Hillsong founder Brian Houston has dropped a series of bombshells over four days of evidence where he told a court he has “no doubt” his father Frank Houston was a “serial paedophile” and defended the golden handshake the church gave his father.
Brian Houston is fighting allegations in Sydney’s Downing Centre Local Court he concealed his father’s sexual abuse of a then seven-year-old boy more than 50 years ago.
Brett Sengstock was sexually assaulted by Frank Houston, who was at the time a travelling preacher based in New Zealand, inside his family’s Coogee home in January 1970.
Brian Houston, 68, vehemently denies the claims and says his decision to not go to police when he learnt of his father’s offending in October 1999 did not amount to a cover up.
He pleaded not guilty to one count of concealing a serious indictable offence and said his actions were reasonable given his father’s victim, as an adult, later told him he wanted to remain anonymous and did not want to go to authorities.
Mr Houston’s defence argued that prior to Frank Houston’s death in 2004, his son made public and media statements about his father’s abuse of Mr Sengstock.
Throughout the 68-year-old’s time on the witness stand, he maintained he “did the right thing” by not going to police and “respecting the victim’s wishes”.
Frank Houston was stripped of his credentials as a pastor for the Assemblies of God and died in November 2004.
HOW THE CRIME WAS REVEALED
The court was told it first came to the church’s attention in October 1999, when Mr Sengstock’s mother disclosed the matter to travelling evangelical pastor Kevin “Mad Dog” Mudford, who told pastor Barbara Taylor.
Mr Mudford then phoned George Aghajanian, the general manager of the Hills Christian Life Centre, of which Brian Houston was the senior pastor.
Mr Aghajanian was given a certificate protecting him from prosecution by magistrate Gareth Christofi in exchange for his testimony. Mr Mudford has not been charged with any offence.
The Hills Christian Life Centre would later merge with the Sydney Christian Life Centre to become Hillsong.
Frank Houston was dismissed from the church and his credentials as a pastor removed in late 1999 after he made admissions to Brian Houston about his rape of Mr Sengstock.
Mr Houston told the court Mr Sengstock told him during a meeting he did not want to go to police or to be involved in any church investigation and he was merely abiding by the victim’s wishes.
During his first day of evidence, Mr Houston said he knew “nothing whatsoever” of his father’s offending until he was told decades later.
After he was told by Mr Aghajanian, Mr Houston said he had a “tense and awkward” 45-minute meeting with his father, where he admitted to abusing Mr Sengstock.
“He simply said ‘that did happen’,” Mr Houston told the court.
“He told me it only happened once. He told me it involved fondling his genitals. He was, I think, a mix of embarrassed, humiliated, shamed, remorseful.”
Mr Houston said during the meeting, he told his father that his credentials as a minister would be removed and that he would never preach again.
He then called an emergency meeting of the national executive of the Assemblies of God, who agreed Frank Houston should be sacked from the church and be stripped of his credentials.
Throughout his evidence, Mr Houston continuously told the court he was asked by Mr Sengstock not to go to the police.
“(Mr Sengstock) was very dogmatic that he didn’t want the police involved,” Mr Houston said.
“He said ‘you are not to go to the police’. He said ‘if anyone’s going to go to the police, it’ll be me and I don’t want to do that’.
Mr Houston said he felt it was right not to approach police because “it was Brett’s express wishes”.
He told the court he was also told by Ms Taylor and Mr Mudford that Mr Sengstock was “angry” with his mother for having disclosed the matter.
Earlier in the proceedings, Mr Sengstock disagreed he ever told Mr Houston he did not want to be identified.
Mr Houston told the court Mr Sengstock was “paranoid” about being identified to anyone within the church, and said he did not want to be part of an investigation.
“We continued to talk and I told him that I had no option but to disclose it to the national executive of the Assemblies of God and then his demeanour changed,” Mr Houston said.
“He got angry, sort of panicky. And he said, ‘I don’t want to be part of some big church investigation.’
“He said, ‘I don’t want my name splashed all over the church; you know how gossipy they all are.’
“He said, ‘If strangers from the church try to contact me, I won’t talk to them. I’ll deny it, I’ll hang up.’
“He was just very blunt and clear that he didn’t want to be having any conversation with any people from the church.
“He was very concerned about his anonymity.”
When asked whether he thought his father should go to prison, Mr Houston said he knew it would “always be a possibility” but avoided saying his opinion.
BLAME OF VICTIM “ABSURD”
During the proceedings, Mr Sengstock gave evidence he had a phone conversation with Brian Houston, who was defending Frank Houston and told him “you tempted my father”.
Mr Sengstock told the court he was “shocked” by the allegation.
But during his evidence, Brian Houston said the claim was “absurd” and he wasn’t defending his father.
“It’s nonsense; who would say that about a seven-year-old boy,” he said.
“It’s just an absurd notion.”
Brian Houston told the court he respected the victim’s wishes by not reporting the matter to police.
Mr Harrison suggested Brian Houston never went to police because he was attempting to conceal the matter from them.
He responded simply: “That’s not right.”
But he did concede he had “free will” to report the matter to police, but ultimately chose not to.
“When you exercised your free will to report this to the national executive (of the AoG) and not to police, the church was the ultimate authority for you in the matter,” Mr Harrison suggested.
Brian Houston said: “I didn’t compare the police and church about who were the ultimate authority.”
During his evidence, Brian Houston revealed he was “very recently” told of new allegations regarding his father.
“There’s an allegation about Frank from much earlier, when I was a very young boy – in a boys home he worked in as a Salvation Army officer,” he told the court.
