As Brian Houston faces charges of concealing his father’s sexual abuse of a young boy, a witness claims the Hillsong founder told her he’d been advised Frank Houston ‘would surely be incarcerated for the crime’ if the case went to court. By Elle Hardy.
The trial of Hillsong founder Brian Houston
Content warning: This report discusses child sexual abuse.
Before the opening day of his hearing at Sydney’s Downing Centre, Brian Houston strode up to a small band of supporters waiting outside the courtroom. “Well, well,” he said in a booming voice. “What a group of people we have here!” While his wife, Bobbie, spoke to a woman who had been pacing the hallways praying, Houston strode past a row of journalists and activists waiting to witness the trial, eyeballing them one by one.
Never one to shy away from a fight, this was vintage Houston, defiantly preparing for the battle of his life. The 68-year-old Hillsong founder has pleaded not guilty to a charge of concealing a serious indictable offence, related to his father Frank Houston’s sexual abuse of a young boy.
Crown prosecutor Gareth Harrison described the brief of evidence as “dense” and said witness examination would take up most of the three-week trial allocation. The Crown alleges that documents show Brian Houston learnt of the allegations in late 1999, when he was senior pastor of Hills Christian Life Centre, which went on to become Hillsong, as well as being leader of the Assemblies of God in Australia, now Australian Christian Churches, the umbrella Pentecostal organisation in this country. Brian Houston did not report the allegations to police, and his father died in November 2004.
The victim, Brett Sengstock, now 60, testified that he was “repeatedly” anally raped by Frank Houston between the ages of seven and 12, when the pastor would stay at his family’s Coogee home on visits from New Zealand. Brian Houston’s barrister, Phillip Boulten, SC, said they will not contest the allegation of child sexual abuse. In his opening address, Boulten told the magistrate, Gareth Christofi, that “your honour cannot be satisfied beyond reasonable doubt that he did not have a reasonable excuse for not reporting this to police”.
Sengstock claimed he did not report his abuse to the police after revealing it to family as an adult, “because I was paid for my silence”. He testified that he met Frank Houston and senior church member Nabi Saleh at a suburban McDonald’s in November 1999, where he was asked to sign a napkin in exchange for $10,000.
Weeks later, when the money was not forthcoming, Sengstock said he phoned Brian Houston to follow up on the payment. Sengstock told the court, in that phone call, Brian Houston said to him: “You know this is all your fault. You tempted my father.” Sengstock says he was “deeply hurt” by the comment and asked Brian Houston if he had also been “molested by Frank”. Sengstock said Brian Houston began “yelling and swearing” before saying “you’ll get your money” and hanging up on him.
Brian Houston has vigorously denied in the past that he blamed Sengstock for his father’s abuse. Indeed, much of the court case centres on previous testimonies, with many of the witnesses having appeared at a 2014 hearing of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, which examined the responses of the Assemblies of God in Australia to allegations against three men within the church, including Frank Houston.
In his opening statement, Boulten said a key point of the defence would be showing that “tens of thousands” of people knew Frank Houston had been accused of sexually abusing at least one boy when he was a pastor. Boulten said that not only was the allegation addressed in a sermon by Brian Houston but the allegations were aired in media interviews. “There is one person who did not want to go to the police,” Boulten said, “and that is the complainant in this case.”
Boulten indicated that former New South Wales police commissioner Andrew Scipione, who at times attended Hillsong Church, could have been among the “tens of thousands” of people with knowledge of Frank Houston’s alleged offence. Scipione attended Frank Houston’s funeral in 2004, when he was deputy commissioner.
Others who are said to have known about the allegations prior to Brian Houston include John McMartin, former NSW president of the Australian Christian Churches, who is facing indecent assault charges of his own after a teenage parishioner alleged that McMartin groped her at his home in Sydney’s south-west nine years ago. McMartin has pleaded not guilty to the charges and is expected to be called as a witness in the Crown case against Brian Houston.
Another person frequently referred to as having knowledge of the allegations is evangelist Kevin “Mad Dog” Mudford, a heavily tattooed former prisoner turned preacher whose tent “crusade” outside Sengstock’s great-aunt’s church in Western Sydney was the catalyst for the historic allegations coming to light.
Sengstock’s great-aunt, Pastor Barbara Taylor, testified that at the tent revival Sengstock’s mother, Rose Hardingham, spoke up about the allegations, and Taylor brought them to senior members of the Assemblies of God, including McMartin and eventually Brian Houston.
Under questioning, Pastor Taylor agreed that she did not want Sengstock to go to the secular courts and believed that the matter was best handled by the church. Frequently frustrated in her attempts to get the church to handle the matter appropriately, Taylor says she made notes of a phone conversation with Brian Houston in which she says he “said he had spoken to a barrister who had told him that if it goes to court his father would surely be incarcerated for the crime”. Later, she added, “After this meeting, I heard nothing from Brian … or anyone.”
Taylor and Sengstock were both questioned in detail about their recollections of conversations that took place during the late 1990s, when the issue came to light. Boulten argued that Sengstock’s memory about conversations he had with his mother, Brian Houston and other members of the church was impaired. “This was a traumatic part of your life,” he said. “Your memory is imperfect about these things.”
Sengstock agreed with this. He testified that his mother had believed him and had kept silent as she didn’t want her son to be “responsible for sending people to hell” by “turning them away from the church”. He said he told his mother in late 1977, when he was 16, after she had sent him for counselling with Frank Houston.
At that counselling session, the pastor began masturbating under the table. Sengstock ran home and told his mother that Houston had been “molesting” him for several years. At one point, overcome with emotion and requiring a break before continuing to testify, Sengstock stated he was “anally raped repeatedly by Frank Houston” and that he “felt that [he] had committed a sin” because he was raised to believe homosexuality was wrong.
On Wednesday and Thursday, Hillsong general manager George Aghajanian took to the stand under immunity from self-incrimination. He testified that he told his superior, Brian Houston, about the allegation against Frank Houston as soon as he was presented with the information, in 1999. He said that Houston had a “shocked expression on his face”.
However, later on Thursday, John McMartin also testified that he phoned Brian Houston to tell him the information he had received about his father, and that Houston had reacted with similar surprise.
Boulten said Brian Houston “was not aware of the offences at that time, nor indeed was he aware of other offences that his father probably committed in [New Zealand] at the time they were committed”.
Brian Houston took extensive notes during the testimony of Aghajanian, the man said to be the organisational brains behind the spectacular growth of Hillsong in the early 2000s. The two were once close but are said to have recently fallen out after Houston resigned from the church in March, admitting to breaching its code of conduct after two women said he had behaved inappropriately towards them.
Aghajanian described Frank Houston as a “Godly man” and “father of the faith”, who was very highly regarded within the Pentecostal movement. He believed that the church did not report the case to authorities as they didn’t know they needed to, especially as it was in relation to an incident 30 years earlier, before their church even existed.
While he claimed Frank Houston had his credentials withdrawn by the church, he had no recollection as to why it was determined that a “simple” announcement would be made about his retirement. Hillsong also explored how it could continue to financially support Frank and his wife, Hazel, in a retirement package put together by the Sydney Christian Life Centre.
The royal commission found that Frank Houston had abused up to nine boys in Australia and New Zealand.
The trial continues.
National Sexual Assault, Domestic and Family Violence Counselling Service 1800 737 732
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on December 10, 2022 as "‘This is all your fault’".
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