Sexual abuse survivor rebukes Hillsong head
In July last year, Brett Sengstock – a survivor of child abuse perpetrated by Hillsong founder Frank Houston – thought he was going to die.
This time was different from all those moments as a seven-year-old boy when Frank Houston, who often stayed with the Sengstock family, would creep into Brett’s room to smother and sexually assault him.
Now it was cancer that had come for Brett Sengstock.
In the six months since he was diagnosed with peripheral T-cell lymphoma, an aggressive and highly chemotherapy-resistant cancer, the disease had progressed quickly.
With few options, Sengstock started treatment. It was less than a week after he commenced proceedings in the Supreme Court of New South Wales for damages against the Australian Christian Churches (ACC), which included Hillsong Church as a member, and Assemblies of God in New Zealand. These are the two organisations he holds responsible for his abuse and, later, its cover-up.
Frank Houston was born in New Zealand and was friends with Sengstock’s family through the Pentecostal movement. After settling in Australia, he founded a church, which would later merge with an offshoot founded by his son, Brian Houston, to become Hillsong – the leviathan faith operation that now has locations in 25 countries, Australian revenue of $103.5 million in 2018 and almost $15 million cash in the bank.
Sengstock’s terminal cancer diagnosis was not going to stop the strong arm of the Australian Christian Churches from fighting back against his claim.
“What they did, it was tantamount to what the Catholic Church did 20 years ago,” Sengstock tells The Saturday Paper. “My lawyers told me, ‘They are going to club you into the ground.’ I didn’t think I was going to live much longer, and they knew that. They would have dragged it out year after year and then gone after me for costs.”
And so, on July 20, 2018, riddled with cancer and hoping to protect his wife, Lisa, Sengstock signed a “Deed of Release Discharge and Indemnity”. The document was prepared by the ACC’s lawyers and eliminated any right Sengstock had to pursue justice through the courts. In return, the ACC agreed “to discontinue its Notice of Motion with no order as to costs”. In short, if Sengstock dropped the matter the ACC wouldn’t make him pay.
The ACC had already filed its own notice of motion to strike out Sengstock’s claim in court.
A copy of the deed, obtained by The Saturday Paper, shows that the ACC received a release for itself and “any other legal entity, servants, agents, officers, employees, members, subsidiaries or other associated legal entities”, including members of its subsidiaries, from any current, or future, civil legal claim.
The document stipulates that Sengstock “agrees to discontinue the whole of the Proceedings against the second defendant” – namely, the ACC.
In September 2018, Brian Houston announced his church, Hillsong, would break away from the ACC. “As Hillsong Church has continued to grow, we no longer see ourselves as an Australian Church with a global footprint, but rather a Global church with an Australian base – our global office now resides in the USA,” he told worshippers. “Two-thirds of the people attending Hillsong Church each weekend live in countries beyond Australia.”
As recently as October, however, the umbrella organisation was still claiming Hillsong as one of “our churches” in a public statement about child abuse redress. Hillsong also directed its members to the ACC media release from its website.
In the year since the purported split, Brian Houston has been to Florida, Norway, Texas, California, Arizona, London and other parts of England, Wales, France, Egypt, Israel and, finally this week, to the White House, where he prayed for United States President Donald Trump in the Oval Office.
Meanwhile, a police investigation continues into multiple failures to report Sengstock’s abuse and other sexual assaults committed by Frank Houston, which were known to pastors in New Zealand and later became known to Brian Houston.
When the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse heard this evidence, Brian Houston issued a statement saying “when I first found out about this, I immediately confronted my father and ensured he never preached or served in any ministry capacity again. There was no delay in action – from the moment we knew and he confessed, his ministry stopped.”
This week, a spokesperson for NSW Police told The Saturday Paper: “The matter continues to be investigated by officers attached to the Hills Police Area Command.”
Responding to a question on notice during NSW senate estimates in October 2018, NSW police commissioner Mick Fuller said that in July 2016 Brian Houston “declined to be interviewed or assist police with the investigation”.
Months later, Fuller said, officers received legal advice that there was a “lack of sufficient evidence” to proceed with the investigation; however, in October this year, police began looking at new information and received updated advice.
