Brian Houston has been cleared over charges arising from his decision not to report his paedophile father to police. But the former Hillsong leader is no longer part of the global church network he built. Tim Wyatt has the full story 


Source: Australian Associated Press / Alamy Stock Photo

Brian Houston was cleared over charges arising from his decision not to report his paedophile father to police

The founder and former senior pastor of Hillsong Church, Brian Houston, has been found not guilty of trying to cover up his father’s sexual abuse of children after a trial in Australia.

The judgement brings to an end a long-running saga which saw Brian and his wife Bobbie fired from their roles as Global Senior Pastors of Hillsong last year.

Houston had always maintained his innocence and has characterised his prosecution and downfall at Hillsong as a form of persecution, despite a series of serious allegations of misconduct and ethical failings while leading the church.

Who is Brian Houston?

Houston was born and raised in New Zealand by his parents Frank and Hazel, who were prominent figures in the Pentecostal Assemblies of God denomination. The family moved to Sydney, Australia in the late 1970s where Frank Houston founded and led a megachurch under the aegis of the Assemblies of God.

His son Brian started another neo-Pentecostal church, the Hills Christian Life Centre, in a Sydney suburb in 1983 which would evolve into the founding Hillsong Church over time.

By the mid to late 1990s, Assemblies of God had become the Australian Christian Churches, and Brian had become its president and perhaps the most prominent Pentecostal pastor in the country. Hillsong had established its music label and was starting to become known internationally.

How did the child abuse case happen?

In 1999, Frank Houston admitted to Brian he had sexually abused a seven-year-old boy in the 1970s, a moment Brian has described as akin to “jets flying into the twin towers of my soul”.

It later emerged the victim was called Brett Sangstock and had been assaulted by Frank Houston for the first time when his family hosted the then-New Zealand based pastor on a tour in Sydney.

Decades later, Sengstock’s mother told another Australian Christian Churches pastor about her son’s ordeal, which led to a bizarre meeting circa the year 2000. Sengstock met up with Frank Houston in a McDonald’s restaurant and was given A$10,000 (about £5,000) – after the now aging pastor said he did not want his earlier crimes to still be unresolved when he died. The victim said he was effectively paid for his silence.

In court, Houston acknowledged that he knew about the money but said he understood it not as an effort to cover up Frank Houston’s crimes but a “feeble attempt to try and right the wrong”.

What did Brian Houston do about his father’s abuse?

As soon as Brian first learned of the abuse, he says he sacked his father from his role leading his Sydney megachurch and also informed the Australian Christian Churches board of the abuse. Houston and the board decided to bar Frank Houston from the pulpit and order him to undergo a process of counselling and “restoration”. Publicly, he quietly retired from Hillsong and the congregation was not told at the time about the real reason for his sudden departure.

Houston said at the time, and continues to maintain to this day, that Sengstock asked him not to go to the police. Sengstock today says he does not recall ever telling Houston this.

Within a year or two, Houston discovered Sengstock was not his father’s only victim and that in fact Frank Houston had been a serial paedophile throughout his career as a pastor. It is now believed there are at least nine victims of the pastor. Still, Houston did not report what he knew to the police, later telling the court during his trial that he believed his now 82-year-old father was no longer a danger to anyone.

He did, however, begin to open up publicly about Frank Houston, telling the Hillsong congregation his father had been the subject of “very serious moral accusations” and engaged in “predatory” behaviour.

How did the case end up in court?

Frank Houston died in 2004 and for a decade afterwards it seemed as though his son Brian had shaken off the controversy successfully. 

However, in the wake of a series of child abuse scandals, the Australian government established a national inquiry into how different institutions had responded to abuse and by 2014 this Royal Commission had begun to examine the church. In 2014, it heard evidence from Sengstock about his abuse by Frank Houston and also called in Brian for questioning.

The Commission’s conclusions were highly critical of Houston and eventually led to an investigation by the police, as failing to report child abuse is a criminal offence in Australia. In 2021, he was charged by New South Wales Police that he “knew information relating to the sexual abuse of a young male in the 1970s and failed to bring that information to the attention of police”.

Why did Houston leave Hillsong?

Hillsong Church initially strongly supported Houston, issuing statements which echoed his own denials that he was not guilty of failing to report his father’s child abuse. However, a few months later Hillsong announced both Brian and Bobbie Houston would be taking a leave of absence from leading the network while the case was ongoing.

Two months after that, Hillsong’s board then revealed Houston was the subject of two additional internal complaints. In the first case, he was accused of sending “inappropriate” texts to a younger member of Hillsong staff over a decade ago, which led to her eventual resignation.

