Allegations of Fraudulent Degrees Raise Questions for General Conference Appointee

An article published in a South African newspaper concerning the qualifications of two top Seventh-day Adventist leaders has created waves from the Southern Africa-Indian Ocean Division all the way to the General Conference in Silver Spring, Maryland.

On April 14, The New Age, a national daily newspaper with a claimed daily distribution of over 100,000 copies that covers the nine provinces of South Africa and international news, published “Church degree scandal,” an exposé on the alleged falsification of doctoral degrees by Paul Ratsara, president of the Southern Africa-Indian Ocean Division, and Paul Charles, director of communication for SID.

The allegations in the article could prove particularly problematic for Paul Charles, who at the 2016 General Conference Spring Meeting was tapped to fill a vacant General Conference Associate Director of Communication position.

The New Age’s article presents charges from South African church members who allege that both Charles and Ratsara have used false qualifications to ascend to well-paying, powerful leadership positions within the Seventh-day Adventist denomination.

The article called into question Paul Ratsara’s 2014 DTh from the University of South Africa (Unisa) and Paul Charles’s Masters and PhD degrees from the seemingly non-existent Freedom Institute for Theological Studies and Research.

SID leaders have issued a response to the allegations, vigorously defending Ratsara’s qualifications and have circulated pictures of his graduation ceremony from Unisa and his PhD certificate. The response states, “Dr. Ratsara received his Doctor of Theology Degree in Systematic Theology in 2014 from the University of South Africa (UNISA). UNISA is the largest university on the African continent with more than 300,000 students ‘The degree was conferred at a congregation of the University on 8 September 2014,’ wrote IH Brown, Manager: Division Graduations, University of South Africa in a letter dated 17 April 2015.”

Ratsara has also produced an image of an honorary Doctor of Divinity degree from Solusi University, an Adventist institution in Zimbabwe.

In contrast, SID has only said of Charles, “Dr. Paul Charles earned his PhD in Missiology from the Freedom Institute of Theological Studies and Research in India, private, non-denominational institution.”

The scrutiny of Charles’s allegedly fraudulent doctoral degrees has only increased since the publication of the article in New Age. Charles, whose new job as Associate Communication Director for the General Conference would likely entail handling difficult public relations situations on behalf of the Worldwide Adventist Church, has declined to comment on the specific allegations against him, and has thus far produced no evidence that his degrees are legitimate aside from pictures of the degrees. Charles did not respond to requests for comment on this story.

Hitting out against the charges through his personal Facebook page, Charles wrote on April 22,

Every time the Lord changes my appointment, somebody is disturbed and some are excited because I am a constant reminder of what might have been for some and what is possible for others who trust in the Lord. My new appointment has caused some to raise the same questions again. For some time - I have received threats of going to court, exposure in the media, etc because of some allegations that my PHD is not genuine. Even though I was cleared many times by due process. The people who studied with me know otherwise and my documents prove otherwise as presented and accepted in my church. I have been exonerated officially and am free from guilt and blame...I did complete my PhD in an honest way and have no intentions of answering questions that were raised and answered satisfactorily by and to the church.”

(NOTE: prior to this story's publication, we found the post no longer appeared on Charles's Facebook page.)

Paul Charles’s questioned degrees (a second doctorate, purportedly from Canterbury University, has not been produced) play a key role in his personal narrative, a story of his overcoming significant challenges to become a top leader in the Adventist denomination.

In “Paul Charles—From Poverty to PhDs,” a segment released in 2013 by the Hope Channel’s “Let’s Pray” program (which operates under the auspices of the General Conference), describes Charles as holding two PhDs—in missiology and leadership, respectively—with studies underway for a third degree from the University of South Africa. The video description on YouTube says, “Paul Charles holds not one, but two, PhD degrees and is an active leader in his church in South Africa. This is true, in spite of the fact that he grew up in extreme poverty. Hear his story of God's power to lift and transform."

NOTE: On May 27, 2016, we received a message from the Hope Channel alerting us to the fact that this video had been deleted from the Hope Channel's YouTube account.

