Hillsong Church: Abuse unreported, perpetrator rewarded

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Hillsong Church sign - courtesy of abc.net.au

Hillsong Church sign - courtesy of abc.net.au

EDITOR’S NOTE: This post has been amended to further clarify media accounts of Brian Houston’s handling of abuse allegations against his father, Frank Houston. In addition, statements of personal opinion that are disputed by Hillsong and could not be immediately verified have been modified by the editors. 

Disturbing news surfaced last week that the founder and senior pastor of one of the largest churches in Australia, and a church well known in this country for its worship music, failed to report his father for sexually abusing children. Brian Houston of Hillsong Church, told the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Abuse that in October of 1999, he learned that an adult had reported being sexually abused as a child by leading Pentecostal pastor, Frank Houston.  The elder Houston was permanently suspended from preaching and given what The Australian newspaper and World magazine called a “retirement package”. The victim was sent $10,000. Eight more cases of child sexual abuse by Frank Houston were uncovered before he passed away in 2004.  None of these cases were ever reported to law enforcement.

Does any of this pass the “smell good” test?  An adult comes forward to disclose being sexually victimized as a child by an influential minister who happens to be the father of another well-known minister. The son’s immediate response to hearing about this crime is not to contact the police, but to confront his father who immediately confesses. Even after the confession, Brian Houston doesn’t call the police, but according to The Guardian newspaper, instead attends a meeting with his father, an attorney, and others, where it is decided to offer the victim $10,000 as “final payment”.  When he was recently asked why he didn’t report this crime, Brian Houston remarked, “This is one of the things that made it complicated.  He [the victim] was adamant he didn’t want any kind of police investigation or even a church investigation, he just wanted it dealt with and he just wanted to know that justice was going to happen.” The fact that a victim is an adult when they disclose being sexually assaulted as a child does not relieve those in leadership of the moral duty to report the crimes.

As the Guardian reported:

A subsequent investigation of Frank Houston by the church uncovered up to eight more cases of alleged child abuse by the pastor, a formative figure in Australia’s Pentecostal movement. None of these cases were referred to the police.

[EDITOR’S NOTE: Lyall Mercer, a Hillsong spokesman, claims that “the church” referred to by The Guardian was not Hillsong, and that Brian Houston had neither the knowledge of nor the ability to report the cases to authorities in New Zealand.]

Think about it: What if an adult had stepped forward to report that as a child they witnessed a pastor commit murder?  What if there was evidence that this same pastor had actually murdered eight other people?  Would there be any hesitation by church leaders to report these crimes to the authorities?  Even if the witness had requested them not to report?  Interestingly, Brian Houston never provides a reason for not reporting the other eight cases of abuse perpetrated by his father.

Hillsong Church service - courtesy of Kristofer Palmvik via Flickr  (http://goo.gl/ZUGOnz)

Hillsong Church service – courtesy of Kristofer Palmvik via Flickr (http://goo.gl/ZUGOnz)

One of Houston’s victims told the Royal Commission: “I was so ashamed of the abuse that I kept it inside for many years and did not tell anyone.”  Survivors silenced by years of shame are often empowered to come forward and report after finding out about child sexual abuse investigations and learning that they are not alone. The failure to report this crime certainly prevented the God-ordained authorities in Australia and New Zealand from identifying and helping others who may also have been sexually assaulted by this confessed child molester. Not only do child sexual abuse investigations empower survivors to come forward, but they often result in finding additional victims. The failure to report these crimes means that we may never know the degree and extent of the crimes against children committed by this church leader.

Reporting this admitted abuse 14 years ago not only would have helped to identify more victims of Frank Houston, but it would have also provided the opportunity to provide the survivors much needed support and professional assistance.

Brian Houston recently said,

“We probably don’t know now many [victims].  We may never just how far it went.”

What he fails to acknowledge is that his decision not to report these crimes is why we will never know the full extent of abuse and harm perpetrated by his father. What he fails to acknowledge is that his decision not to report these crimes 14 years ago left untold numbers of abuse victims stranded and alone. What he fails to acknowledge is that his decision not to report these crimes ignored the lives of untold numbers of victims who lived through the dark and painful horrors of childhood abuse and are now drowning without hope as adults.