In a statement, Hillsong Church told The Saturday Paper: “Mr [Brian] Houston cannot comment on ongoing matters around the royal commission due to legal reasons.”
Brian Houston is Hillsong’s global senior pastor. He runs the church with his wife, Bobbie, their children and a group of elders who also serve as directors across a litany of legal entities.
Last week, the mega-church announced the purchase of a multimillion-dollar, three-storey property in New York.
“It’s a major miracle for us to have purchased such a beautiful space in the heart of NYC,” Houston said on social media.
Sengstock says he “felt hurt all over again” when he saw the news.
“It’s just hypocrisy, isn’t it?” he says. “It’s nothing to them to walk over some people to achieve their dreams. Put it this way, I don’t see them doing anything here that Jesus would have done.
“They run a dreadful business and I use that word deliberately. It’s a business, not a church.”
Hillsong says the Manhattan property was purchased with money from its New York church “and no funds from Australia have contributed to the project”.
It was just a few days after Prime Minister Scott Morrison appeared at Hillsong’s national conference in Sydney in July this year, standing on stage beside Brian Houston, that Sengstock’s wife, Lisa, created a GoFundMe page to raise money for her husband’s ongoing health and legal battles.
“My request … is love,” Morrison had told the crowd of 21,000 people. “And have your congregations reach out and love those around you.”
After two rounds of chemotherapy, Sengstock, who receives the Disability Support Pension, turned to expensive stem cell transplants. The couple has sold possessions, drained their savings and coped as best they can after already losing money on the aborted court battle. So far, their GoFundMe page has raised just $2432.
In October, Bob Cotton, a friend of the Sengstocks and pastor at Maitland Christian Church, sent a letter to all fellow ACC member churches across the country, asking for their love and financial support for the Sengstock family.
“It has come to my attention that Brett is suffering stage four lymphoma and, as an invalid pensioner, is struggling financially because of the additional strain on his limited finances caused by his ongoing medical expenses,” he wrote. “In short, he is dying and is broke.”
Lisa Sengstock says the response was disheartening.
“Three churches out of 3000 responded,” she says. “I’m so thankful to those three. It was a couple of thousand dollars.”
From the outside, Hillsong looks like a successful business. But for all its high-gloss marketing sheen, television channel and music production arms – which in 2017 earned $9.5 million from royalties alone – it is a registered charity, with the associated tax breaks enjoyed by religious organisations.
Because of its complicated structure, it is difficult to get a full picture of Hillsong’s financial situation. Although the organisation has released its most recent financial report for 2018, its subsidiaries – including 19 separate limited companies and property trusts – are not always required to divulge granular financial information to the national charity regulator.
We know that one entity, Hillsong Church Ltd, made $6.4 million in revenue in 2018.
A breakdown of its 2017 income – there is no such breakdown for 2018 – reveals its key money-making ventures are conference registrations and training and resource revenue, which included “tertiary and other training courses as well as audio and visual teaching and Christian worship”.
Hillsong College Ltd is the vehicle through which these trainees are enrolled, and 2018 was a bumper year. It had total revenue of $18.4 million, more than half of which came from course fees, and a further $3.9 million from student accommodation.
Also last year, Hillsong Child Care Ltd took in $2.4 million in revenue.
More than half of Hillsong’s $103.5 million in revenue last year came directly from its members, who are expected to tithe a portion of their individual income and donate it to Hillsong. This $52 million windfall is collected through the Hills CCC College Building Fund and dispersed throughout the church’s various arms.
One of those organisations is Hillsong CityCare, the primary conduit for the organisation’s direct charity work. Last year, CityCare had $6 million of total revenue donated from other arms of Hillsong and spent $5.7 million. Of this, $3 million went directly into program resources and $2.7 million was spent on employee expenses.
A further sum, about $800,000, was distributed to international aid projects through Hillsong Aid and Development Australia. The annual report does not note this body was voluntarily pulled from the charities register on December 31, 2018.
To put these figures in context, last year the broader Hillsong group spent almost $4 million on film and television production.
In its statement to The Saturday Paper, Hillsong said that it considers “all the activities of the church are charitable” and that CityCare’s output is only a “fraction” of this work.
