A cache of leaked financial documents alleges staggering misconduct and outrageous spending at the Australian megachurch. By Martin McKenzie-Murray.
‘Fraud, money laundering’: Inside the Hillsong papers
On Thursday, March 9, independent MP Andrew Wilkie stood in parliament and announced that he was tabling a giant cache of documents alleging financial malfeasance by the Australian megachurch Hillsong.
“Last year a whistleblower provided me with financial records and board papers that show that Hillsong is breaking numerous laws in Australia and around the world relating to fraud, money laundering and tax evasion,” he said. “For example, this document shows how, in 2021, four members of the Houston family and their friends enjoyed a three-day luxury retreat in Cancún, Mexico, using $150,000 of church money. These other documents show former leader Brian Houston treating private jets like Ubers –again, all with church money.”
So voluminous is the cache of documents – many thousands of pages – that it took parliamentary staff more than a week to scan them all for public access. They include swaths of financial statements and bank records, and allegedly detail conspicuous personal enrichment, relatively paltry expenditure on good deeds, as well as tax evasion and the systemic rorting of tax exemptions. “By publicly exposing definitive evidence of Hillsong’s improper state of affairs, it will help educate the public to be more vigilant with their due diligence when considering donating to Hillsong and other organisations like it,” the unnamed whistleblower wrote in a disclosure statement, which was also tabled.
“Vulnerable members of the community need to know not to place unbridled trust in an organisation simply because – in fact, because – it is classified as a religious organisation. Techniques used by Pentecostal mega-churches such as a Hillsong to solicit money from their congregation (with no reciprocal visibility into how the money was actually spent) can be considered spiritually and emotionally manipulative, often resulting in vulnerable congregation members making great sacrifices in their personal lives to financially support the church.” The church immediately denied any illegality and released a statement saying: “The claims made in federal parliament by Mr Andrew Wilkie are out of context and relate to untested allegations made by an employee in an ongoing legal case. These allegations, made under parliamentary privilege, are in many respects wrong, and it is disappointing he made no effort to contact us first.”
Speaking before a congregation last Sunday, Hillsong’s global senior pastor, Phil Dooley, said the church would commission an independent review into the allegations. The church’s founder, Brian Houston, who resigned last year as the church was investigating sexual misconduct allegations against him, tweeted: “Clearly, Andrew Wilkie MP has used parliamentary privilege to espouse unproven and spurious claims about Hillsong Church that are in the main, either out of context, misleading or false.”
In his speech, Wilkie said, “I’m shocked that, when offered to the ATO, ASIC and ACNC last year under whistleblower legislation, not one of those agencies acted. That is a failure of regulatory oversight every bit as alarming as Hillsong’s criminality.”
Wilkie was mistaken, however. The Australian Charities and Not-for-profits Commission (ACNC), the sector’s federal regulator, issued an “extremely rare” comment about the matter. “Although it was stated in Parliament that the ACNC has not acted, I can confirm that we are investigating concerns raised about Hillsong Church charities,” the ACNC commissioner, Sue Woodward, said in a statement. “Any investigation we undertake must be thorough, comprehensive and consistent with our approach to all investigations. They can be complex and take time to complete.”
Brian Houston believes in many things: in the literal truth of the Bible; in entertaining the flock; in money, influence and fame. He believes that God chooses some men to be saved and some to be damned, and believes that he, Brian Houston, is one of the former.
He believes in the nourishment of the Good Book, and he believes in waterside mansions. He believes that one day He will return and shepherd the good to Heaven, while purging the rest. He believes that we are all in a contract with God, and that if we provide to the Church, then He will provide for us. He believes that God wants us to be rich and happy, and that material wealth is a sign of virtue and piety – of a contract upheld. And Brian Houston believes – or at least he did, before he was removed last year from the church he founded – that the best, most direct way that the faithful could make good with God was to offer their money to Hillsong. His catchphrase is “the best is yet to come”.
Houston believes that his personal success is proof of his divine anointment. He believes that the media’s interest in Hillsong’s opaque finances is cynical – an expression of his country’s contempt for high achievers and for faith itself. Perhaps most of all, Brian Houston believes in the power of a good story – a “narrative” that is both flattering and ruthlessly upheld by loyalists. Until the past two years, he has been remarkably successful at maintaining the story of a wholesome empire, given to sharing God’s Glory, if occasionally besieged by the jealous and religiously intolerant. “Out in the forecourt,” Houston warned his large congregation in 2015, “is a program called A Current Affair. They’re a malicious program. They have a constant agenda against Hillsong. They lie, they’re underhanded. I would encourage every young person not to talk to them, and certainly not talk about things you know nothing about.”
The son of the pastor and serial child rapist Frank Houston – whose crimes Houston is now on trial for concealing – Brian Houston was the only one of five children to ardently follow his father into a life in the church. “I grew up with this passion to serve Jesus,” Houston said in 2015, while promoting his book, Live, Love, Lead. “I think a lot of it then was my father’s influence. I admired him greatly and loved what he did. I literally can’t remember a time when I didn’t think ‘one day I want to preach, and be involved in ministry’. It’s been part of me as long as I can remember.”
In the 1970s, he served his father as assistant pastor at Darlinghurst’s Sydney Christian Life Centre, before he hired a school hall to start his own church, in 1983, called Hills Christian Life Centre. Houston is a Pentecostal, which is not a denomination itself but a movement that stresses the observable manifestation of the Holy Spirit in “gifts” such as healing, exorcism and speaking in tongues. Thus, in that modest school hall in north-west Sydney, and before a small congregation, miracles were witnessed.