For its part, the General Conference refrained from commenting on the situation publicly, despite the fact that Charles has been appointed to serve at the General Conference. Williams Costa, Jr., Communication Director for the General Conference, was asked for this article whether Charles has accepted the position and if so, when he will begin work. Costa was also asked whether the General Conference has taken steps to verify Charles's degrees and whether there would be a statement of support of Charles forthcoming.

Costa replied by email, "Mr. Charles accepted the position and his job offer has not been rescinded at the GC. Carefully the Church is searching about the accusations but the research has not finished; this is why, at the moment we (SID and/or GC) don't have a final statement to issue."

Liberty Institute, the university from which Charles claims to have received both his master’s and doctoral degree, has no physical address and no website. It is not an accredited institution in India, according to Dr. Shaheeda Essack, Director of Private Higher Education Institutions for the South African Department of Education and Training.

The primary mentions of the Freedom Institute online pertain to The New Age’s article in which the charges of fraud first surfaced publicly.

Bernhard Ficker, a lay member of the Adventist Church in the Cape Conference, shared the following concerns regarding Charles’s degrees:

  1. The institution known as Freedom Institute cannot be traced anywhere.

  2. The two degree certificate forms are identical, with only different wording hand written in. For many decades, no degrees have had hand-written contents; All are fully printed to prevent fraud.

  3. Anyone can print certificates, write in contents by hand, and stamp on signatures as has been done here.

  4. All doctoral degrees have the title of the dissertation printed on them. There is no dissertation title in this doctoral degree certificate, indicating it is fake.

  5. The name Freedom Institute by itself indicates that it is not a university. Only universities (or equivalent) can award doctorates. Then they must have a research department, since a Doctor of Philosophy is by definition a research degree. Other degrees like DMin are not research degrees.

  6. As such, the name of the study leader (doctoral supervisor) normally also appears on the degree. There is no indication of any study leader on this document."

The two certificates Paul Charles claims he earned from Freedom Institute.

Dr. Dewey E. Painter's identical signatures appear on the two certificates over the words "Dewey E. Painter, Chancellor Freedom University & Seminary (U.S.A.)." On his LinkedIn profile, Dr. Painter lists work with "American Indian peoples," but makes no reference to India or to Freedom Institute. When contacted about his signatures on the certificates, Painter flatly denied any involvement:

Have no idea how my signature was on these documents. If you look at them closely you will see the signature on both are identical. I can never sign twice the same way if I tried. Suggest you contact them to explain? Also if you have their contact info I will contact them asking why they used my name?

Dr. Dewey E. Painter, Sr., CEO Mission Harvest America, Inc.

The International Christian Education Association (ICEA), which according to the certificates accredits Freedom Institute, maintains a very sparse website with no mention of Freedom Institute anywhere on it. The address ICEA gives for its headquarters belongs to the Ward Evangelical Presbyterian Church in Northville, Michigan.

On his Facebook page, Charles has removed information about his doctoral work from his Facebook profile. At present, his public education bio reads, “Studied Religious philosophy at Spicer Memorial College.”

Alvin Masarira, a lay member from Johannesburg, South Africa and an Engineer at Structural SIMTech Consulting, has noted that fake degrees have become a scourge on large organizations in South Africa.

We have had cases of academics in Universities who don't have the PhD they listed. There was the case of the Vice-Chancellor of Tshwane University of Technology, Johnny Molefe, whose PhD turned out to be [fraudulent]. Then there was Mohau Peko (South African ambassador) who also had a fake PhD. Then Pallo Jordan's phantom doctorates (from University of Wisconsin-Madison or the London School of Economics), and ‘Dr.’ Mthimkulu, Chief Engineer at PRASA.”

The New Age stated that another Seventh-day Adventist, KwaZulu-Natal and Free State President Clifford Nhlapo, lost his position as president two years ago after the South African Qualifications Authority (SAQA) confirmed his qualification was falsified.

“Nhlapo confessed that his postgraduate qualification was obtained from an unaccredited institution and urged other leaders to come clean on their qualifications,” The New Age reported.