This expansionist vision is not unique to Hillsong. Many evangelical groups see their core mission as saving as many souls as they can by bringing them to a life with Jesus at its centre. But the Houstons’ mega-church has a decidedly capitalistic approach to salvation.
“The point of serving God is that we live to succeed, and we succeed to serve,” Brian Houston said during a podcast on one of the Hillsong channels. “When your dreams and your successes are centred on serving the cause of Christ and those around you, you become part of the 1 per cent.”
Hillsong does not appear on the official register for organisations signed up to the National Redress Scheme. The church has said it will participate, but details are still being finalised.
In September, The Wall Street Journal reported that Morrison had wanted Houston to accompany him to some events during his state visit in America but the request was denied by White House planning officials.
Houston denied the story, saying he was “never contacted” by Scott Morrison. “I know nothing about it,” Houston said. Morrison condemned the report as “gossip”.
Freedom of information requests about the matter were rejected by Prime Minister and Cabinet, and the department would “neither confirm nor deny” whether a guest list for Morrison’s events even existed. This information, in its view, would jeopardise information-sharing arrangements between the US and Australia.
But this week Brian Houston did end up at the White House, where he attended a faith briefing on religious freedom measures and prayed for President Trump.
“Well, here I am at the White House. Never say never,” the Hillsong leader told his Instagram followers in a video.
There was an official photo, too, although Houston didn’t post this. A version posted on Instagram by Sean Feucht, founder of Christian organisation Burn 24-7, shows 50 worshippers in the Oval Office grouped around Donald Trump, who is seated at his desk. Houston stands just one person away from the president.
Hillsong said in a statement that Houston was at the gathering “by direct invitation” from the White House.
“Pastor Houston … had no contact with the Australian Government or consulate and no assistance,” it said. “He has not spoken to the Prime Minister since the Hillsong conference in July.”
Days after the Oval Office meeting, the Hillsong chief had another win.
As Sydney choked on bushfire smoke, Scott Morrison made good on his promise to those gathered at the mega-church’s July conference – he announced the second draft of the federal government’s religious freedom legislation.
These laws will protect the right of religious organisations to hire or fire staff based on their “ethos”, and will extend this right to public benevolent institutions and church-run facilities such as camps and conferences, including against potential customers.
While the revised bill narrows the scope for medical practitioners to conscientiously object to performing certain procedures or dispensing drugs on the grounds of their personal belief, it does still allow nurses, midwives, doctors, psychologists and pharmacists to do so, provided they decline those same services for everyone.
“This is a bill for all Australians,” Morrison said this week.
The Saturday Paper sent a series of detailed questions to the prime minister’s office about Morrison’s relationships with Brian Houston. His office did not respond.
The public relations firm that handled our request for comment from Hillsong is Mercer PR – whose managing director, Lyall Mercer, began working with the Nauruan government at the time Scott Morrison was Immigration minister, during the height of near total silence around asylum-seeker matters.
This year, Australia’s Treasury Department censured Mercer PR and ordered its executive undertake “human rights training” for its role in distributing the name of an alleged rape victim, alongside intrusive details of a vaginal examination, on behalf of the Nauruan government.
Sengstock last met with Frank Houston in a Sydney McDonald’s in 2000, where he was “offered a dirty napkin to sign in exchange for $10,000” and his silence.
Frank Houston told Sengstock to contact his son, Brian, if there was any problem receiving the money. When the cheque failed to arrive, he did call Brian, who told the royal commission that he spoke with his family “to ensure that the money would be transferred” to Sengstock.
After they spoke, the promised cheque arrived in the mail.
“Ever since that day, they have waved the cane over my head and especially for speaking out at the royal commission,” Sengstock says.
“I have received nothing from Hillsong. Not an apology, not an offer of counselling, not one cent. But I know how they operate, and I’m not surprised by any of it anymore.”
The ACC did not respond to a request for comment.
Brett Sengstock has more reason than most to have lost faith. Yet he still believes in God. He has been in remission for a year now; still here, still breathing, still madly in love with his wife, Lisa.
“It’s a blessing,” he says.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Dec 14, 2019 as "Sexual abuse survivor rebukes Hillsong head". Subscribe here.