Brian Houston recently told the media that he had “never hidden it [abuse] from the church.”  That statement is hard to reconcile with the fact that in 2001, the Assemblies of God sent a letter notifying pastors that Frank Houston had been suspended because of committing a “serious moral failure”.  At no time was this “serious moral failure” ever identified as the rape of a child.  Even more concerning, the letter went on to say, “We cannot see any reason for this to be announced to your church or further afield.”  Isn’t the intentional use of vague words to mask a dark truth consistent with hiding abuse?  Isn’t a directive to keep silent consistent with hiding abuse?  One can only wonder why Brian Houston and other church leaders believed they had the authority to withhold such child endangering information from the very people who needed to know about it – parents and children.

The failure to report this crime to the authorities, offering money to the victim, giving the perpetrator a retirement package, and the hiding all of this from church members, was a seemingly very convenient way to make the whole matter go away.  Fortunately, survivors don’t go away.  God carries their cries into the dark places to bring much needed light and truth – especially in the Church.

One of the lesser-known horrors of this nightmare is that Brian Houston comes from a “Christian” culture that seemingly prefers to remain silent when learning about children being sexually abused by a pastor.  The Daily Telegraph reports that the Assemblies of God in New Zealand “revealed that 50 of its pastors had known of Frank’s sex abuse.  None of them went to the police or did anything about it.”  Should we be surprised that Brian Houston reacted any differently when he found out?  Yes. I think we should always be surprised when one who professes to follow Jesus turns his back on the vulnerable who have been exploited and abused. The Jesus I know actually runs towards the vulnerable and gave His life for them.

Brian Houston recently commented that he was “very pleased” with the way he handled the disclosure of his father’s abuse. Pleased? Really? In a well-known scripture passage, Jesus tells us, “…whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a great millstone fastened around his neck and to be drowned in the depth of the sea.” [Matthew 18:6]  Instead, Frank Houston is given a retirement package, a victim is thrown $10,000, a church is not told the truth, and perhaps other victims never identified and helped. Pleased?  Really?

In his book, The Ragamuffin Gospel, Brennan Manning writes,

“The choice usually presented to Christians is not between Jesus and Barabbas.  No one wants to appear an obvious murderer. The choice to be careful about is between Jesus and Caiaphas.  And Caiaphas can fool us.  He is a very “religious” man.”

When we fail to report the heinous crimes against children, we fail to choose Jesus.  It’s time for churches to stop making the wrong choice.

Pleased? Really?


  • Thank you. This has been niggling me since I heard of it. What I would love to see is deep, sorrowful repentance not in light of getting caught for NOT reporting, but genuine sorrow for doing the exact wrong thing, for further marginalizing victims and elevating a pedophile.

  • Shary

    It is hard to figure out how these people think. How do they look at child abuse and not see a crime equal to murder in many cases.

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  • Tedd Cadd

    50 pastors knew about it? Let’s have all 50 in front of the Royal Commission.

    Have any of them read Proverbs 24:11-12? (Rescue those being taken off to death, and save those stumbling toward slaughter. If you say, “But we didn’t know about this,” won’t He who weighs hearts consider it? Won’t He who protects your life know? Won’t He repay a person according to his work?)

    Or Matthew 18:10 (“See that you don’t look down on one of these little ones, because I tell you that in heaven their angels continually view the face of My Father in heaven.”)

    They knew the evil and didn’t rescue the little ones, those being led off to slaughter by Frank Houston? Brian, why did you value appearances when these children’s angels were witnessing to God of the evil? Shouldn’t you have been doing the same? Bringing the evil to the light and protecting them?

  • Greg

    Thankyou Mary for posting. God Bless You Boz Tchividjian, bribe or hush money for victims, more salt in the wounds. A sad and sorry state of affairs. Even justice “controlled”. Good to know a just Judge is presiding over final matters.

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  • Tedd Cadd

    The report does not say they covered it up. It says they did not report it to authorities. That is a serious betrayal to the 9 victims known to the church before Frank died in 2004.

    The link provided does mention the one victim but it does not give any indication of the fact that the church knew of 8 additional victims by that time.

    The primary focus in this piece is that the church’s response was completely inadequate because it didn’t report the crimes and that they made it worse by rewarding Frank with the retirement package.

    I’m not saying that Frank’s positive contributions should all give way to the grave sins he committed against at least 9 children. But neither should he be given a free ride because of those contributions.

    It should have been reported as soon as it was known. And certainly no later than hearing his confession.

