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Despite a royal commission being told that Hillsong’s senior pastor mishandled revelations of child sex abuse by his father and fellow church leader, the organisation’s global expansion continues apace. By Tanya Levin.

Hillsong in the Royal Commission into Child Sex Abuse

Hillsong pastor Brian Houston leaving the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse hearings in Sydney.
Credit: AAP Image

Last week Australia’s Hillsong Church sold out Madison Square Garden in New York City, for the recording of its next concert DVD. The week before, Hillsong United, the church’s band, led by Pastor Brian Houston’s son, Joel, won five Dove Awards, the American gospel music equivalent of a Grammy. Next April, a feature film about the band, Hillsong: Let Hope Rise, will be released by Warner Bros. In the trailer for the film, spliced between shots of heaving arenas, two phrases flash in dramatic succession: “It’s not about them It’s about Him.”

Last week, those words might better have read, “It’s not about us/It’s about him.” For three-and-a-half days, the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse examined how Hillsong and its board members reacted when presented with accusations against its founder and Brian’s father, Pastor Frank Houston.

The commission heard from a witness called AHA, who gave evidence that around 1970, from the time he was seven or eight, the well-respected pastor from the Pentecostal Christian denomination Assemblies of God, Frank Houston, would travel to Australia from New Zealand, with young Brian in tow, and stay at the boy’s home. AHA said his father was an osteopath and that Frank enjoyed free treatments. Their home was rearranged to accommodate the Houstons, who were considered by AHA’s family to be royalty.

For about five years, it was claimed, Pastor Frank would go to where AHA was sleeping and molest him in the night. AHA said the abuse ceased when he reached puberty. At the age of 16, AHA reported what had happened to his mother, but it would be another 20 years before contact was made with the Houstons. Soon after, in 2000, a meeting took place between Frank, then aged in his late 70s, and AHA at Thornleigh McDonald’s, during which Frank, apparently terrified he would die and face God a sinner, wanted to elicit forgiveness from his victim. He offered AHA $10,000 to go with his plea for absolution, and had him sign a napkin as confirmation that the payment – vigorously denied by Brian last week to be hush money – was the end of the matter.

Evidence tendered at the commission that Brian was emailed by the New Zealand Assemblies of God (AOG) in 1997 regarding the matter did not dissuade him from his original testimony: that he had no knowledge of his father’s offences until late 1999, when Hillsong’s general manager, George Aghajanian, informed him of the allegations they had received. The testimony of John McMartin, NSW state president of the AOG, the umbrella organisation with which Hillsong is affiliated, was that Brian was in shock when McMartin himself told him of the allegations some three weeks later, leading McMartin to believe he was the first to break the news. Houston’s evidence was that, though shocked, somehow in his stomach he knew the allegations to be true. He said he confronted his father immediately and that Frank confessed to a “one-off” incident 30 years prior.

Members of the AOG executive were called to a meeting held in the Qantas Club just before Christmas 1999. Houston said that in his newly assumed roles of AOG president and senior pastor of Hillsong, he removed his father’s credentials and told him to never preach again. Houston snr lived on Hillsong-owned property until his death in 2004. At no time did Hillsong report AHA’s accusations to the police.

At the commission hearing AHA testified that two months after the McDonald’s meeting, having never received the $10,000, he phoned Brian Houston. He stated that Houston said: “Yes, okay, I’ll get the money to you. There’s no problem. You know it’s your fault all of this happened, don’t you? You tempted my father.”

AHA responded, “Why? Did he molest you also?”, at which Brian said “You’ll be getting money” and slammed down the phone.

A cheque arrived soon after, made out to AHA with no note attached. Houston’s evidence is that he turned the matter over to “family” to address, and that he never accused AHA of tempting Frank.

Brian's testimony

Throughout the hearing, Brian Houston was clearly uncomfortable. It’s likely he has never been in such a situation, where it is compulsory for him to be the one answering questions. He smiled at counsel through much of his evidence as if they were having a conversation about the old days.