Both Ficker and Masarira contend that there should be an independent inquiry into Charles’s degrees and his alleged protection by the Southern Africa-Indian Ocean Division leadership. Masarira goes further, saying that given the perception “that this matter has been ignored (in spite of calls to look into it) I would like to propose that all our church leaders (SID and Unions and Conferences in SID) have their academic qualifications verified. This is not to embarrass anyone but to restore the trust we church members should have in our leaders,” Masarira said.

Clinton Plaatjes, another South African church member, has stridently called into question the veracity of the degrees and has shared the story with news outlets, but declined to provide comment for this article.

Ultimately, the allegations of falsifying academic credentials do not suggest a lack of qualification to serve since terminal degrees are not an absolute requirement for holding high elected office in the Adventist Church, nor do they suggest a lack of competency (we spoke with members of the General Conference Communications Department who suggest Paul Charles would be a competent departmental associate). The allegations raise questions of personal integrity and of trustworthiness—the good-faith selection of Adventist leaders presumes uprightness in how candidates present themselves. Secondarily, the episode may suggest the necessity of more stringent vetting criteria for committees that appoint denominational leaders.

UPDATE 1: Just before this article's publication, New Age published a second article on its website stating that according to Khaye K. Nkwanyana, Media Liaison Officer for South Africa's Department of Higher Education and Training, the falsification of a degree violates section 66(2) of South Africa's Higher Education Act of 1997, and could lead to charges of criminal fraud.

UPDATE 2: This article identified Clinton Plaatjes as a source for initial news reports. Upon further investigation that was found not to be the case.

Jared Wright is Managing Editor of SpectrumMagazine.org.

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This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/7425

If the GC were to maintain vigil in vetting their male appointees/employees (particularly appointees/employees from countries with known fraudulent practices) the same manner as they maintain vigil in prohibiting WO, this embarrassing situation would never have transpired. It becomes transparent now how “subconscious” corporate biases affects working policies. As it has been said, " You can run but you cannot hide."

When will the GC come to a conclusion? Should they form another “TOSC-like” committee to resolve this debacle?

Peter, How can the GC base their choices on “spiritual maturity and giftedness” when the current corporate policy is skewed to ruling out any member of the female specie in spite of their “spiritual maturity and giftedness” that at times are superior to the male specie’s?

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Well it appears the GC is a little slow to the party on this one. Both the New Age in South Africa, and Spectrum, have unearthed enough information to make this particular case rather conclusive.

I just hope that the GC will be thorough, though. I have a naturally suspicious mind, but one scenario I envisage playing out here is that Paul Charles will be punished, while Paul Ratsara slides under the radar.

Notwithstanding Paul Ratsara’s protests, and his apparent graduation from university, serious questions still need to be answered. Why would a senior academic administrator from his university be expressing concerns about his attainments? That he appears to have graduated nonetheless, raises perhaps even more sinister possibilities, such as the potential that Ratsara or the church might have bribed the university to allow him to graduate.

Like I said, I hope the GC is thorough in its investigation, and that Charles doesn’t merely become a scapegoat for a greater evil.

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Charles’ allegations that he has earned terminal degrees from an accredited institution ring hollow. As matters now stand, his claims appear to be actionable falsehoods, since they allegedly involve the unauthorized use of an official signature. Bad business indeed. It shows he has very little regard for the reputation of his church, which has been trusting and gracious enough to appoint him to his high , well-paid position. I know of lecturer /journalist ((who has a genuine terminal degree)who did some real undercover work to expose one of these degree mills. She applied for a terminal degree , paid the hefty fees charged, sent in some of the minimal coursework required, made excuses for the rest, and was eventually in possession of an official-looking Phd degree in the name of Dr Fider Wolf…her dog. She apparently finds the entire episode funny, but I do not.

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I wonder what is the annual salary, including travel expenses, of this position? What is the budget for the GC Communication Department and the discretionary funds available that could be misappropriated?

I fear the self-sacrificing missionary spirit of the church is nearly gone. In its place are many deep pocketed positions including --health care, administration, and senior pastoral positions. I wonder what percentage of the budget is spend on direct pastoral care VS administration and management? I wonder what is the Union and Division President’s salary plus travel expenses verses a woman pastor or church school teacher? I wonder how many trusts and will’s funds are collected by administration instead of flowing into the local church?