  • Oscar

    My parents were missionaries with a large missionary group who have a similar history of child abuse and covering it up.
    For example our neighbour on the “mission field” was reported to the mission leadership by his victim. No action was taken, except for his victim to be harassed and treated appallingly. The victim waited until the paedophile returned to his home country and there the police arrested him and he was subsequently jailed. The mission put out the story that the offender was on mental health leave (he was in jail). However when it was suspected that the offender may have embezzled mission finances, the mission sent delegates across international boarders to investigate the matter and confront the offender.
    As a child neighbour of the offender and living in the same house for some time, I have never been asked about my own welfare.

    A little bit of historical background into this top level government inquiry (A Royal Commission of Inquiry is the highest inquiry available to a Australian and New Zealand Government. The Royal Australian Commission was only charged with investigating the child abuse history of the Catholic Church. When at least one victim of a at least one protestant religious group that operates in Australia brought to the attention of Tony Abbott (who is now the Prime Minister of Australia) this matter, the inquiry was widened to include all religious institutions who have child abuse issues in their history (and sometimes current history).

    The reason I am familiar with the case is I see that former victim each time I look in the mirror and the group involved is a large mission group based in the U.S. I am neither a U.S. or Australian citizen, which gives some idea of how many people/countries are affected by these scandals and also how speaking out can make a difference, even across international boarders.

  • Wow. Good on Boz for writing this. Brian Houston has gotten way too much of a pass on this. He’s very connected into the halls of religious and political power here in Australia. I’m not surprised to see that pressure was brought to bear in such a way that the post was taken down. Hopefully it’s only temporary.

  • Oscar

    We are considerably more fortunate in Australasia than our colleagues in many other countries, in that organisations harbouring paedophiles are not able to bully those who speak out as much.
    They will of course try, as has been my experience, but public opinion and the media almost always take up the cause of victims, not those who have proven track records of child abuse and covering it up.
    At last the tide has turned, Hillsong will not be the only group with a historic murky past that spans the continents to appear the Australian Commission of Inquiry. At last the truth prevails and justice is being served.

  • John Sandeman

    No, the Royal Commission into the Institutional response to child abuse was set up by the Australian Federal Government to tackle issues of child abuse in a wide range of government and non-govermnent institutions, not only the Catholic church. You may be confusing this royal commission with earlier and concurrent state inquiries, including royal Commissions.

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  • Emma-Marie

    Apparently, the victim, who was 37 by the time Brian Houston found out, did not want the police involved and Brian thought that he was accommodating his wishes. It looks like Brian didn’t know about the other children till later. 50 children were reported to have been abused in New Zealand, but that was beyond the scope of the Royal Commission in Australia. As for the retirement package, it was apparently given to help Brian’s mother, who also worked many years for the church. While that could be a reasonable explanation, what the leadership failed to see was that they needed to send a much stronger message to the community about the church’s policy on child abuse and keeping perpetrators accountable instead of rewarding them. A fund to help the mother could have been separately arranged.

  • Tedd Cadd

    The problem with not reporting is that the perpetrator is able to attack more children. By the time this came to light, It was still possible that Frank was continuing to abuse children.

    One of the most difficult conversations I’ve been privy to went something like this:

    There were three people in the room. An unexpected phone call sent one of them off on a rant.

    Youngest person:
    “I’m sorry i blew up. There’s a reason. He sexually abused me when I was 8.”

    Older person:
    “You, too?”

    Oldest person:
    “Maybe if I’d said something, he wouldn’t have gotten to you two.”

  • Oscar

    Yes and each victim probably thinks they are the only one and more than likely has been manipulated into believing if they speak about the abuse then it will “destroy the good work” that the offender has done or is doing. This enables the offender to go on to more victims, often increasing the severity of the abuse.

    The “positive contributions” are often a smokescreen for the real agenda. Germany still has the excellent autobahns built by one A. Hitler to get Germany out of the it’s economic problems of the 1930’s and return the nation to full employment. I doubt his real attention was to leave these as his lasting legacy though, but it certainly kept the masses looking the other way when the real agenda eventuated.

  • Reality Check

    The choice came down to money. Do the right thing and stop the abuser and it would have threatened the income of the empire or say nothing and let the charismatic wonderman charm his way to the masses wallets which those at the top were getting a slice of.

    The same reason that when the raw truth is finally exposed, lawyers are called in to defend the mess instead of repentance being engaged in. Threats are issued to keep a lid on the truth.

    And it always comes back to the same issue, the protection of ill gotten money!

  • Oscar

    “50 pastors knew about it? Let’s have all 50 in front of the Royal Commission.”

