Hillsong founder Brian Houston has been found not guilty of concealing his father’s sexual abuse of a young boy.
An Australian court ruled Thursday that while Houston did not report his father’s crimes to the police when he learned about them in the 1990s, the evidence does not prove beyond a reasonable doubt that he did not have a reasonable excuse.
“I am not my father,” Houston said, leaving the courthouse in Sydney. “I did not commit this offense, and I feel a sense of relief that at least the truth has come out.”
Houston and his father’s abuse victim, Brett Sengstock, sat yards apart in a tiny courtroom in Sydney’s Downing Centre as magistrate Gareth Christofi delivered his judgment. It took almost two hours to read, as Christofi reviewed the facts and legal arguments.
In the crowded room, Houston’s supporters appeared confident the judgment would be in his favor, but they visibly relaxed as Christofi spoke.
“I am not satisfied beyond a reasonable doubt that in not reporting to police, the accused did not take the victim Brett Sengstock’s wishes into account,” Christofi said. “Therefore, I am not satisfied beyond a reasonable doubt that the accused did not have a reasonable excuse.”
Houston’s father, Frank, sexually abused Sengstock in the 1970s, starting when Sengstock was just seven years old. The elder Houston, who died in 2004, was a prominent and respected Assemblies of God pastor who was jokingly called “the bishop.” Sengstock told 60 Minutes Australia that the abuse continued for five years and destroyed his childhood.
Houston learned about the abuse in the late 1990s and, as the Assemblies of God’s national president, removed his father’s ministerial credentials. “The Crown”—which is how Australian courts refer to the prosecution—argued, however, that Houston’s subsequent actions were intended to protect the reputation of the megachurch he had founded in New South Wales: Hills Christian Life Centre, which would soon be renamed Hillsong and grow into a global phenomenon.
Prosecutors argued before the Australian court that Houston slow-walked information about the allegations against his father, used vague terms like serious moral failure instead of sexual abuse or pedophilia in sermons and public statements, and attempted to manage the denomination’s response to the allegations. The court rejected these claims.
“The accused was not slow to act,” Christofi said Thursday. “[He] confronted his father, and called an emergency meeting of the national executive, and disclosed the allegation to them, and disclosed to them a detail few people knew, that his father had confessed. He let the national executive act as it saw fit.”
The judge found evidence that Houston left the room during important decisions, to ensure the Assemblies of God leaders were not influenced by his presence. Houston also told many people—including his family, 150 pastors, his congregation, and a conference of 10,000 people—about the accusations against his father. Christofi said those facts were inconsistent with accusations that Houston was attempting to cover things up.
It is true that Houston did not report the decades-old crime to police, Christofi said, but it is possible he was taking note of Sengstock’s desire for anonymity. The magistrate said that, of course, a person could have two or more reasons not to report their father to police, but the Crown was required by law to prove that one reason, in particular, outweighed all the others, and they didn’t do that beyond a reasonable doubt.
Houston claimed that when he spoked to Sengstock in the 1990s, the adult survivor of sexual abuse did not want the pastor to go to police. Sengstock contests those claims.
He told the court that his desires were not taken into account and that everyone around him was worried, first and foremost, about protecting the reputations of churches. There was testimony that both Sengstock’s mother and aunt (also a Pentecostal pastor) opposed going to the police or involving the “secular courts.”
The judge ruled that, given what Houston knew, he may have reasonably believed he was doing what Sengstock wanted. Legally, if an adult survivor does not want a crime to be reported, that is considered a viable reason not to report it.
Christofi did not entirely exonerate Houston, however. He was specifically critical of the megachurch pastor’s involvement in his father’s efforts to pay off Sengstock.
The evidence showed that, at a meeting at a McDonald’s, Frank Houston promised Sengstock ten thousand Australian dollars (about $6,400 USD) and told Sengstock to contact Brian Houston about the money.
There was also evidence presented to the court that Brian Houston sought legal advice about the payments, talking to a law firm about how the money could be given to Sengstock without appearing to be a payment for silence.
Nevertheless, the judge told the Sydney court room that the Crown failed to prove Houston did not have a reasonable excuse not to contact police.
“Therefore,” he concluded, “the verdict is not guilty.”
As Houston left the court on Thursday, he repeated his condemnation of his late father.
“We probably will never know the extent of his pedophilia,” he said. “A lot of people’s lives have been tragically hurt, and for that I’ll always be very sad.”
Houston also claimed the case against him was unfair.
“If I wasn’t Brian Houston from Hillsong, this charge would never have happened,” he said. “I know a lot of people agree with me on that.”
On Instagram, Houston thanked his 668,000 followers for their “prayers and love and support” during what he called “25 years of persecution.”
Sengstock told reporters he appreciated the fact he’d received at least some recognition of the brutal abuse he received “at the hands of a self-confessed child rapist and coward.”