A religious minister who sold bottles of olive oil to his congregation as a bogus ‘cure’ for COVID-19 has been handed a prison sentence following a prosecution brought by Southwark Trading Standards.
Bishop Climate Wiseman of the Kingdom Church in Camberwell was found guilty of fraud at the Inner London Crown Court on 8 December. On 6 February Wiseman was given a one-year prison sentence, suspended for two years, and ordered to undertake 130 hours of unpaid work.
He was also ordered to pay the council £60,072.50 to cover their legal costs.
Wiseman first came to the attention of Southwark Trading Standards shortly after the country went into the first COVID lockdown in March 2020. Justin Miller, Southwark Council Trading Standards Team Leader, explained: “We received a message from the local police that Climate Wiseman was selling an item which purported to be a cure for COVID.”
Wiseman was offering ‘Plague Protection Oil’ to his congregation for £91 a bottle, falsely claiming that it could prevent or cure COVID -19.
“Southwark Trading Standards engaged with Wiseman and told him, verbally and in writing, that he couldn’t make these claims, and that he could get into trouble,” said Miller.
“The BBC had also found out about this and they sent an undercover journalist who made a test purchase of the oil. We made contact with the BBC and got statements from their reporter. They then passed us the oil itself and we found that it was just olive oil with cedar wood and hyssop added to it. We approached him again and told him we wanted to interview him about this matter. We didn’t have any engagement from him at all though, he didn’t respond.”
Wiseman had a track record of making spurious claims about the health benefits of products he was selling; in 2016 he had been warned by Southwark Trading Standards after claiming that oils he was advertising on his website could cure cancer and HIV.
When he started exploiting his congregation during the COVID pandemic, Southwark Trading Standards took the decision to prosecute.
Miller said: “Because of the sensitivity of prosecuting a religious minister, we had to get quite high sign-off within the council. We went to strategic director level because we wanted everyone to be aware of what was going on. And we had full support from management.”
It was important to prosecute Wiseman because his actions put people at risk during a particularly difficult time for the local community and the country as a whole, explained Earl Legister, Business Unit Manager – Environmental Health and Trading Standards. “His actions gave people a false sense of security. His congregation was being told that the oils he sold would fight the coronavirus or cure it in some way,” Legister said.
“This was against the backdrop of a very challenging situation that the whole country was going through, and people were desperate for something to be able to hold on to. He was preying on that and taking advantage of people’s vulnerability.”
“These were unprecedented times and people were really scared,” added Miller. “This was nothing more than cynical exploitation.”
An expert in public health from Imperial College, London, told the court that Wiseman’s claims about his oil mixture were at best misleading and the MHRA confirmed that in March and April of 2020, no licensed products existed for the treatment of COVID -19.
The judge was noted as saying it was the very worst example of snake oil salesmanship he had seen.
Legister believes the case highlights the important role Trading Standards plays in safeguarding local communities: “We will not sit idly by and allow these things to happen when they come to our attention,” he said. “Members of the public often don’t realise the work that goes on in the background to keep them safe. When they see these types of cases, they get a better appreciation of what we do.
“Wiseman was exploiting and abusing the trust of his congregation when he should have been providing reassurance. It’s something that really didn’t sit very well with the courts, hence the guilty verdict and the sentence.”
The case provides a lesson for other Trading Standards teams who may find themselves fighting bogus health claims while taking religious beliefs and community sensitivity into consideration. “The main thing was to involve our legal team as early as possible,” Miller said. “We had input from our barrister, Richard Heller, at a very early stage. It was also important to get senior management buy-in coupled with expert legal advice.
“In the end, we applied for costs for just over £60,000. The judge reviewed Wiseman’s financial affairs and was satisfied that he could pay,” Miller added. “We got full costs, which is pretty unheard-of.”
“The fact that Wiseman had been warned by Trading Standards for similar activities in the past was a serious aggravating factor,” said Legister. “The verdict shows just how seriously the courts view these kinds of offences.”