Cofounding Hillsong pastor Brian Houston was charged by NSW police on 5 August, over his alleged concealment of child sexual abuse that occurred in the 1970s, when the head of the Pentecostal megachurch became privy to the information in 1999.
The child sexual abuse allegations that Houston is said to have covered up were allegedly perpetrated by his father Frank Houston, who was also a pastor of Pentecostal churches both in New Zealand and Sydney.
The late Houston senior had stood accused of sexually abusing nine minors in his capacity as a preacher.
The allegations against Brian first came to light during 2014 Royal Commission into Child Sexual Abuse hearings. And the victim of the covered-up allegations, Brett Sengstock, waived his anonymity in 2018, in order to publicly ask Houston why he didn’t report his father to police.
In a statement, NSW police outlined that officers from the Hills Police Area Command commenced their inquiry into the allegations in 2019, and it will be arguing in court that 67-year-old Houston knew of “information relating to the sexual abuse of a young male” but did nothing about it.
NSW police minister David Elliott told the Herald’s Peter FitzSimons over the weekend that he was surprised to find out that Houston is in Mexico right now, despite the pandemic border closure. And the minister added that he believes Houston is “an ungrateful twat”.
The findings of the commissioners
The Royal Commission’s Pentecostal case study sets out that Frank Houston came to Sydney from NZ in 1977 to establish the Sydney Christian Life Centre.
Then, in 1983, Brian cofounded the Hills Christian Life Centre with wife Bobbie. The pastor then amalgamated the two churches to form Hillsong in 2001.
Between 1997 and 2009, Brian also held the position of national president of the Assemblies of God Australia. Today, this network of local Pentecostal churches goes by the name of the Australian Christian Churches (ACC).
In 1970, Sengstock was about 7 years old, with his family being heavily involved with the Assemblies of God. And when Frank Houston came across from NZ to preach at different assembly gatherings, he is said to have taken the opportunity to creep into the boy’s bedroom and molest him.
Sengstock told his mother of the abuse in 1978. She only revealed it to others in mid-1998, which then led Frank to offer his by then adult victim a $10,000 compensation payment.
However, when the delivery of the cheque was delayed, Sengstock claims he contacted Brian to ensure it was posted to him, as Frank had said to contact his son if there were any issues.
Brian said he learnt of the allegations in October 1999, when the manager of his church advised him of them. The pastor told the inquiry that if true, he had no doubt the allegations constituted criminal conduct, and he went on to confront his father who admitted to one act of molestation.
The Hillsong founder further testified that his father was stood down from preaching immediately afterwards. However, Brian failed to report the crime, instead he informed the executive of the Assemblies of God Australia, which also chose not to inform the authorities.
Established in the Sydney suburb of Baulkham Hills in the 1980s, Hillsong Church today has a global presence, which makes it one of the largest evangelical churches on the planet. This is why Brian was in Mexico when NSW police issued the court attendance notice last week.
Hillsong is known to be a church of the wealthy. In 2014, it made $80 million in tax-free revenue in this country, while it pulled in over $100 million worldwide.
Pentecostalism is a Christian denomination that adheres to the prosperity gospel, which is a doctrine that asserts God bestows believers with material wealth in this life, while the poor are considered to be in their state because of a lack of faith, and, therefore, don’t warrant any charity.
“So, the godly become wealthy,” he explained. “Wealth is a sign of godliness.”
The Pentecostal PM
Although only making up 1.1 percent of the Australian population, adherents of Pentecostalism are part of the fastest growing denomination in the world. And current prime minister Scott Morrison is the first Pentecostal head of state that this nation has known.
The prime minister currently attends the Sutherland Shire’s Horizon Church, which is closely associated with Hillsong. And in his 2008 maiden speech in parliament, Morrison cited Brian Houston as one of several pastors who had influenced his personal faith journey.
“Australia is not a secular country—it is a free country,” Morrison told the chamber on 14 February 2008.
“This is a nation where you have the freedom to follow any belief system you choose. Secularism is just one. It has no greater claim than any other on our society.”
In July 2019, soon after his election victory, the PM appeared on stage with Brian Houston at the annual Hillsong conference, where Morrison prayed for rain to break the drought in southeast Australia, in obvious recognition that only God could put a halt to the Coalition’s fossil fuel agenda.
While, in June this year, the SA Liberals terminated 150 recently signed members, as they were found to be Pentecostals, who’d joined the party in an attempt to sway its policies. At the time, another 400 just joined members were also being scrutinised.
Contesting the charge
NSW police issued Houston with a court attendance notice requiring him to attend the Downing Centre Local Court on 5 October 2021, when the pastor is expected to formally enter a plea of not guilty.
It is understood he has no bail conditions and is currently in the United States.
Houston is facing one count of concealing a child abuse offence, which is a crime under section 316A of the Crimes Act 1900 that carries a maximum penalty of 2 years in prison where the maximum penalty for the offence concealed was less than 5 years, or 5 years in prison where the maximum penalty for the offence concealed was 5 years or more.
Hillsong has issued a statement maintaining that it’s disappointed that police have charged their leader, and it raised the point that many other church officials had been aware of the allegations before Brian was, yet they too chose not to report them.
The megachurch also notes that at the time the alleged offence took place, the law carried a “without reasonable excuse” clause, which indicates there are certain circumstances where such concealment may not be unlawful.
“Last year, he had to go overseas, and he wanted preferential treatment for quarantine – to go into a five-star suite. We arranged it,” police minister Elliott further told the Herald on the weekend. “And then he criticised our COVID policy. He’s an ungrateful twat.”
Image: “Brian Houston – Domingo 5 de Junio” by Ministerios Cash Luna is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0
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Paul Gregoire is a Sydney-based journalist and writer. He has a focus on human rights issues, encroachments on civil liberties, drug law reform, gender diversity and First Nations rights. Prior to Sydney Criminal Lawyers®, he wrote for VICE and was the news editor at Sydney’s City Hub.