“I have no doubt now my father was a serial paedophile and we’ll probably never know the extent of it.”
He said in hindsight, the church’s response to his father’s offending was not acceptable.
Magistrate Christofi asked Brian Houston whether he thought “people really ought to know (about his father) … because it’s potentially dangerous for them not to know”.
Brian Houston replied: “I didn’t at this time think my father was still a danger, because of his age and health.”
When questioned about whether he considered going to police and not using Mr Sengstock’s name, Brian Houston said the thought never crossed his mind.
NEW ZEALAND VICTIMS
Mr Houston said his father assured him the incident was a “one-off incident at a time when he was emotionally low”.
He later found out that was a lie.
The court was told the older Houston agreed to pay Mr Sengstock money in what the Hillsong founder described as a “feeble attempt to try and right a wrong”.
By late 2000, Brian Houston became aware rumours were swirling about similar allegations in New Zealand.
“I got a phone call from a pastor called Wayne Hughes and he told me … there was a man who was going to be in Sydney who wanted to have a meeting with me about my father,” Mr Houston said.
“My stomach dropped again because I thought he was going to tell me another story about abuse.”
Brian Houston met with the man, who told him he had been abused at the Houstons’ house in Wellington when he was 14.
“I was re-devastated all over again. I realised my father hadn’t been truthful to me and it was bigger than a one-off-incident in Sydney,” Brian Houston said.
The court was told Frank Houston later confessed to “multiple” incidents.
DAD’S GOLDEN HANDSHAKE
Despite admitting to molesting a child, paedophile Frank Houston was still given a retirement package when he left the church, his son Brian Houston told the court.
Frank Houston was dismissed from the church and his credentials as a pastor removed in late 1999 after he made admissions about his rape of Mr Sengstock.
However, the court was told Frank Houston remained on the church’s payroll until November 2000.
Brian Houston told the court his father was given the retirement package more than a year after he admitted to the offending.
The court heard the package was going to “financially look after” Frank and Hazel Houston.
“He had been fired from preaching, had his credentials taken, he’d been asked to leave Hillsong … this was an attempt to sign him off as an administrator,” Mr Houston said.
Crown prosecutor Gareth Harrison suggested he was being allowed to “quietly retire” with no public announcement being made he was an “admitted paedophile”.
“What I’m suggesting to you is, what is clear from this meeting, Frank was being allowed to resign quietly,” Mr Harrison said.
“MOTHER’S HEAD IN THE SAND”
When asked about his mother’s reaction to the allegations, the Hillsong founder said she never “really understood” the gravity of her husband’s actions.
“She was from a different generation, she had her head in the sand,” he said.
“There was tension between my mother and I because of the role I was taking … I remember saying to her one time … she was complaining about Frank being treated too harshly and I said, ‘Mum, it’s not just immoral, it’s criminal.’”
“She never got the difference.”
Mr Houston said his mother was “foremost in people’s thoughts” when it came to the financial package, as she had worked her whole life at the church and was not accused of any wrongdoing.
He said he couldn’t explain the motivation of the board, only that they wanted to look after his mother.
Mr Harrison suggested it was an attempt to “conceal the true reason Frank was leaving”.
“I don’t believe there was any attempt to conceal Frank’s paedophilia,” Mr Houston said.
“Frank had been gone from the church for almost 12 months.”
“POLICE KNEW WHAT HE DID”
Brian Houston told the court there were “multiple” police officers in his congregation who knew of Frank Houston’s offending and did not tell him to report it.
One such person was former NSW Police Commissioner Andrew Scipione.
When asked by his defence barrister Phillip Boulten SC whether they told him to complain, Mr Houston said no.
“The deputy police commissioner was at my father’s funeral,” he said in response.
Mr Boulten asked if Mr Scipione knew what Frank Houston had done.
“He certainly did,” Mr Houston replied.
Magistrate Gareth Christofi chipped in to ask how Mr Houston was “certain” the police commissioner knew about his father’s offending.
The court heard Mr Scipione had attended Hillsong conferences yearly and would have heard Mr Houston speaking about his father. The news had also spread to mainstream media.
“I stood beside him (Mr Scipione) as my father’s casket went into the hearst,” Mr Houston said.
Asked if he would have gone to police about the offending if he “had his time over”, Mr Houston said he was “conflicted”.
“I believe I did the right thing,” he said.
“TWIN TOWERS FLYING INTO MY SOUL”
Mr Houston continuously denied claims he wanted to “protect the church” by “concealing” his father’s crime.
Crown prosecutor Gareth Harrison, in his final questions to Mr Houston, suggested he was distancing the church from the offending in a bid to protect it.
Mr Harrison grilled the Hillsong founder about a sermon he gave at the Hillsong Church Hills Campus in 2002.
The court was played a video of Brian Houston telling the 18,000-strong crowd at Sydney’s Superdome that learning of his father’s abuse was “like jets flying into the twin towers of my soul”.
He continuously denied putting the “interests of the church” first, saying it would have been “resilient” if the “scandal” was made public.
Mr Harrison told Houston he had “sanitised” his father’s crimes to protect the church.
“No, I never tried to protect the church,” Brian Houston said.
“I cared for the church … I wasn’t trying to protect the reputation of the church.”
The court was told that Brian Houston asked God to protect his “kids and church” in a 2002 Hillsong sermon.
The Hillsong founder said he was simply talking about his “two great loves”.
“In the sense fathers want to protect their family and care for the church,” Brian Houston told the court.
“If you want to pick every little single word in a sermon apart … you don’t take hours writing out every single word; sometimes your words are not correct.”
Mr Houston will return to court for the closing address in June 2023.