Brian Houston, founding pastor of Hillsong Church, will plead not guilty to the charge of concealing his father’s child sex abuse crimes, his lawyer said at a preliminary hearing on Tuesday (October 5).
Houston’s attorney informed Sydney’s Downing Center Local Court of his client’s plea when his charge of concealing a serious indictable offense of another person was presented.
The charge against Houston stems from a Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sex Abuse in Australia that was carried out from 2013 to 2017. It was revealed during the commission that Houston’s father, William Francis “Frank” Houston, had abused at least one boy in the 1970s. The New South Wales Police chose to investigate the allegation that Houston knew of his father’s crime and failed to act appropriately at the conclusion of the commission.
Houston learned of the allegations against his father in 1999, yet allowed him to retire from church ministry instead of reporting him to the authorities. Frank Houston “confessed to the abuse before he died in 2004 at age 82,” according to The Associated Press. He was eventually accused of sexually abusing nine boys, The Guardian reports.
Houston, who spoke with one of his father’s victims in 1999, has consistently denied any wrongdoing.
“These charges have come as a shock to me given how transparent I’ve always been about this matter. I vehemently profess my innocence and will defend these charges, and I welcome the opportunity to set the record straight,” he said in August, according to Vanity Fair.
The 67-year-old Hillsong pastor will reportedly make his court appearance on November 23.
Houston and his wife and co-senior pastor Bobbie Houston started Hillsong Church in 1983 in Sydney. Since then, the church has taken up residence on nearly every continent, with campuses spanning from Cape Town to Los Angeles and Tokyo to Moscow.
The global megachurch, known for its charismatic worship style and award-winning music, has experienced several scandals over the past year — including dismissal of its NYC celebrity pastor Carl Lentz due to “moral failings.” There have also been allegations of abuse of volunteers, mismanagement of church offerings, and pastoral impropriety on social media stemming from various Hillsong campuses.
Although Houston stepped down from Hillsong’s board when he was served with court papers, the Pentecostal preacher is still listed as the church’s “Global Senior Pastor” on hillsong.com.
The Crime in Question and Houston’s 2014 Remarks
According to the New South Wales Crimes Act 1900, Section 316(1):
An adult who knows or believes that a serious indictable offence has been committed by another person, and who knows or believes that he or she has information that might be of material assistance in securing the apprehension of the offender or the prosecution or conviction of the offender for that offense, and who fails without reasonable excuse to bring that information to the attention of a member of the NSW Police Force or other appropriate authority, is guilty of an offense.
The law exempts a person from an offense if they have “a reasonable excuse” for choosing not to alert the police, such as if the alleged victim of a sex crime was an adult at the time the information was learned and the person “believes on reasonable grounds that the alleged victim does not wish the information to be reported to police or another appropriate authority.” This is the defense Houston has maintained since testifying before the royal commission. However, Brett Sengstock, a victim of Frank Houston who also testified at the inquiry, has publicly denied Houston’s claim that he told the minister he did not want to involve the police when they spoke in 1999.
In October 2014, Houston, Bobbie Houston, Joel Houston, and then-pastor Carl Lentz, held a press briefing ahead of the church’s annual conference, held in New York City that year. At the time, the national inquiry into institutional responses to child sex abuse had recently got underway in Australia, with media outlets detailing Houston’s testimony before the royal commission. Local media reported that Houston told the royal commission that he believed his father had multiple victims.
In NYC, the pastor faced several questions related to the royal commission and other matters, such as Hillsong’s finances. At the start of the press conference, Houston gave a lengthy statement describing when he learned of his father’s offenses and how he responded at the time. This reporter attended the 2014 press briefing, and the following transcript is based on her own recordings.
Brian Houston on When He Found Out His Father ‘Had Sexually Abused Children’
For anyone who hasn’t heard, and you may or may not have, in Australia there’s a royal commission on, into institutional child abuse. So whether it’s the Catholic Church, the Boy Scouts or any other institution, they’re looking at the responses to sexual abuse. And sadly, and by the way, that commission, it’s going over four years or so. So this part of the three days and a big four-year investigation, and then eventually they’ll present the findings to the government. And, you know, hopefully lift, the better practice. That’s what’s behind a royal commission.
It’s a sad thing for me that 15 years ago, I found out — I’ll be speaking about this in the conference tomorrow — but 15 years ago, I found out that my father 30 or 40 years before that, had sexually abused children, which for me, was the worst day of my life. So I had to confront my own dad about that. And it was, it was the darkest day in my life, because he was my hero, and suddenly, he was a pedophile. And so that story unfolded, at first I heard of one complaint. And that’s what I confronted him about. From that moment, my father never ever preached again, never, ever ministered again, in his life.
So there’s a lot to the story. But it’s been a personal, painful journey for me, obviously, well…now, 15 years on from when I found out. These things, by the way, all happened before Hillsong Church existed.
So he pioneered a church in Sydney called Sydney Christian Life Center. And so it was all prior to that. So our church, Hillsong Church didn’t exist at all, but when I had to confront him, he had been the city pastor of what is now our City campus. And I’d only taken on that second campus six months before. So after six months, I found out that my father had abused children. And it soon became obvious there was more than one. It was mainly in New Zealand, he was a New Zealand pastor at the time. But the particular survivor or victim they were looking at, at the Royal Commission, my father was living in New Zealand, but it happened in Australia and Sydney.
