Culture Ethics Institutions

Hillsong founder denies covering up father’s sex abuse

Senior Pastors Brian and Bobbie Houston in prayer at Hillsong Church. Photo courtesy Hillsong Church

NEW YORK (RNS) Days ahead of an annual conference in New York’s Madison Square Garden, the founder of the Hillsong music and church empire is facing strict scrutiny for what he knew about sex abuse allegations lodged against his father.

Hillsong is an Australian megachurch that has exported its influence to major global cities and into churches’ music across the U.S.

Senior Pastors Brian and Bobbie Houston in prayer at Hillsong Church. Photo courtesy Hillsong Church

Senior Pastors Brian and Bobbie Houston in prayer at Hillsong Church. Photo courtesy Hillsong Church

In 1999, Brian Houston’s father, Frank Houston, who was also a minister, confessed to sexually abusing an underage male at his New Zealand congregation 30 years before. In response, the younger Houston, who was then president of the Assemblies of God in Australia, fired his father, took control of the church and merged it with Hillsong.

The elder Houston died in 2004.

On Thursday and Friday (Oct. 9-10), the son took the witness stand in Sydney and denied any attempt to cover up the allegations. Next week, Brian Houston will be in New York City for the church’s conference, at Madison Square Garden.

In his testimony, Brian Houston denied trying to hide his involvement in a $10,000 compensation payment made to a man who was abused as a child by his father.

“I acknowledge the courage of the victim in taking the stand today to outline the trauma he has suffered by Frank Houston,” Brian Houston said in a statement. “However 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. At no stage did I attempt to hide or cover up the allegations against my father.”

Through what’s called a royal commission, the Australian government is scrutinizing how institutions — including the Pentecostal church network that gave birth to Hillsong — have handled sex abuse claims. A royal commission is Australia’s highest level of inquiry.

Frank Houston never faced prosecution for crimes committed in the 1960s and 1970s. The Assemblies of God in Australia allowed Houston to resign quietly with a retirement package.

“We believe that exposing child sexual abuse and the response of institutions to that abuse, and allowing survivors to share their traumatic experiences, is a powerful step in the healing process,” Brian Houston said in a statement. “Having to face the fact that my father engaged in such repulsive acts was — and still is — agonizing.”

Hillsong congregants, based in western Sydney, gave him a standing ovation after he delivered his sermon on Sunday (Oct. 12) addressing his father’s sexual abuse.

“They have done the journey with us so there’d be very few people (at Hillsong) with any surprises. I’ve never hidden it from the church,” he told Australia’s “Today” show.

Joel Houston of Hillsong UNITED performs before more than 15,000 people at the Hollywood Bowl in June 2013. Photo by Andy Barron/courtesy Merge PR

Joel Houston of Hillsong United performed before more than 15,000 people at the Hollywood Bowl in June 2013. Hillsong, founded by Brian Houston, has influenced churches’ music across the United States. Photo by Andy Barron/courtesy Merge PR

Brian Houston told the commission he first became aware of the abuse allegations in 1999, but learned in 2000 there were additional claims involving six boys in New Zealand. He said there may be more victims who have not yet come forward.

The 30-year-old Hillsong multisite church based in the outskirts of Sydney mixes Christian rock, charismatic energy and Australian accents in shaping Christian churches in major cities across the globe. Hillsong’s ubiquitous praise songs like “Shout to the Lord” can be found in many U.S. churches on any given Sunday.

More than 50,000 people attend Hillsong offshoots in London; Cape Town, South Africa; Paris; Kiev, Ukraine; Stockholm; Amsterdam; Barcelona, Spain; Copenhagen, Denmark; New York and most recently Los Angeles. Its American congregations received front-page attention in The New York Times last month.

KRE/AMB END BAILEY

About the author

Sarah Pulliam Bailey

Sarah Pulliam Bailey is a national correspondent for RNS, covering how faith intersects with politics, culture and other news. She previously served as online editor for Christianity Today where she remains an editor-at-large.

9 Comments

Click here to post a comment

  • Yes, a Royal Commission of Inquiry is the highest level of inquiry possible in Australia and New Zealand. Hearings are often in public and the media reports warts and all.

    Originally the Inquiry was only going to look into child abuse committed within the Catholic Church, but was widened to include all Religious groups/institutions, when members of the public presented evidence of historical offences committed by non Catholic groups.

    The inquiry has the power to call before it whoever it wishes. What will be interesting is when at least one U.S. based missionary organisation has it’s offending on Australian soil exposed.
    Paedophiles have for many decades roamed internationally. The Australian Inquiry is a good step in the direction of exposing how big and widespread this scandal is.

  • When the sinner is a Christian, his sins are between him and God. There is no reason to get the law involved when a Christian commits a sin. Kudos to Brian for respecting his father’s relationship with the Lord.

    Athiests are another matter. They don’t answer to God the Highest Power, so they are what we have a seculer justice system for.

  • So let’s get this straight. Is what you are saying that a Christian can commit any sin they like and there is no accountability on earth because it is a matter between the Christian and their God, but Athiests are fully accountable to the law of the land, because the law was made exclusively for them?

    So where does that leave other faiths, who say believe in multiple deities and what about Agnostics, do they have a reprieve from their crimes on the weekends?

    Or is this a whole wind up to get some conversation going?

  • Sooooo sad to hear this.
    The Bible says in Psalm 34 ‘those who look to The Lord are radiant and their faces are not cover in shame’.
    Let’s not judge God is Faithful and a healer. My prayer for those involved that they would find peace in God and forgive. So sorry for them, may God Almighty restore them and bless them. In Jesus’ Matchless Name Amen.

  • Alas the matter of forgiveness is not as simple as granting it and all living happily ever after.

    The wolves in sheeps clothing who use the church and religious organisations as cover to prey on innocent children are criminals. They are often well protected by organisations that do not want their income and reputation damaged, so engage in protecting offenders.
    There is often little compassion for victims of these predators, they are seen as an inconvenience.

    What many victims wish to see is sexual predators out of society and safely in place where they cannot prey on other children and repay their debt to society. When this is done and there is true repentance, the subject of forgiveness is more appropriately raised, but it remains at the discretion of the victim, not the offender and their protectors.

    Also consider that many victims of predators no longer believe in God, that has been knocked out of them.

ADVERTISEMENTs