The preacher who preyed for gain

In Christian doctrine, the love of money might be the root of all evil, but that didn’t stop fundamentalist preacher Glenn Duker wanting lots of it, and fast.

Six years ago, the Melbourne solicitor and soon-to-be pastor at the Christian fundamentalist church, Revival Centres International, signed up as a disciple of the discredited get-rich-quick property spruiker Henry Kaye, graduating from Kaye’s “Financial Mastery Boot Camp”.

The apparently studious, God-fearing man – “straight out of Sunday school,” says a former employee – set about putting Kaye’s prescriptions into action, quitting his Melbourne law practice to become a Gold Coast property developer. Promising big returns, he recruited members of his own church, even fellow pastors, to invest in his scheme.

Four years later, it seemed Duker had made it. He and his wife, Lorilea, had a $2 million beachside house, drove BMWs, were buying multiple investment properties and flew first-class on five-star holidays.

But their “success” was built on debt, empty promises, false hope, and greed. It was already crumbling and last week it finally crashed when Duker’s business was placed in liquidation. Banks have taken out caveats on his personal properties and the 37-year-old is allegedly planning to declare himself bankrupt.

Hundreds of thousands of dollars of investors’ money has been lost, along with the trust of some in both Duker and their church.

Duker was demoted as pastor when the trouble surfaced three years ago, but his church and its leader, Simon Longfield, still stand by him. His brother, Matthew Duker, a director of his company, remains a pastor. Meanwhile, two of his victims, Craig and Sue Williams, have been ostracised by the church for trying to get their money back.

Until now, the true extent of Duker’s problems have been kept from the flock, perhaps because five of his fellow pastors – including the church’s deputy leader Victor Samoilenko – invested in Duker’s scheme. It is not illegal for pastors to invest, but it broke a decades-old church rule banning members from doing business with other church members – a rule which, according to the Australian Securities and Investments Commission, discouraged many from airing the problems.

Revival Centres International, founded in 1948 by Simon Longfield’s father, Lloyd, is a strict fundamentalist church whose followers believe you must speak in tongues to be saved, and that the end of the world will happen “in this general time period”.

Like others bruised by their investment experience, Craig and Sue Williams claim that Duker used his position of trust as pastor to encourage them to raise loans or mortgage their houses to invest in his high-risk financial schemes.

In 2003, Duker persuaded the Williamses, Sydney-based members of the church, to invest in a joint venture on a Brisbane house. He was a pastor, a solicitor, and his offer seemed “too good to be true”.

“We trusted him,” Sue Williams told The Sunday Age.

The issue of trust is key. In the church, the pastors are called “the Oversight” and, the Williamses say, the flock was taught that “pastors care for your very soul, as a shepherd for his sheep – the thought of being misled or deceived was unthinkable”.

Pastor Longfield, the church’s world leader, scoffs at suggestions that the Williamses’ trust in Duker led them into difficulty. He says the Williamses were driven by love of money. “I don’t believe Glenn misused his position,” he told The Sunday Age. “I have heard no examples of him going around the church saying, ‘I’m a pastor, so you should invest in my company’.”

But according to lawyer Michael Hayter, who represents seven of Duker’s investors including the Williamses, the law regards the relationship between religious leader and parishioner as “of even greater influence than parent and child”. This “undue influence” can lead rational people to do otherwise irrational things, he said.

Duker was, says his former assistant, Lorraine Boyer, “smooth, charming, believable”. He told investors he would use their money to buy houses, subdivide land, move or build other houses on it, and then sell for a massive profit, which he would split with them 50/50. He would do the hard work, they would just arrange their loan and, in one year, they would receive profits of 25% to 45%. Duker offered a personal guarantee to many.

Between 2002 and 2004, Duker signed 15 property joint ventures and as many other funding arrangements, almost all with pastors, church members or their friends and relatives.

Church member Peter McKay signed up in late 2002 and the next year suggested his sister, Rowena Purchase, enter a joint venture. None of the investors who spoke to The Sunday Age obtained independent advice.

“No, because (Duker said) we didn’t have to,” said McKay. “He said … I’m going to do the right thing by you … He was the expert on everything, being a lawyer as well as the property man; we were just the financiers; that was the whole thing. He said ‘You’ll be out of it in a year’.”