And so it was a really harrowing experience. Like, it was a really harrowing experience. It’s not a trial, it’s a hearing. But it’s like you’re in a courtroom, and you take the oath. And you’ve got to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. And we had to supply all documentation we had on anything to do with sexual child abuse. If [untelligible] anything, or anybody who had to do with sexual child abuse for 15 years. So we had handed all that in. We wrote statements. And so I was on the stand for two days, two days being questioned about that whole thing.
Brian Houston on His Conflict of Interest and Choosing Not to Go to the Police
The thing that — I’m getting to your part about what I would change. The two things, that to me, seem to be where they were honing in [on] the most is whether or not it was a conflict of interest for me, because I was his son and then I was the person who was dealing with it, and, you know, addressed what would happen now and so on.
And then the other thing was why I didn’t go to the police. So this guy was 37 when the complaint came out. He was 37 years old. And the truth of the story is that in talking to him, he was adamant — and this came out in the Royal Commission several times, several times, he said ‘I didn’t want a church investigation. I didn’t want a police investigation. I just wanted you to know, I want it to be dealt with and I want to get on with my life.’ And so we never, ever have tried to stop anyone else from going to the police or told anyone else they couldn’t and especially him. I knew to my father’s dying day that there’s every chance he’d get charged.
But what I’ve learned now is that apparently in Australia, at least there’s a law, that if any offense is punishable by more than five years in a jail, you’re duty bound to report it. I didn’t know that then. But I do know that now. It’s obvious that if it was a 14-year-old or an eight-year-old at the time I found out, I would have had no doubt what we had to do, you know, and, as hard as it would be, we would have gone to the police, report to the police. But I just genuinely thought a 37-year-old, it was his prerogative. And so, yeah, it was a big week, it was a big week and the findings will come out in a couple of years time. And we are just one of many. They’ve looked at the Salvation Army, the Anglican Church, the Catholic Church and, and all sorts of other institutions. But, yeah.
Bobbie Houston on the Royal Commission
We really [welcome] the Royal Commission, because ultimately, it’s gonna make society safer. It’s going to [set] in motion procedures for all institutions, including churches, to have better procedures and you know, realities when it comes to this, which we all know is just around a larger issue in society these days. So big, big picture, we really as a church, and as a movement, a denomination welcomed the Royal Commission and what it’s gonna actually bring out into the open and hopefully, it will be a great benchmark for going forward into the future.
Brian Houston on Frank Houston’s ‘Quite Retirement Package’
He never preached again from that day, never ministered again. Like, he still had an office, but he didn’t go in there. We actually told me to go to a different church. So he actually went to a church 35, 40 minutes away from us with my mother.
And so yeah, there was a retirement package, but it was much more really, to be honest, about my mother, who would also worked for the church her whole life. And so a lot of it was with her mind.
And … after this came out, he just went downhill. He had serious dementia, as well. So it was a tough fight. His last five years, he was very depressed, very, very, you know, full of remorse and so on. And we probably will never know the exact, you know, exactly how far this went. How many may have been involved. We may never know. But it’s certainly been painful.
[…] Just one thing I didn’t say. Firstly, you know, obviously, Bobbie might have said, but the Royal Commission’s all about, you know, stopping child abuse from institutions. And even there in that, in that setting, it’s just so easy to see how damaged and devastated different lives are, because I was in there too, you know, at one or two of the other cases. And so, you know, it’s just horrible. The impact it has, no one should ever, ever underestimate it.
But probably the most explosive thing that was said, which you’ve probably heard, was the victim, in a statement, said that I had accused him at seven years of age of tempting my father. I mean that’s a pretty horrible thing to have out there and said. And to me it’s the most insidious thing in the world, that somehow a seven-year-old would get blamed for tempting a pedophile. But that’s what was put out there. And that was very explosive. And, frankly, it’s got absolutely no foundation in truth.
The conversation we had was a civil conversation, it was a good conversation. And it was nothing like that. So I just thought I’d mention it, because you’ve probably heard about it anyway.
Brian Houston on What He Would Change
I would’ve gone to the police now because I know I would have had to. I probably would…yeah. You know, the people in our church knew 14 years ago. So, you know, people throw the cover-up [when] it’s an easy one to throw. But anyone who’s been in our church for 14 years, 15 years, have known about these things. So I feel like, to be honest with you, it took 12 months for someone to actually do anything … for somebody to actually finally tell me that this had happened. And then I confronted my dad, which was not easy — but it had to be done — and stepped him down there and then on the spot. And so I wouldn’t change any of that.
I feel that we were honest and transparent. But you know, when you come under that much scrutiny I’m sure there’s always little bits of detail…I should have rang that lady and you know, and really explained to her — because one of the ladies that were [sic] another pastor who was involved in trying to get action to be taken before I knew. So, you know, little things like that. But the biggest thing really is going to the police. And I think the other thing that they’re going to focus on, it might be the quiet retirement package, but it might be the conflict of interest. And you know, if I looked at that I’ve never even thought of it like that before, but somehow there was a conflict of interest. I thought I was doing the thing to brave-up and actually do something about it.
The recording of these remarks can be heard on SoundCloud.