    Probably very unlikely to happen (but nice if it were to), because the 50 referred to are New Zealanders and the inquiry is an Australian Government initiative.

    New Zealand is a small country (4.5 million people). The percentage of the population who attend a church is low. The Assembly of God church is a small player on the church scene in New Zealand. If 50 pastors knew about the offending, then that would have to be almost every pastor of the church in New Zealand. And not one of them, according to the report thought the matter should be handed over to the police (who have an excellent reputation for taking this sort of matter seriously)? Of that 50, how many would have discussed the matter with their partners? Probably most, this was a major development and people talk. Still the police were not contacted.

    And “the church” in New Zealand wonders why few attend. I think there are 50 reasons just explained.

  • Miss Mary – You hit that nail right on the head, every last word – well done!

  • Bad Karma

    There will never be tears of repentance, the empires and their leaders come first and it must survive at all costs! They will sacrifice whoever they can to avoid the consequences of their crimes.
    Christianity has been turned into a selfish religion where others are used not valued. Christ must be appalled to have His name used in association with the modern day self serving church and it’s appalling record of abusing children.

  • Kay McIntyre

    You are completely right. In New Zealand there is a lot of cynicism towards the “church” and this particular scandal is a contributor to that.People are aware that serious criminal offending was minimized by the church leaders.At the time,the reputation of the Assembly of God church collapsed almost overnight, and it has never recovered. But the leaders of most of the other churches also failed to address this injustice.Many churches are more concerned about their reputation than the welfare of victims of abuse, who are still consistently silenced.

  • Emma-Marie

    I agree. Obviously, nobody thought that he was capable of doing it, so they didn’t think that he could have still been offending. They didn’t think beyond, “Oh, the victim doesn’t want it to be reported, let’s leave it at that. If he wants to in the future, he can.” It didn’t occur to Brian Houston that his response, genuine as it may have been, was not victim-focussed and put children in danger.

    The church often has trouble seeing things from the victim’s perspective. It rarely prioritizes the protection of victims. While ministers are concentrating on winning people for Christ and filling their pews, it doesn’t occur to them that many who have left the church or who won’t darken the doors of a church are those who have been badly let down by churches. Pay attention to justice and righteousness, and the problem of filling the pews will solve itself. Until then, church leaders will be pushing uphill and taking aim at hostility toward them, wrongly attributing it to humanity’s natural hostility towards God, when a large proportion of it can be traced to the way victims have been treated at the hands of church leaders who are largely untrained and unaware of professional benchmarks.

  • The abuse can be unreported if there was a mutual agreement and understanding with the abused victim within the church context. It did not occur within Hillsongs rather another AOG church with the events in another country. Hence there should be a greater space and benefit of doubt given.

    In contrast, the harm done by the church to the Glbt community is far worst. Mat 18.6 was in the context of causing a child of faith to sin hence fall away from the christian faith. Hence, the entire church is on the path of self destruction unless reconciliation comes. The weight of the matter is far greater than one abuse case.

  • Tedd Cadd

    In my location, abuse must be reported if there is a possibility that more are being abused. There are a number of categories of mandated reporters, those who are under law to report. The wishes of the abuse victim are not the controlling issue.

    That might lead to the survivor not disclosing but my experience is that there is benefit even to the survivor most of the time.

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  • Rob

    where ever God builds his church the devil sets up his alter to.
    Martin Luther

    AS bad as this kingdom of Gods church is because it has you and me in it
    Gods other kingdom of government that Boz want us to turn to is even worse
    and that kingdom has you and me in it to.

    God told it to punish evil doers . It now full of homosexuals and supports and defends murder of little helpless children by abortion.

    it is know even more than Gods church kingdom to turn and look the other way when one of its own has done wrong.

    in fact it has whole divisions of people concentrated on doing wrong .

    its a sinful world both in the church and Gods other kingdom also our only help in it is Christ Jesus.

  • Rob

    I would still like to see the seat of the doctrine where God says in the bible the church has to report evil doers to the government ..
    I THINK FOR NOW until I examine those scripture God knows the government has no way
    of dealing with Christian repentance .. they would be locked up just as long.
    And God has given the spiritual responsibility of family to Fathers.. we all know the suicide rate of teens who’s father are in prison.

    bible doctrine is drawn from clear bible statements not our assumptions

  • Rob

    The problem of having the church report its members to the Government IS .. BESIDES THATS WHAT THE CHURCH DID TO JESUS , and the church did to Lutherans during the Prussian union .