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at least it is not from Trump University. tom Z

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Yes, we don’t want any “trumped up” certificates now, do we :wink:

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Dr Paul Ratsara is not going anywhere- he will not slide under the radar. His doctoral degree is genuine. University of South Africa has never rejected his claim. He did not bribe anyone.

I wouldn’t let Mr Painter off the hook so easily. The evidence seems to point to him being heavily involved in unaccredited educational institutions. Here from his LinkedIn page:

[quote] University of Israel Theological Seminary

Serving as Chancellor over the University system which is a consortium of the International Education and Professional Association. The IEPA primary consortium consists of Bethesda International University, Florida Beacon College and Seminary [USA] , DOM University at Iasi [Romania] and Freedom Seminary [Romania] He has assisted in starting colleges in Georgia, Romania and Liberia.[/quote]

It might be a coincidence that one of the institutions listed are called “Freedom Seminary”. When searching online I couldn’t find the institution “Freedom University & Seminary (U.S.A.)”, but I could find the similarly named “Freedom Bible College and Seminary International”. This institution makes it super easy to register an affiliated college providing bachelor, master’s and doctoral degrees; http://www.freedombiblecollege.org/branch.html

At these institutions you can get a doctoral degree for the small sum of

http://www.freedombiblecollege.org/averagetuition.html

“Freedom” here means freedom from any accepted governmental accrediation:

[quote]* Question: Is FBCS accredited?

Answer: FBCS is a member of the International Commission on Academic Accreditation (ICAAI), an independent subsidiary of Concepts of Freedom Ministries, Inc., and the International Association of Distance Learning (ACI). ACI is the largest of their kind in the world.

Neither ICAAI nor IADL are recognized by the U.S. Department of Education. Since we believe in the right of separation of church and state, we have not applied for accreditation to the U.S. Department of Education or any state or federal agency.

In our opinion, our excellence and standards would be seriously compromised if we allowed any governmental body to dictate what courses we should or should not offer.[/quote]

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And it is possible that in the process of being involved with various institutions, his signature became associated with programs or entities about which he might not have been fully aware. One can certainly speculate. However, for the purposes of this article, it is Paul Charles rather than Dewey Painter whose claims are ultimately under examination.

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This reply from FBCS reveals a common but grossly uninformed position on accreditation taken by pious-sounding leaders of these fundamentalist institutions. In the U.S., the government does not do accreditation. All accrediting bodies are independent non-profit agencies that arose from within the academic community. While they are recognized by the US Department of Education as upholding reasonable standards and processes, they are not funded by the government. Nor do they have to answer to the government in approving the content of programs or institutions they accredit. Having worked for a dozen years at a recognized regional accreditor, I can affirm that approximately a third of the institutions we accredited were faith-based institutions that met the same standards of rigor and integrity as did the state-sponsored institutions. It’s also true that “faith-based” covers a wide spectrum of belief and practice; but accreditors insist that students and employees know in advance what the institution’s “world-view” is. They do not dictate the content of that world-view. There is a long history in the U.S. of deferring to the positions of faith-based institutions, even though this is becoming more difficult when those positions are blatantly out of touch with the scientific method.

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Hello all,

I have little to no “skin” in this game, but I did want to comment on some of the six concerns listed by lay member Bernhard Ficker. My comments should not be construed as taking a position one way or the other on the allegations, but are rather points of fact.

While it is certainly common practice for degrees to be fully printed, I would not say that this has been the case for “many decades”, as I have seen partially handwritten degrees from dates that we would not consider many decades in the past. Ficker may be speaking of practices in South Africa specifically here.

This is factually true, but “anyone” may also include educational institutions. Sloppiness and poor production values do not necessarily equal culpability, even if the situation is highly suspicious. Signature stamps are commonly used in large institutions granting many degrees. My MA and PhD diplomas are from the University of California and the signatures of the Governor of California, the President of the University, the Chancellor of the Riverside campus, and the Dean of my college are all printed, so that in itself is not indicative of fraud. However, the fact that one of the signatories denies making or approving a signature, is potentially indicative.

