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.
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.