The witness for Lighthouse Chapel International, Bishop Marcel Aboagye, has admitted that he was not present at the meetings where a former bishop of the church, Emmanuel Oko Mensah, was pressured to divorce his wife.
Bishop Marcel Aboagye made the admission during the third day of cross-examination in the church’s defamation case against The Fourth Estate. The church sued over a series of news stories containing allegations of psychological abuse and economic exploitation which six former pastors of the church had made against it.
In his writ filed at the Accra High Court, Bishop Oko Mensah accused the Presiding Bishop of the church, Dag Heward-Mills, of pressuring him to divorce his wife. According to him, he was “unduly pressured by the Founder of the church to divorce his wife because she was perceived to be a stumbling block” to his [Bishop Oko Mensah’s] ministry.
The former Lighthouse bishop alleged that every time Bishop Heward-Mills saw him, “he would be making funny comments about my wife.”
According to court documents, Oko Mensah claimed the pressure had resulted in “psychological and emotional trauma”.
However, the church in its pleadings denied the allegations made by the six pastors, including Bishop Oko Mensah, against Dag Heward-Mills. The church said they were false and defamatory.
When lawyer for The Fourth Estate, Samson Lardi Anyenini, asked whether the witness was present when the incidents took place, he said he wasn’t.
“In all the passages you have read to this court, Bishop Okoe Mensah recounts personal encounters, not so?” Samson Lardi Anyenini asked.
“My Lord, that is so. Personal encounters and meetings he was in,” the bishop replied.
“You were not present on any of these occasions of his said encounters, not so?” The Fourth Estate lawyer asked.
“Just as I wasn’t also present when almost all the allegations made by the pastors took place. On some of them, I got reports from the overseers denying the allegations, Bishop Aboagye explained.
Bishop Aboagye, who is also the Director of Crusades for the church, further told the court that Bishop Dag Heward-Mills personally denied the allegations of putting pressure on Okoe Mensah to divorce his wife.
“My Lord, he [Oko Mensah] mentions only one name. That is Bishop Dag Heward-Mills. And he [Dag Heward-Mills told me the allegations are false and there’s no proof before this court of the said allegations, which is why as journalists, the defendants [The Fourth Estate] ought not to have gone ahead to publish it.”
Samson Lardi Anyenini also confronted the witness with a Whatsapp message Bishop Okoe Mensah, according to court documents, sent to his wife after one of such meetings.
“On Page 80 of your Exhibit F is a WhatsApp conversation (chats) between the said Okoe Mensah and his wife about the said meeting of September 28, 2018, in the private offices of Bishop Heward Mills,” The Fourth Estate’s lawyer said.
“My Lord, I don’t know the source of the chat. There’s no phone number to show the persons involved so I don’t know the source,” Bishop Aboagye replied.
“I put it to you that you know Bishop Okoe Mensah’s wife’s name, not so?” Samson Lardi Anyenini asserted.
“My Lord, known to me as his wife. I know her as Emmanuela Okoe Mensah,” Bishop Aboagye responded.
“I suggest to you that the same person bears the name as appears on the WhatsApp on Page 80 of your Exhibit F,” the defence lawyer said.
“My Lord, that I don’t know. Even if it were so, the supposed WhatsApp chat doesn’t prove anything. I leave it to the court to place whatever weight the court wants on the evidence,” Bishop Aboagye responded.
However, Samson Lardi Anyenini trudged on.
“I put it to you that ordinarily, the screenshots of WhatsApp chats with a saved names to particular telephone numbers will reveal the name, and not the number,” he said.
At this point, Bishop Aboagye’s lawyer objected and said the the question wasn’t relevant.
The judge disagreed and asked, “if the evidence doesn’t prove anything, why did you bring it?”
The Fourth Estate pointed to his opponent that the question was relevant because “if you screenshoot a number, it bears the name and not the number” and asked the witness to answer the question.
The judge agreed and ordered the witness to answer the question as a witness and not a lawyer.
“My Lord, it depends on the person taking the screenshot. The name can be deleted to reveal the number for purposes of authentication.”
But the judge was not satisfied and reminded Bishop Aboagye that he was not answering the question.
Samson Anyenini repeated the question to the witness.
“My Lord, that’s correct. But where the person taking the screenshots seeks to authenticate the number to which he’s sending the message, he ought to delete the name and the number will appear. But this was not done. And so, this message can be between any two people on the planet earth.
Not satisfied with the response, The Fourth Estate lawyer sought more clarifications.
“The name on the screenshot appears with a photograph, not so?”
“My Lord, it is so. And just like the name, any picture can be saved to any number as a profile picture,” Bishop Aboagye said.
“The said picture is the said woman whose name you mentioned to this court, not so?” Samson Lardi Anyenini, pinning down the witness.
“My Lord, that’s correct,” Bishop Aboagye conceded.
A pastor’s suicide attempts
Another pastor, Seth Duncan, had alleged that the undue pressure the church put on him to raise funds and the consequent psychological effects drove him to attempt suicide three times.
Again, lawyer Samson Anyenini put the witness on the spot and asked him about the incident.
“There’s no proof linking the alleged attempted suicide to the plaintiff if they ever occurred,” Bishop Aboagye responded.
On this, he was asked whether he witnessed Seth Duncan’s suicide attempts.
“I did not witness[it]. Seth Duncan lived in Paga. I’m in Accra,” he answered.
Bishop Aboagye also admitted that none of the officers from Lighthouse witnessed the suicide attempts nor has he [Marcel Aboagye] heard of Seth Duncan’s wife or family speaking about the suicide attempts.
Publication of SSNIT decision and verified information
One of the contentions of the six former pastors of Lighthouse Chapel was that the church had failed to pay their Social Security and National Insurance Trust (SSNIT) contributions.
Although the pastors said they provided enough evidence to SSNIT to prove there were employer/employee relationships between them and Lighthouse, SSNIT ruled otherwise
The Fourth Estate, in one of its stories on the issue, noted the contradictions in SSNIT’s decision as it had earlier indicated that the pastors were indeed employees of the church.
Bishop Aboagye had said in court documents said the publication was inaccurate and offensive.
“Your position is that the defendants’ commentary and publication of that decision were incorrect, not so?” Samson Lardi Anyenini asked the witness.
“Yes, my Lord. It was incorrect, conclusive, and defamatory,” Bishop Aboagye replied.
Bishop Aboagye also denied confirming to the court that The Fourth Estate verified the information for the publication of its series on Lighthouse by relying on documents authored by Dag Heward-Mills as well as experts and court documents.
“I put it to you that you gave confirmation as presently sought on the 10th and 25th days of January 2023 in your testimony before this court,” Samson Lardi Anyenini pointed out.
“My Lord, what I said about experts was that I didn’t know whether the defendants spoke to them or not. Regarding documents of the church, my answer was that they mischievously and maliciously misinterpreted the documents and I gave one example. My Lord, with your permission, the other documents they relied on apart from the example I gave were maliciously interpreted and thrown to the public…” Bishop Aboagye responded.
He further denied having knowledge about The Fourth Estate using intermediaries to seek an audience with Dag Heward-Mills before the publication of the said series.
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 as defendants the Editor-in-Chief of The Fourth Estate, Manasseh Azure Awuni; and the investigative reporter, Edwin Appiah; who wrote the story of alleged traumatic abuse and economic exploitation that six bishops and pastors of the church say they suffered before they resigned from the church. 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 turned down an opportunity to respond to the allegation after the journalist sought its side of the story ahead of the serialized publication. But incensed by the publication, the charismatic church, founded by Bishop Dag Heward-Mills, sued for defamation, claiming that it was losing members because of the story.