Hillsong Church founder Brian Houston has been acquitted of concealing the sexual abuse his father committed against a young male in the 1970s. While Houston was found ‘not guilty’ of the charge, he nevertheless has made mistakes which today’s church leaders should learn from, says Justin Humphreys
Yesterday saw the legal conclusion of a matter that has been ongoing for 45 years.
Brett Sengstock was 7 years-old when he was sexually abused by Frank Houston, a figure with spiritual authority over him. It’s the actions of the abuser’s son and former leader of Hillsong Church, Brian Houston, that were considered by an Australian court.
Houston was charged with concealing the abuse of his father, contrary to Mandatory Reporting laws in New South Wales (NSW), Australia. Yesterday he was acquitted of the charges.
What can we learn from this case and the concluding verdict? Here are five points worth considering:
1. What counts as a ‘reasonable excuse’ when choosing not to report child sex abuse?
This court case ultimately boiled down to the account of one man (with significant accrued wealth and resources at his disposal) verses another.
Houston claims that he had reason to believe that his fathers’ victim, Brett Sengstock, did not want his abuse reported to the authorities and that this was a ‘reasonable excuse’ for not reporting.
This is one of four acceptable reasons under NSW law for a mandated reporter to not report child sexual abuse.
Sengstock had told the court that he was offered a large sum of money by Houston. He believed that this was ‘hush money’ or a bribe to buy his silence. There appears to be no reasonable explanation offered by the defence regarding what this sum of money was for if not to buy Sengstock’s silence. Claims that this was Frank Houston’s “feeble attempt to try and right the wrong” don’t seem plausible to me.
The fact that Houston has built his case upon a ‘reasonable excuse’ (provided for in NSW law) not to report should provide church leaders and our own legislators with much food for thought. How might we assess a reasonable excuse? Why would we want this option anyway? Shouldn’t we be keen for justice to be done? Thankfully we now have a commitment from the UK government to introduce Mandatory Reporting laws in the UK. I believe we cannot afford for this gaping loophole to exist and result in similar verdicts closer to home.
2. We cannot contemplate ‘restoring’ serial paedophiles
Following Frank Houston’s disclosure to his son, which was then reported to the Assemblies of God (AOG) Australia Board, a decision was made to place the older Houston on a ‘restoration program’ for 12 months.
To think that a serial paedophile could somehow be restored to ministry and then released to continue in a role providing him with access to potentially abuse further children is a frightening suggestion – albeit a suggestion made 20 plus years ago.
While we can be sure of the power of redemption, it is dangerous to allow our desire to operate with grace and mercy to eclipse an appropriate acknowledgement of the very real risk to children that would be posed by such an individual. Jesus reserved some of his most harsh words for those in positions of spiritual leadership who might “cause one of these little ones to stumble” (Luke 17:2). This does not deny grace, but amplifies the seriousness of the offence in the eyes of God.
3. Leaders must be honest with their congregations
It is important that we understand what ‘cover-up’ looks like in the eyes of victims and survivors. Namely, any action that is taken to conceal the appropriately-shared details of risk posed by an abusive situation through an alternative truth is an attempt to cover-up.
In this case, Frank Houston was removed from ministry at the time under the guise of “retirement”. This concealed the crucial fact that he posed a real and present danger to children.
The risk of his ability to gain and potentially abuse the trust of unsuspecting congregations was proved to be very real in this case. Frank Houston was later found to be preaching and ministering without the permission of the AOG movement in Australia. This is sadly just an indication that true repentance had not taken place and that unacceptable risk therefore remained.
4. Leaders should recuse themselves when necessary
This case points us towards the inherent dangers in not acknowledging when we are conflicted and unable to act in the interests of those we are charged with caring for with impartiality. Brian Houston failed to recuse himself of all involvement in this matter until he had already taken several (potentially compromising) actions concerning the disclosure he had received from his father.
There was only one action that he needed to take before creating a firewall between him and the situation to be dealt with – that was to report the matter to his board (and I would argue the statutory authorities simultaneously) and then step away - well away - to enable the matter to be fully investigated without prejudice. This would clearly be a very difficult situation for any of us facing the unenviable reality of discovering one of our loved-ones is a child sexual offender. In this, boundless grace and humility would be required, but not to the degree that appropriate action is delayed and justice thwarted. Any compromised actions that delay a proper process taking place risks denying justice seen for victims and survivors – as was the case in this matter. Such an outcome is worthy of a heartfelt apology by anyone complicit in such a delay.
5. When we get it wrong, let’s apologise
We should consider what an apology sounds like and what impact we can hope it may have for the victims and survivors of abuse. Of all the lessons that could be learned from this case, this is possibly one of the most painful and enduring.
Honesty, humility, integrity, transparency, courage and inclusivity are among the characteristics we might hope to see modelled by our leaders.
Humility is foundational to servant leadership and from this flows the ability to acknowledge and own our mistakes, seeking forgiveness and offering apology where we have hurt or harmed others. Apologies that show an understanding of what harm we have caused and commit to change are some of the greatest opportunities we have to open the door to healing in the lives of victims and survivors.
Brian Houston’s remarks following the ‘not guilty’ verdict, were as follows: “A lot of people’s lives have been tragically hurt, and for that I will always be very sad. But I am not my father. I did not commit this offence”. These words will have done nothing but reinforce a lack of trust through his refusal to acknowledge mistakes and acknowledge the suffering of others. This simply reads as “sad, but not sorry”!