Again, this may be a standard practice in South Africa, but not everywhere. My PhD diploma does not have my dissertation title, rather that is indicated on my official transcript.

The name of the institution does not necessarily prohibit its granting power. There are institutions named “university” that do not offer terminal or doctoral degrees, and some not named “university” that do. Our own Adventist International Institute of Advanced Studies (AIIAS) in the Philippines offers PhDs, yet is not named a university as such, though it operates as a graduate school. While I would agree that the Doctor of Philosophy degree is (or should be) strictly a research degree, this is not universally practiced. For instance, I know of at least one university in the Philippines (non-Adventist) offering PhDs in musical performance areas, areas that are normally awarded the DMA (Doctor of Musical Arts). I do not agree with that designation, but it does exist in practice.

Again, this is not always the case. My diplomas do not provide any of this information. The original physical copy of my dissertation is the document that contains the signatures of my dissertation chair and committee members.

To reiterate, I have no desire to take a side or position on this issue, but I do want to make sure that we are factually correct when making assertions. The search for truth can not only afford, but should demand, fairness.

Pax,

David

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David,
Thank you for providing that perspective and additional context.

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Like David Kendall, my PhD diploma from a major state university makes no mention of my dissertation title or advisor. There are four signatures, and I assume all are stamped.

Forget the diploma; what about the transcripts? I’ve had to supply official transcripts in a sealed envelope to my handful of employers. No transcript with courses taken and credits earned, no degree.

By the way, doctorates in the U.S. are much easier to earn in some disciplines than others. A dissertation in the hard sciences (e.g., biochemistry, biology, chemistry, physics), for example, generally requires three or more publication-quality studies, whereas other disciplines (e.g., psychology, religion, social work, sociology) require only one. Huge difference that many fail to appreciate.

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it’s difficult to believe someone moving up in the church leadership hierarchy, presumably because they were talented and demonstrated skills others recognized, would be doing so partially through fraudulent degrees…i won’t believe any of this until all the facts come out…perhaps ratsara and charles have taken public positions that others don’t appreciate and are trying to discredit them for…if so, this could turn out to be a daniel moment: ratsara and charles could go on to bigger and better things while their accusers choke…

Canterbury University has an interesting entry in Wikipedia: the claim that it is a diploma mill in the Seychelles without even a proper address.

“According to the British Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills, Canterbury University is neither a recognised body for UK degree awards, nor is it a listed body, neither is Canterbury University accredited by any higher education accreditation organization recognized by the United States Department of Education or the Council for Higher Education Accreditation. Its degrees may not be acceptable to employers or other institutions, and use of degree titles may be restricted or illegal in some jurisdictions.”

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They will get paid in "Red Bull’ cans. 26 per week.:slight_smile:

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Yes, given Paul Charles’ recent appointment at GC headquarters, independent Adventist journalism needs to put the spotlight on his disputed academic credentials. The evidence does not look good for him. However, I hope that Spectrum follows this issue up further than the specific case of Paul Charles. Building authority and prestige through fraudulent academic credentials could very well be a widespread problem in our church.

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This appears to be the tragedy of Paul Charles - his personal narrative. Let’s assume the two degrees were genuine (in dubio pro reo)… Why would anyone think two PhDs in theology would better prepare for an administrative job in communications?

Let’s assume the degrees are fake. Forgery of documents and/or sporting false titles is fraudulent and will be viewed as criminal acts in most countries. That would be embarrassing for both Paul Charles AND any employer who fell for it, to put it mildly. But an even greater tragedy would be a church that is downplaying, covering up and/or delaying investigations.

In either case there are serious questions from a systemic perspective as to what kind of climate the church functions (or “dysfunctions”) in.

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Having worked at the United Nations in human resources, I have seen countless degree certificates from foreign countries. I have never seen them with the names of the recipients and the level of the degree written in script on a blank line. They are always printed or done with calligraphy, and there is some sort of seal of some sort, whether embossed or with ribbons, etc. This looks like a report card being forged by a 4th grader. Just my opinion.

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