Megachurch Founder Acquitted of Hiding Sexual Abuse Committed by His Father

Brian Houston, the founder and former leader of the global megachurch Hillsong, was acquitted Thursday in Sydney, Australia, of a charge connected to failing to report his father’s sexual abuse of a child.

Mr. Houston had faced one count of concealing a serious indictable offense for another person. In August 2021, the police in the state of New South Wales had charged that when Mr. Houston’s father, Frank Houston, confessed in 1999 to sexually assaulting a young boy decades before, his son did not inform the authorities.

Mr. Houston pleaded not guilty and told a court in Sydney that he did not report the assault because the victim did not want it reported. On Thursday, Magistrate Gareth Christofi agreed with him, finding that he had a “reasonable excuse” for not alerting authorities.

When Mr. Houston learned of his father’s offense, which had occurred in the 1970s, he alerted church leadership but did not report the assault to the police. His father, Frank Houston, who also was a pastor, died in 2004. He was never charged.

During the trial in Sydney, Brett Sengstock testified that Frank Houston had raped him in January 1970, when he was 7 years old. Frank Houston, who was a pastor at a New Zealand church at the time, was visiting Sydney and was staying at the Sengstock family home.

Mr. Sengstock previously said that the abuse continued until he was 12.

Mr. Sengstock said during the trial that he never told Brian Houston that he did not want the matter reported to police, and prosecutors accused Mr. Houston of concealing the assaults to protect the reputation of the church, rather than seeking justice for Mr. Sengstock.

“When faced with a potential scandal, the culture was to protect the church,” one of the prosecutors, Gareth Harrison, said.

Brian Houston’s lawyer, Phillip Boulten, argued that when Mr. Houston learned of the assault in 1999, Mr. Sengstock, who then was 36, made it “very clear he did not want the police involved.”

Mr. Houston, who at the time was president of the Australian branch of the Assemblies of God denomination, revoked his father’s preaching credentials, and mentioned during addresses at several church events that his father had been removed “because of child molestation,” all of which suggested that there was no cover-up, Mr. Boulten said.

After the verdict on Thursday, Mr. Houston told reporters that his father was a “serial pedophile” and expressed sadness for his victims.

“But I am not my father. I did not commit this offense,” he said, adding that he felt “relief” that “the truth had come out.”

Outside the court, Mr. Sengstock said that regardless of the verdict, “I have received a life sentence” as a result of Frank Houston’s assaults.

Frank Houston’s offenses were detailed at an Australian 2014 royal commission against institutional responses to child sexual abuse. At a hearing for the royal commission, Brian Houston said that when he learned of the assaults and confronted his father, “he went extremely dry in the mouth and said ‘Yes, these things did happen.”

The police then opened a criminal investigation in 2019 and charged Brian Houston in 2021. The trial started in December.

Hillsong was once popular with celebrities and young people drawn to its music and sermons that emphasized positivity, but in recent years it has been hit by scandals, including Mr. Houston’s.

In 2020, Carl Lentz, the celebrity pastor of its New York branch, was fired by Mr. Houston for “leadership issues and breaches of trust, plus a recent revelation of moral failures.” Mr. Lentz admitted to an affair, and Mr. Houston accused him of narcissism and “manipulating, mistreating people.”

In January 2022, after he was charged, Mr. Houston stepped away from ministerial responsibilities for Hillsong. Two months later, he resigned from the church altogether after an internal investigation found he had breached the church’s code of conduct at least twice over the past decade by behaving inappropriately with two women.

Source: nytimes

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