The Lighthouse Chapel International (LCI) has lost a contempt case in the ongoing trial against six pastors who resigned from the church.
Justice Frank Aboadwe Rockson, who delivered the judgement at a labour court in Accra today, said the church failed to prove why the pastors should be cited for contempt for granting series of interviews to The Fourth Estate not long before coming to court with their cases.
“This court does not see from the evidence before it that the respondents have committed contempt for which they have to be punished.
“This court has taken great pains to read all the processes filed in this application and the written submissions of both lawyers and would say that the applicant has failed to discharge its burden and therefore, the motion on notice for an order of committal for contempt is hereby dismissed,” Justice Frank Aboadwe Rockson said, dismissing the case.
The judge stated that citing a person for contempt of court was meant to protect the dignity of the court and not a tool to be used for an individual’s benefit.
“Contempt of court is not there to protect the dignity of any one individual person but the overall interest of the justice delivery machinery.”
Contempt of court is a quasi-criminal offence and if the court had found the six pastors guilty of same, the court would have fined or imprisoned them as requested by the LCI in their suit.
Counsel for the six pastors, Kofi Bentil, asked the court to award a cost against the church, but the judge declined.
The LCI claimed that the respondents were in contempt of court for three reasons. It said the six former pastors of the church granted interviews to The Fourth Estate, which were published, and that the pastors did not include all the details of these interviews in their court filings. The church also said The Fourth Estate publications cast the church in a negative light.
The pastors’ story of economic exploitation and abuse was published by The Fourth Estate shortly after they filed their suit seeking justice for the non-payment of their Social Security and National Insurance Trust (SSNIT) contributions, alleged underpayment of their salaries, and emotional abuse among others.
The judgement, which was delayed for six months, was occasioned by the church’s failure to file its written submission in March 2023.
Ingredients of contempt
In his written submission to the court, Counsel for the former LCI pastors, Mr Bentil, argued that the act of contempt of court in Ghana requires specific elements that must be proven beyond reasonable doubts. These, he said, include intentional disobedience of court orders or denigration of the court, both inside or outside of the courtroom during ongoing legal proceedings. Additionally, it must be shown that the accused had the intention to commit contempt and acted accordingly.
To be held in contempt of a court in Ghana, the lawyer further said the accused must be proven beyond reasonable doubt to have conceived and acted in a way that defied or disobeyed the orders of a court, or in a way that denigrated the court either in the face of the court or outside the court during a period when the court is adjudicating the issue in contention.
According to court documents, the respondents contend that contempt of court is typically only applied to actions that happen after a court has started dealing with a case. This is because it requires serious and clear actions that violate the law. He said in this particular case, the applicant (the church) had not provided sufficient evidence to prove such actions, and the respondents had not behaved badly enough to warrant severe punishment.
He said: “It is extremely pertinent to note that in this court, My Lord the judge had occasion to admonish the parties and charge them to stay out of the media circus surrounding this case. In that admonishment, My Lord the judge commended the parties for restraining themselves so far. What is pertinent here is that this admonishment and commendation came after the publication of ‘Darkness in a Lighthouse’. Witness for Applicant admitted recollecting this admonishment. It stands to reason therefore that as would be expected of a court, this court had not considered the events before that date as contemptuous, and was proceeding with the matter before it, not matters outside the court.”
The respondents claimed that they had tried to settle the issues with their employer outside court, but their attempts were unsuccessful. The Fourth Estate got wind of it and approached them for interviews, which they gave. These interviews, they said, happened before they decided to take legal action against the church.
Court is not scandalised, disrupted, thwarted
“Respondents did everything to avoid court action because the applicant herein is far better resourced than them, but when all failed, instead of giving up, and with the support of friends and family, they ran to the law. It is not true that they were bent on coming to court,” the six pastors said in their defence.
“Respondents, therefore, have no doubt that this court is not scandalised, disrupted, thwarted nor tormented by the contents of interviews given long before writs were filed and would not consider them as contemptuous of this court, because it is clear about what is before it and what is not, and would not be prejudiced by extraneous matters,” Mr Bentil said in the court document.
Furthermore, the respondents said the church was aggrieved that the interviews cast it in a bad light and wished to project its displeasure and discomfort onto the court and suggest that the court was offended and had experienced contempt because applicants were offended.
“We are confident this court appreciates the media interest around this case, but will not assume the pain of parties herein, or turn the displeasure of parties into its own and declare contempt when a party is displeased with external issues unless the conduct is truly contemptuous and not a strained effort to stretch the law of contempt to fight partisan battles,” they argued.
Asking the court to dismiss the case and award cost against the church, Mr Bentil argued that the applicant [the church] was asking the court to be offended on its behalf and punish the respondents (the six former LCI pastors) for conduct that they believe is disrespectful.
Lighthouse on losing streak
This is the second time the Lighthouse church has lost a case before a court in Ghana in a week and the fourth time it has lost a case since the pastors resigned and sued the church in 2021.
The most recent was the acquittal of one of its former bishops, Larry Odonkor, on September 15, 2023, who the LCI alleged had pilfered funds that he should have used to pay his income tax and SSNIT contributions after he had written cheques for those purposes.
The court presided over by Ellen Ofei-Ayeh, disagreed and said: “The prosecution failed to prove the necessary ingredients of the alleged crime.”
In June 2022, the church lost another case against Bishop Odonkor after it accused him of selling the church’s Toyota Land Cruiser he used while a missionary in Madagascar and pocketing the money.
The Madagascan court “…declares all claims by Lighthouse Chapel International to be ill-founded and dismisses them all without prejudice…”
In December 2022, a Ghanaian Court also struck out a case the state was pursuing against the bishops who had sued the church alongside Bishop Odonkor.
“Though the suspect appropriated the vehicle, the appropriation was not dishonest,” the Attorney-General said in a letter dated November 3, 2022, to the court.
That ended a 14-month trial that began on September 22, 2021.
Far away in the United States, one of the church’s bishops, Ishmael Sam, lost a defamation suit against a former employee of the charismatic church, Jerry Tachie-Menson.
The Texas court threw out the case on technical grounds, explaining the plaintiff, Bishop Ishmael Sam, had failed to adequately invoke the jurisdiction of the court.
Bishop Sam started branches of the Lighthouse in Tema and is now the resident bishop of the Truth Cathedral at Dawenya, Accra.
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