Whether he was deliberately evasive or ignorant on the stand has been a matter of great conjecture over the past week, but some responses elicited bemusement even from counsel.

When asked by the commission whether he found there was a conflict for him as the son of the alleged offender and as the president of the AOG and pastor-in-chief at Hillsong, Houston answered, “Internally, definitely I was conflicted, so I don’t doubt that at all, if you’re talking about my own, you know, coming to grips emotionally with what my father did.”

Patiently, several times, counsel attempted to elicit his understanding of the concept of a “conflict of interest”. Each of Houston’s responses were evasive, and accepted no responsibility. This, despite Houston having sat on multiple boards and led numerous companies.

He insisted he had chosen the best course of action at the time.

Houston became most defensive, however, when questioned over the choice of family friend who had driven his father to the McDonald’s meeting with AHA. Counsel inquired if Nabi Saleh, then half-owner of Gloria Jean’s Coffees and board member of Hillsong, acted more out of expertise on corporate governance than moral support. Houston was offended, retorting, “Should I have chosen a close family friend who didn’t work, who didn’t have a business?”

With the Hillsong leadership’s own evidence and documents tripping them up, what emerged from the commission’s nearly four days was a clear picture of a group of evangelical businessmen who, when faced with the worst revelations, closed ranks, took care of their own, and kept it secret for as long as they were able.

Former national secretary Keith Ainge grew frustrated during his interrogation, several times responding, “I’ve already answered that question”. McMartin also resented the questions, admitting that in order to prevent perpetrators reoffending they are encouraged to go to another church. Brian testified at times with an index finger outstretched to make his point felt to the cameras: “I’ll swear on this Bible again”.

But despite the hearing’s revelations that the Hillsong Church’s co-founder was a sex offender who preyed on adult males and boys as young as six, Hillsong won’t be going anywhere. As 2GB’s Ray Hadley heard when “Wendy” phoned his program in defence of the church, Frank Houston “changed a multitude of people”. Brian Houston roused the congregation to a standing ovation last Sunday with his message of freedom from shame.

A burgeoning franchise

Indeed, for the largely under-30 demographic of Hillsong, this is all old news. The Houstons themselves are growing old. At 60, Brian is ancient in Pentecostal years, and while widely revered, is no longer the spine of the organisation. Insiders credit his wife, Bobbie, 57,  for Hillsong’s stability. “You know how Brian flies off the handle too easily?” one said. “Well, even he told the congregation one morning, ‘Bobbie is more Christ-like than I am’. Bobbie has really grown as a leader, in the Word, and as a teacher. She’s the glue that holds it together.”

But if matriarch Bobbie and Papa Brian, as he’s affectionately known, retire from the family business, their three children are well placed to carry on the traditions. Joel Houston is in charge of all things musical, the brand’s greatest attraction and largest source of revenue. Ben and his wife pastor a Northern Beaches church, while Laura and her husband head up the youth ministry nationally.

While Australian growth is steady, the church’s global presence is skyrocketing on the back of its highly commercial music arm. There are Hillsongs in London, Paris, Kiev, Cape Town, Los Angeles and more. The modern evangelical style is epitomised by the work of Carl Lentz, the new down-to-earth pastor of Hillsong New York, who reportedly baptised pop star Justin Bieber this year. His message is not so much about the gospel as standing alongside people in need, and only sharing their faith in Jesus when asked.

It is instructive in how different Hillsong is from a traditional Christian church, less a ministry than a family company. While the horrors of child sexual abuse have emptied the pews of other churches, Hillsong is unlikely to feel those effects. Instead, it will probably continue to grow. It is expanding in the manner of an ambitious business franchise, because in so many respects that’s what it is.

 

People wishing to contact the royal commission can do so at childabuseroyalcommission.gov.au or by phoning 1800 099 340.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Oct 18, 2014 as "God’s business". Subscribe here.

Tanya Levin
is a social worker and author of People in Glass Houses: An Insider’s Story of a Life In and Out of Hillsong.