The founder and senior pastor of the multi-campus Hillsong Church in Australia, Brian Houston, took to a witness stand Thursday and Friday in Sydney to answer questions about his past handling of child sexual abuse allegations against his late father. Frank Houston never faced prosecution for crimes committed in the late 1960s and 1970s, and Brian Houston denied any attempt to cover up the matter.
Houston’s testimony is part of an Australian government commission scrutinizing how certain institutions, including Australian Christian Churches (formerly called Assemblies of God in Australia), a Pentecostal church network that gave birth to Hillsong, have handled claims of child sexual abuse.
Frank Houston, a church founder and Pentecostal leader, admitted several years before he died that he had sexually abused a boy in New Zealand decades earlier. Assemblies of God, led by Brian Houston at the time, confronted Frank Houston after a victim came forward, and suspended him in late 1999. The organization ultimately allowed Houston to resign quietly with a retirement package. He died in 2004.
In 2001, Assemblies of God sent a letter to its network of pastors informing them of a “serious moral failure” on the part of Frank Houston, without detailing the nature of the transgression. “We cannot see any reason for this to be announced to your church or further afield,” the organization told the pastors, according to a report in The Australian.
Frank Houston may have abused up to nine boys in Australia and New Zealand, according to a previous Assemblies of God investigation, although not all agreed to be identified. No charges were ever referred to police, a lawyer for the government commission said.
During this week’s inquiry, a pastor in the church network, Barbara Taylor, testified she learned of the first abuse allegations in 1998. Brian Houston was not personally informed of the allegations until a year later, after which he and other executives at the organization moved to suspend Frank Houston at a meeting in December 1999.
At no point did Taylor, Brian Houston, or other church officials bring the allegations to police: Although the victim was between the ages of 7 and 10 when the abuse occurred, he was an adult in his mid-30s when he came forward.
The victim—identified only as “AHA”—also testified this week before the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse. AHA said Frank Houston had touched him inappropriately on multiple occasions. The victim said he told his mother about the crime when he was 16, but said she did not report it because she was worried how it might harm the church.
“I was so ashamed of the abuse that I kept it inside for many years and did not tell anyone,” said AHA. “What Pastor Frank did to me destroyed my childhood.”
On Thursday, Brian Houston said he didn’t think he was obliged to take the matter to police at the time because AHA was no longer a minor and wasn’t interested in making his own report.
“Rightly or wrongly, I genuinely believed that I would be pre-empting the victim if I were just to call the police,” he said, according to ABC. He added he would have made a report if the victim had been under the age of 18 when he came forward.
AHA said Frank Houston met with him at a McDonald’s in 2000, asked his forgiveness, and offered him money to settle the claims. Brian Houston later mailed AHA a check for $10,000.
He also claimed Brian Houston blamed him for the crime, allegedly telling him over the phone: “You know it’s your fault all of this happened. You tempted my father.”
Brian Houston this week denied blaming AHA for the crimes: “I disagree with his perception of the phone call with me and I strongly refute that I—at any time—accused him of tempting my father. I would never say this, and I do not believe this.” He also denied the compensation was intended as “hush money.”
Brian Houston said he never attempted to cover up his father’s crimes. At the time the allegations were raised, he didn’t see any conflict of interest in the fact that he headed the organization handling the allegations against his father, he said.
When he heard the news about his father, he cried and was “totally devastated,” but viewed the crimes as indefensible.“I acted professionally. I followed it through,” he said Friday.
Under Australian law, Brian Houston and others were not legally obligated to report the abuse to police. Patrick Parkinson, a law professor at the University of Sydney and the author of Child Sexual Abuse and the Churches, told me if the victims have become adults and are not under any disabilities, it is long-accepted practice to leave police reporting decisions to them.
“If they won’t talk to the police, then the matter cannot usually be taken further,” he said by email. “However, the organization should always encourage reporting to the police and assist the victim to do so.”
Hillsong Church, well-known for its worship music label, has 10 campuses in Australia and others around the world, attracting 35,000 Australians to its weekend services. In a statement on the church’s website, Brian Houston said Hillsong welcomed the commission’s inquiry, and noted it “does not involve abuse that happened at our church, and there are no allegations against me or Hillsong.”
The inquiry is scheduled to continue hearings involving the Australian Christian Churches network until Oct. 17.
— by Daniel James Devine