Houston was ambitious. In 1991, he established Hillsong Music, a record label given to songs of devotion – it has released at least one album a year since, and in 2018 won a Grammy Award. Hillsong Music was a pivotal moment in Houston’s career, and for the future of the global Pentecostal movement.
From America, Houston borrowed the theatre of charismatic evangelists, while assiduously building a major commercial arm. After a name change, Hillsong Church would eventually generate up to $100 million a year through its CDs, DVDs, films, books, merchandise, concerts and colleges, and find its most receptive audience, and largest flock, in the United States. “When America is strong, the world is a better place,” Houston said in 2019, during a visit to Trump’s White House, but you could invert this easily: Hillsong’s strength depended upon America.
Between 2010 and 2020, Hillsong enjoyed its richest days – a global phenomenon with churches in 30 countries, a weekly congregation of some 150,000 souls, and the attendance of superstars such as Justin Bieber, Kevin Durant and various Kardashians. Houston’s now disgraced protégé Carl Lentz – the often-shirtless pastor, tattooed hipster and confidant of Bieber – opened Hillsong’s first church in New York City in 2010 and became a celebrity himself.
Houston also preached the “prosperity doctrine”, something that has defined Hillsong. It’s a particularly American view with a long history, one that gaudily conflates faith, individualism and grifting, and which sees God as a jealous banker, distributing wealth to the most faithful and cursing the rest. While Hillsong had several lucrative revenue streams, it still encouraged “tithing”, or donations, from its congregants. At Hillsong, this wasn’t seen as an act of charity but a personal investment – God would return their tithings with lavish dividends. “I’ve heard many arguments and teachings why one should or shouldn’t tithe,” Houston said in 2006. “It is sad that there is so much confusion and debate about a simple task of giving 10 per cent of your income to God. I believe confusion often comes from a lack of knowledge, so let’s start by looking logically at what the Bible says … Tithing, I believe, is an eternal principle, like sowing and reaping.”
One Christian teaching might be not to burden God’s poor with financial requests, but this wasn’t a view of Houston, who in 1999 published a book titled You Need More Money, and who preached: “Your words can frame your future! Speak your faith, start seeing miracles … Owner of your first home! Best-selling author … Mother of handsome sons and beautiful daughters! Businessman who is prosperous and fruitful! Speak it into being!”
Hillsong wasn’t just a church, then, but a global entertainment business and investment bank for the faithful. The man running it was driven, acquisitive and ill-tempered. He moved with the bullishness of a man who sought, but never quite received, the blessings of a domineering and manipulative father. Houston could be charming and impulsive, and was long dogged by his fondness for booze. “I openly admit that alcohol has been no friend and I am determined to relegate it to my past,” he said in a statement last year, when he resigned from the church.
The past two years have been blighted for Hillsong. The increasing rivalry between the church’s two great egoists, Houston and Lentz, ended with leaked messages detailing Lentz’s infidelity, and Houston’s sacking of him in 2020 for “leadership issues and breaches of trust, plus a recent revelation of moral failures”.
Several internal investigations, conducted by a New York law firm after Lentz’s sacking, found examples of financial irregularity, labour abuses and sexual assault – a whole network of voluntary labour was frequently exploited, while young and earnest women were preyed upon. “Lentz’s ability to lead so poorly was itself the result of insufficient supervision and accountability applied to Lentz himself,” the report, which was leaked to The Christian Post, read. “The Australian mother ship appears also to bear some responsibility here, since it never established effective oversight and accountability for the New York Lead Pastor. This lack of oversight permitted Carl Lentz to assume the role of final arbiter of what was proper behavior for everyone in New York, himself included. With the benefit of hindsight, given Lentz’s personal limitations, this was a recipe for trouble.”
Such were the internal rivalries, high stakes and institutional commitment to controlling the story, that questions remain about how independent the reviews were – and whether their findings were narrowed to minimise scandal and maximise damage against internal enemies.
In 2021, Houston was charged with concealing the crimes of his father, pled not guilty and went on trial last December. That case will conclude this June. Houston said he was surprised when he was first arrested, but the charges were pre-empted in 2015 when the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse reported: “We are satisfied that, in 1999 and 2000, Pastor Brian Houston and the National Executive of the Assemblies of God in Australia did not refer the allegations of child sexual abuse against Mr Frank Houston to the police.”
At the time of his arrest, Houston said he was stepping aside temporarily. But within this great house of God, made in the shadow of his father, things had become unstable and vengeful. The church was leaking conspicuously, and old stories of Houston’s drinking and lechery became public. One year ago, the complaints of two women, in separate incidents from 2013 and 2019, were published. Houston resigned as global senior pastor of Hillsong soon after. “Let me start with the words I want and need most to say – I am so deeply sorry,” his statement read. “To those impacted directly by my actions, I am sorry for the pain I have caused you. To my wonderful, forgiving and gracious family who I love more than anything, I hate hurting you.”
Then last year, Natalie Moses, who had worked at Hillsong’s Sydney headquarters as its fundraising and governance co-ordinator for two years, filed a claim in the Federal Court that she was unlawfully suspended from her job for providing information about the church to the charities regulator. In her statement of claim, she alleged that she was directed to only partially disclose information to the ACNC, and that she was aware of “illegal and unethical” accountancy. In its defence filing, the church strongly denied any wrongdoing. The case is currently in mediation.
And now there are the Hillsong papers.
While Brian Houston profitably sang the prosperity gospel, and preached sun-tanned, Californian positivity, the Good Book’s darker warnings of lust, immodesty and jealous rivalry were undermining his empire. “Sowing and reaping,” thought Houston, “was an eternal principle”, but it’s unclear whether he considered its application to his own earthly deficiencies.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on March 18, 2023 as "‘Fraud, money laundering’: Inside the Hillsong papers".
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