Seven years later, the Purchase family is still entangled.

But in mid-2003, that was all in the future. The Williamses, under Duker’s sway, accepted his offer to move from Sydney to the Gold Coast to take up a job with the new company he was setting up, RVP Group. Craig left his position as a high school woodwork teacher; Sue gave up her job as a preschool assistant.

But they soon discovered that Duker was hopelessly over-committed. He began borrowing from them. First it was loans of about $50,000 then, throughout 2004, amounts of between $10,000 and $20,000, up to four times a month. He paid the smaller loans back quickly, but reborrowed them just as fast.

Duker asked the Williamses to “help out” by signing their names to property titles because he was “maxed out” with the banks. Though they had only one proper business deal with him – the original joint venture – these ongoing “favours” meant they were exposed at one point to $3.5 million in eight properties belonging to RVP.

“There were no documents or written contracts,” Craig Williams said. “He verbally offered 100% guarantees – he was our pastor and we rather naively accepted his word.”

But trouble was brewing. Cash flow was tight, developments stalled and builders and other contractors were not paid.

By May 2005, Sue Williams’ two sisters, whom she had brought in as investors, were distressed because they couldn’t get their money back. She confronted Duker at church but he assured her he would “look after you before I look after myself”.

The Williamses, because their names were on several property titles, were also under constant pressure from trade creditors and debt collectors seeking payment. Sue eventually collected 31 default notices.

The other investors were also growing impatient. Sue Williams’ sister, Joann Polyblank, said Duker strung them out for months when they tried to retrieve their money, making and breaking promises.

In 2005, the message started to get out to the church and, according to Longfield, “we had a couple of chats with Glenn; it wasn’t the Spanish Inquisition”. Longfield demoted Duker and sent him from the Gold Coast assembly to Brisbane, telling him to repay his creditors.

“A lot of the money that was paid back was because of us pushing. Glenn was being surrounded because the Williamses were stirring up trouble everywhere,” Longfield said.

But eight months later, at the height of their supposed bid to pay back investors, the Dukers sold property in Melbourne for $1.7 million and splurged $1.6 million on four Surfers Paradise units in their own names.

The Williamses, meanwhile, out of a job and out of money, were forced to move with their three children into a tiny, two-bedroom, rat-infested house. Sue plunged into clinical depression.

Duker did manage to pay some investors back, though it is unclear how many recouped their money. The Williamses received some money in 2007, but say they are still owed $75,000 for the joint venture and another $100,000 in unpaid GST.

McKay’s sister, Rowena Purchase, and her husband Richard, received $25,000, but are still owed $100,000.

When McKay confronted Duker about the money, Lorilea Duker replied that he should focus on his “spiritual principles” over his material principles, and suggested he stop fighting “tooth and nail for those things that rust and moth doth corrupt”.

For the Williamses, the final straw came in May 2006 when Longfield authorised Duker’s return to the Gold Coast assembly just nine months after he had left it.

Church leaders had stopped talking to the Williamses and, when they protested to Longfield, he emailed back accusing them of “malice, blame, revenge”, saying “we warned you to do the scriptural thing – to move on and let the Lord be the judge”.

The Williamses felt they had no choice but to leave their church of 18 years.

Other investors got the bad news a few months ago, when GST bills of up to $70,000, began to arrive. A number of investors face the threat, all these years later, of losing their homes.

Duker has refused to comment for this article, responding instead with legal threats and the assertion that questions from The Sunday Age were “based on grossly erroneous facts”.

Longfield maintains that, “90% of the people (Duker has) done business with think he’s fine” and it is up to “the law of the land to judge him”. He concedes that if Duker has been “fraudulent and dishonest, he should go to jail”, and that he would then also be excommunicated from the church.

The Williamses are living on Craig’s teaching salary, using credit to pay huge legal and accounting bills: “We’re in our mid-40s, we don’t control our lives,” says Sue, in tears. “I don’t know if we’ll be able to pay this next tax bill. He’s done something to hurt people. He’s hidden behind the church. We want the truth revealed.”

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(Listed if other than Religion News Blog)
The Age, Australia
June 8, 2008
Michael Bachelard

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This post was last updated: Jun. 10, 2008