    IT destroys trust in the church by other denominations to..
    and paves the way to state run church’s
    where Gods grace shown to us in Jesus alone will no longer be grace, until duty to the state is done .DESTROYING THE MESSAGE OF FREE AND FULL FORGIVENESS IN Christ alone..

  • Shary

    We are told to be in submission to government, for God set them up to punish evil doers. Any person who abuses a child is an evil doer. The government says they deserve to be punished the church should in these cases report the abuser, this is a clear case of government doing what God set them up to do. Why are people in the church not reporting abuse because they also are evil.

  • Tedd

    I wish the people who choose not to report it could understand the damage done by their lack of protecting the children. They are, indeed, in collaboration with the abuser(s).

  • Rob

    SHERY YOU MAKE SOME REALY GOOD biblical points

    we are told to be submissive to the government ..

    yes that IS true unless what the government wants causes us to disobey God ..in some way..
    The Government ordered the apostles to keep quiet about Jesus
    they disobeyed the government because it conflicted with what they knew God wanted ..Acts 5:29

    the government wants the church to turn in its member who abuse children right away . well that conflicts with what God wants his church to do with those in the church who sin against other members .IN SUCH A CASE A guarden
    SPEAKING FOR THE CHILD would speak to the offender.

    another great point you make is any person abusing a child is a evil doer.

    Yes they are .. That’s exactly why through faith in Jesus we are made new creatures by God .. as the bible puts it ..the old is gone the new has come..

    Any person who abuses a child is an evil doer .



    Do you think
    such an exalted Lamb paid merely a small price with a meager
    sacrifice for our sins? That they are not forgiven?

  • Rob

    Sheryl turning one self in to the authorities would be a fruit of a repentant heart..
    yet a fruit of a repentant heart with many obligations to family could take other courses of action.

  • Rob

    what does the lord prayer say about this matter?

    forgive us our trespasses as we forgive trespasses against us..

    what does this mean to me who was abused..

    speaking from that perspective of being abused.by some one much older when I was a child
    yet not by a church member .

    When a sinless and holy God has forgiven me so many mountains of sins against him what does a sin or two or even three against me really amount to .
    well I will tell you .. nothing really nothing ,at all.

    have a great day.


  • Having grown up in this culture and survived this kind of abuse firsthand, I know what’s at play when leaders are faced with the decision to report abuse (in approximate order of concern):

    1. The spiritual fallout. The abusive leader was involved in ministry for many years and led hundreds of people to Christ. If the people he brought into the fold found out about his sin, they may decide to leave the faith. The eternal weight of multiple souls outweighs the victim’s pain.

    2. The threat to “spiritual authority.” One claim of abuse might be legitimate. But there are “persecutors” out there who will jump on the bandwagon and start bringing claims out of nowhere just to see the pastor and the church destroyed. Concern for the integrity of the story outweighs the victim’s pain.

    3. Effect on the abuser’s family. They’re likely innocent, yet if the pastor loses his job, license and reputation, how will they survive? The pastor probably doesn’t have many other qualifications or skills to get a position in a secular field, and even if he did, who is going to hire a child molester? Concern for family members outweighs the victim’s pain.

    4. The victim may be lying or seeking attention. There are biblical counselors who teach that recovered memories of abuse or delayed accusations should rarely be taken seriously. After all, the supposed “victim” may be mistaken about what happened or have some kind of axe to grind. If the victim was so hurt at the time of abuse, why wait 20 years to come forward? They’re probably bitter about something else or wanting money. A therapist probably planted false memories in the victim’s head. Thus, the leaders’ skepticism (and ignorance) outweighs the victim’s pain.

    Protecting the church’s wealth does play a part in these decisions, but in my experience, it is rarely the main reason. None of this, of course, justifies a failure to disclose or pushing victims aside. The millstone necklace awaits.

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  • Shary

    Forgiveness does not take away the consequences of sin. Government were set up to punish those who do wrong. We can see from history when governments do not punish evil doers we have horrific tragedy. When abusers are allowed to go free and unpunished the victims are blamed, and the abusers go on to abuse others for no one has held them accountable.

  • Darren

    Rob – the problem here is not a doctrinal one, but a criminal one. Any adult aware of such wrongdoing taking place – whether in a church, a school, or a neighbor’s home has the responsibility to report it to the authorities. This is a legal requirement, not a Biblical one. All pastors involved here, had the legal duty to report this criminal activity.