the defendants’ lawyer pointed told him.

 “It is the Plaintiff’s contention that the relationship of the Plaintiff and its founder is so closely fused and inseparable that an attack on the Plaintiff’s leader is as good as an attack, both directly and indirectly, against the Plaintiff,” Bishop Marcel read from the Lighthouse Chapel’s statement of claim.

 Mr Anyenini demanded a yes or no answer, but the lawyer for Lighthouse, Kweku Paintsil, stepped in: “I have an objection. You ask a question in which you put it to the witness. He reads. If that’s not an answer to the court, I don’t know what the answer is.”

The judge overruled the objection and asked the witness to respond to the question.

“The answer is no,” Bishop Marcel Aboagye said. “The paragraph says the relationship between the founder and the plaintiff is so fused that an attack on the founder especially in the way defendant [The Fourth Estate] did is an attack on the plaintiff. And, again, paragraph 5 should be quoted in context. The preceding paragraphs and the ones after talk about the writings of the founder and how the plaintiff uses the writings of the founder to work. And therefore, attacking the founder casts a dark shadow on the modus operandi of the plaintiff [Lighthouse],” he explained.

Samson Lardy Anyenini asked the witness to explain what he meant by an “attack in these circumstances.”

“My Lord, within this context, an attack refers to the three defamatory publications of the defendants. Going through each of them, the founder’s name is mentioned so many times in connection to the operations of the plaintiff,” he said, and continued:

“The publications say, for instance, that the founder imposes, in an unbiblical manner, the teachings of his books in the plaintiff’s [Lighthouse] churches. Again, the publications say that the founder exercises undue and brutal influence on the plaintiff pastors and that one even says that the founder tried to force one or some of the plaintiff bishops, one in particular, Okoe Mensah, to divorce his wife. These attacks cast a dark and gloomy shadow on the plaintiff and that cannot be denied. Finally, just as attacking the person of the Pope is an attack on the Catholic Church.”

“Bishop Dag Heward Mills is not a party in this suit. Is that so?” Samson Lardy Anyenini asked.

“That’s correct,” the witness said.

Background to Lighthouse case against The Fourth Estate

In December 2021, Lighthouse Chapel International sued publishers of The Fourth Estate alleging defamation in a series of reports the news outlet had published about the church and its former pastors and bishops.

The church cited the Editor-in-Chief of The Fourth Estate, Manasseh Azure Awuni; and the investigative reporter, Edwin Appiah; who wrote the story, as defendants. The other defendants are the Executive Director of the Media Foundation for West Africa, Sulemana Braimah, and The Media Foundation for West Africa.

The church had turned down an opportunity to respond to the allegation after the journalist sought its side of the story ahead of the serialised publications. The charismatic church, founded by Bishop Dag Heward-Mills, sued for defamation, claiming that it was losing members because of the story.

The church said it had also “suffered considerable damage, distress and embarrassment” because the stories cast the church as a “two-faced” Christian organization and a “ranking hypocrite”.

The church wants the court to restrain The Fourth Estate from publishing “similar words defamatory of the plaintiff.” It also wants The Fourth Estate to apologise for the stories and also pull down all the stories.

After a back-and-forth including a court directive in July 2022 that the parties explore an amicable settlement, which failed, the court began the trial of the case on Tuesday.

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