[Jimmy Hinton] Hillsong Church, known across the globe for its worship music, has been in the spotlight recently. To be honest, I never knew much about Hillsong until 60 Minutes Australia did a special on Frank Houston’s victim, Brett Sengstock, on November 18th. What really caught my interest was that, like me, Brian Houston learned of allegations of abuse against his own father, a pastor who was preaching at the time Brian Houston heard the allegations. I reported my father, a former preacher, to the police. Brian Houston did not report his. I wanted to learn more about this story that keeps making waves across the world because the world is watching those of us in church leadership. How we respond to allegations of abuse matters. It especially matters to victims and their families.
I watched the 60 Minutes story on Brian Houston’s response and also read “Hillsong’s legal response to misleading statements by 60 Minutes.” I found it interesting that Hillsong wasted no time in releasing a statement defending the institution and its founder by correcting statements made in the 60 Minutes episode that aired three days prior. To Brian Houston’s credit, he has spoken in public interviews in the past regarding his father and his story has not changed much. Brian did not, for whatever reason, interview with 60 Minutes and I think he missed an important opportunity to express his sorrow for his father’s victims and to take ownership of his mishandling of his father’s abuse allegations.
It is troubling to me that the church attorneys are so defensive of Brian’s response to the allegations when the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse paints a less flattering picture of how those events unfolded.
I’ve read the entire Royal Commission’s report for the 2014 Case Study No. 18 and there are several things worth pointing out.
- Brian Houston did not report the matter to police in 1999 when he was informed that his father had produced a victim in the late 60s/early 70s.
- Neither did Pastor Taylor, who first was made aware of the abuse in 1998 by the victim’s mother. Though, to Barbara Taylor’s credit, she worked incredibly hard to get other leaders to respond to the allegations. Nor did evangelist Mudford report, or Pastor McMartin, who was at the time a member of the New South Whales State Executive, or Pastor Alcorn, a member of the National Executive who was called by Pastor McMartin for advice on the matter, or George Aghajanian, the Business Manager of Hills Christian Life Centre who personally told Brian about the allegations against his father.
- In fact, on December 22nd of 1999, Brian Houston called a Special Executive Meeting of the Assemblies of God in Australia where 8 were present, including the National Secretary of the Assemblies of God in Australia. None of those present made a report to police. Furthermore, the minutes from that meeting state: “the Assemblies of God in Australia movement would not be notified of the disciplinary action” (against Frank Houston).
- In 2000, Frank Houston met with his victim “AHA” (identified now as Brett Sengstock) at a McDonald’s and wrote a figure of $10,000 on a napkin for Brett to sign. Brian Houston mailed the check to Brett in an envelope only containing the signed check and no correspondence. This was because Brett had contacted Brian to say that his father never sent the money he had promised. Brian did not report the payment to anyone within the Assemblies of God and claimed in a public statement in 2014 to Hillsong Church, “There have been reports of money being paid to the victim. Again for clarification, this was between my father and the victim. It had nothing to do with me or Hillsong church.”
- Brian, who was the national president of the Assemblies of God in Australia, revoked his dad’s credentials for preaching but never removed him from the church, as far as I can tell. In fact, according to the report Brian and his dad continued to have weekly meetings where they discussed ministry together.
- Hillsong released a statement in 2015 in response to the Royal Commission report. They said, “The perpetrator, Frank Houston, was immediately removed from ministry by Pastor Brian and church leadership and never ministered in the church again, ensuring no child was placed in danger. He is now deceased.” The reality is that, by not reporting him to police, by not removing him from the church altogether, and by having conversations about restoring Frank back to ministry, they placed every child in danger. The Royal Commission states, “The minutes also record that Mr. Frank Houston would be invited the ‘Assemblies of God [in Australia] restoration program.” This program was a rehabilitation program designed to restore pastors who had been removed back into the ministry. Fortunately, Pastor Ainge said at that meeting that Frank would not be approved because the “Administration Manual prohibited rehabilitation of paedophiles.”
- Though Frank Houston repeatedly raped AHA and multiple other victims, he only “confessed” to one instance of fondling AHA to his son Brian. Pastor Taylor wrote in minutes from their November 28th, 1999 meeting concerning this “confession,” “Frank Houston had confessed to a lesser incident than the truthful one but it was further than I had been able to get.” Though they all knew Frank minimized the abuse to one petty incident of fondling to which Pastor Taylor said, “I did not and do not believe,” nobody ever questioned Frank any further, reported him to police, or made him stand before the church to be publicly held accountable for his crimes.
- Even though Brian testified that he was aware in 2000 of 6 additional victims in New Zealand, Frank was still permitted to “retire” from his church in Australia with “a simple statement concerning Frank’s retirement” that was made while he and his wife were on vacation in New Zealand in January 2001. He was paid a retirement package, “which included financial support for him and his wife.” The Royal Commission concluded: “Despite having knowledge that Mr. Frank Houston admitted to sexually abusing AHA, the National Executive allowed Mr. Frank Houston to publicly resign, without damage to his reputation or the reputation of Hillsong Church.”
I could fill many more bullet points. I walked a similar path as Brian Houston when an allegation of sexual abuse of a minor was brought to my attention by one of my father’s victims. As a minister who has walked this path, I struggle to make sense of how the allegations of Frank Houston were handled. Brian testified in 2014 that Brett was 35 or 36 years old when the abuse was discovered, that he was in a brittle state, and that he did not want Brian to report for fear of his story going public. Hillsong Church brought themselves to a new low in their 2015 statement by saying, “The victim was a 36 year old adult when this abuse became known and could have taken the matter to police himself at any time.”
What Brian and Hillsong attorneys omit in their public statements is that the very next month after Brian found out about his father, Pastor Barbara Taylor wrote Brian a letter stating that Brett (AHA) was “so very, very soft” and that “there was a complete change in attitude. . . He wanted to know if I had told you he was thinking of legal proceedings.”
Why, given this new information, did Brian not report? Why make the argument that the victim was in a brittle state and why pay him a sum of $10,000 the following year when you knew he was thinking of legal proceedings? Brett specifically wanted Pastor Taylor to let Brian know that he was ready for legal proceedings, which meant Brett was willing to talk to whomever he needed to seek justice and bring about closure.
It’s important to note that the victim of my father who disclosed to me was not a child. She was an adult in a brittle state and I never expected her to report her own abuser. Furthermore, I too had victims who came forward just days after the first victim disclosed to me and begged me not to report my father, their abuser. It was too late. I wasted no time in reporting it to the police. But that wouldn’t have changed my decision to report anyway. When my father was arrested, those same victims thanked me for standing firm and reporting. When it comes to the sexual abuse and exploitation of minor children, we ministers can’t play judge and jury. Sexual abuse of a minor was a criminal offense in 1999 in Australia and it is still a criminal offense today. We ministers can’t pick and choose which crimes we wish to report, no matter who the offender is.
[Editor’s Note: This article was written by and originally published by Jimmy Hinton]