Then, in 2019, he had spent 40 minutes inside the hotel room of a woman attending a Hillsong conference late one evening. The board claimed the 68-year-old had become “disorientated” after mixing alcohol with his anti-anxiety medication and unwittingly entered the wrong hotel room. A few days later, Houston resigned as Global Senior Pastor permanently.

Leaks to the media from the Hillsong board revealed it had been riven by factions and divisions over the Houstons for months, with some members wanting to sack Houston before he could resign, and others wanting to brush the allegations under the rug. Some accused the founding couple of being aloof and unaccountable, and overseeing years of lax moral standards across the Hillsong network.

There had been a string of crises and scandals affecting the upper echelons of Hillsong pastors before things came to a head with Houston. These included the well-publicised downfall of the Hillsong New York pastor Carl Lentz, who was forced to stand down after admitting an affair and amid allegations of toxic leadership culture and bullying. A few years before, the creative director at the church’s music label (and son of Hillsong’s head of HR) sexually assaulted an American pastor’s daughter while she studied at Hillsong’s Australian college, but was only given a 12-month ban from ministry and kept on staff.

The very same week Houston resigned, a damning documentary entitled A Megachurch Exposed aired on US television. It covered in detail the Lentz scandal but also excoriated the general Hillsong celebrity culture, portraying overpaid church pastors swanning around in designer clothes furiously pandering to celebrities, while junior volunteers worked 12-hour days, enduring bullying and abuse to keep the church running.

About a year after his departure from Hillsong, Houston revealed in a statement he had been charged with drink driving in the United States over an incident in February 2022. In April this year he was fined and sentenced to three years probation. Hillsong said they were unaware of the offences at the time, even though Houston was still the church’s Global Senior Pastor at the time of the offence. 

How did Houston take his removal from Hillsong?

Badly. Initially only Brian Houston resigned as Global Senior Pastor, but soon the Hillsong board concluded Bobbie would also have to leave her role too. They began a conversation with her about how to end her employment, which prompted Brian to briefly post a message on his Instagram bemoaning the callousness of their approach. “Are we supposed to act like this is all ok? It’s not! Our beautiful church is losing its soul,” he wrote.

Despite his very public downfall, Houston continued to speak and travel, and at times would engage with further documentaries and media reports covering Hillsong scandals via his social media channels. As well as formally pleading not guilty in his criminal case, he has in general maintained a breezy tone of defiance in public.

His Instagram records him preaching at churches in Australia, the United States and Canada, and taking part in more private mentoring and leadership sessions with pastors around the world.

What happened in his trial?

He denied the charges, saying that he had what the law describes as a “reasonable excuse” for not telling police once he had heard his father confess: that the victim, Sengstock, had said he did not want any formal investigation.

The judge ruled Houston was not guilty. While it was undoubtedly “convenient” for the pastor that he believed Sengstock wanted no police involvement and subsequent publicity, that did not mean it was not a lawful “reasonable excuse” for not reporting the abuse.

The judge also found that Houston was far from the only person to know about Frank Houston’s crimes but do nothing further, including a number of other senior Australian pastors and others Brian Houston freely told. While Houston had used “euphemistic language” at times to describe his father’s abuse, his actions were clearly “the very opposite of a cover-up”.

What has been the reaction to the verdict?

Standing outside the court, Houston said the case had been a “targeted attack” against him which would never have been brought if he were not a prominent and controversial pastor. “Obviously a not guilty verdict after so many years of persecution is a great feeling”, he added.

He later posted an enormous image of the words “NOT GUILTY” on his Instagram, writing he had been fully vindicated and that the judge had “compellingly pulled apart the prosecution’s arguments one by one”. “Sections of the media have been complicit by building a narrative on a completely false premise regarding the circumstances,” he wrote. He also attacked the media for twisting facts and misleading the public about the case because they were “hellbent on discrediting an influential church and turning a noble name into a bad name”.

Sengstock said he was living a “life sentence” as a result of Frank Houston’s abuse and said “blaming the victim is as repulsive as the assaults themselves”. The case had not brought any closure but simply added more trauma on him from the church and its supporters, he added.

In a statement, Hillsong Church said it acknowledged the decision of the court and hoped those affected “deeply and irrevocably by the actions of Frank Houston will find peace and healing”.

Other commentators have said the verdict calls into question Australia’s mandatory reporting laws. A similar attempt to prosecute the Catholic Archbishop of Adelaide, Philip Wilson, for failing to report abuse by a priest collapsed after appeal in 2018, and some have argued in the wake of Houston’s acquittal the charge is very difficult to prove in court.

The UK government is currently mulling whether to introduce its own mandatory reporting laws, which was the major recommendation of the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse, and therefore the implications of Australia’s experience with similar laws following the Houston case are being watched closely.