Update: The court will rule on Brian Houston’s guilt on August 16.
Sydney court magistrate Gareth Christofi has been presented with two very different portraits of Hillsong megachurch founder Brian Houston.
According to the Crown prosecutor, making his final argument in court on Thursday, Houston is a liar. He did everything he could to conceal his father’s sexual abuse and protect his own reputation and power.
The defense, on the other hand, depicts Houston as an imperfect human doing his best in a difficult situation. Among other things, he sincerely believed that the survivor of his father’s abuse, by then a grown man, did not want him to go to police.
The survivor, Brett Sengstock, was present in the tiny courtroom in Downing Centre Courthouse in downtown Sydney for the closing arguments in Brian Houston’s trial. He sat just a few meters from Houston as two attorneys debated what the megachurch pastor should have done in 1999 when Sengstock told him what Frank Houston did to him when he was a boy in the 1970s.
Crown prosecutor Gareth Harrison said Brian Houston had “no reasonable excuse” for not reporting his father to the police.
“The Crown submits that the reason was that the accused was trying to protect the reputation of the church and his father,” Harrison said.
Harrison argued there was a culture of cover-up in Hillsong. The church insisted on dealing with everything in-house—including scandals. Houston was so confident in this protective culture, the prosecution argued, he told several people at his two churches explicit details about what his father did to a 7-year-old boy, knowing they wouldn’t report it to the police either.
At the same time, the prosecutor argued, Houston worked hard to control information about his father’s sexual abuse. He gave the board selective details and made sure that he was the only conduit between them and the victim. He told them the victim did not want to go to police and didn’t mention that Sengstock was actually wavering on that point.
Even if Sengstock had been adamant about not filing a report, though, that didn’t change Houston’s responsibility—or his motivation in concealing information, the prosecution argued.
Houston eventually spoke publicly about his father’s sexual abuse, but according to the prosecution, that was part of the cover-up too. He didn’t use the phrase sexual abuse or anything that would communicate a child had been raped. Instead, Houston spoke of a “serious moral failure” and a “very serious moral accusation.”
“These phrases have the intent of concealing the true extent of Frank Houston’s behavior,” Harrison said. The megachurch pastor wasn’t really being forthcoming, but was trying to squelch rumors.
“But why say anything in the sermon?” the magistrate asked.
“The cat was coming out of the bag,” Harrison said.
“But why help it out of the bag?”
“The rumors were building.”
The prosecution pointed out several specific instances where Houston’s account of what he told other ministers differed sharply from their recollections. He said he told one pastor “the full details,” but she testified she didn’t remember him giving specifics.
“It is beyond belief that she would have forgotten that graphic detail,” Harrison said. “He limited [the description] because he had to conceal what Frank Houston had done, and that theme runs through all the sermons and public announcements. He was restricting the information because that was what he had to do.”
The Crown concluded its case by declaring Brian Houston a liar, repeating the accusation several times: “He was not being honest.”
The core of the defense’s case is contained in the words reasonable excuse. Australian law says sexual crimes must be reported unless there is a reasonable excuse. In recent years, that has been amended to specify that if an adult survivor of sexual abuse asks that it not be reported, that is a reasonable excuse not to report it.
“You know if it happened now, there is a specific carve-out my client would be acquitted like this,” said attorney Phillip Boulten, snapping his fingers. “That is translatable back into when this happened, is my submission.”
Boulten argued the prosecution was overreaching, calling every difference of memory after decades a “lie.” He called the evidence that Houston was leading a four-year, church-wide coverup “so flimsy.”
He pointed out that much of the testimony against Houston involved people trying to remember or reconstruct what happened more than 20 years ago. Other evidence, like the victim’s mother’s diary from the late 1990s, left large gaps in the narrative.
“A lot of what my friend [the Crown prosecutor] says is assumption building or speculation,” Boulten told the court.
But his most important argument was that there is reasonable doubt over whether Houston was trying to care for a survivor. While some witnesses testified that Sengstock actually didn’t tell Houston not to go to the police or that he might have changed his mind if given the chance, that’s not how it appeared to Houston in 1999. Sengstock was deeply upset when his mother told a revivalist that he was abused as a child and was adamant, the defense argued, that Houston not tell anyone any details.
“There can be absolutely no doubt that in [that] period Brett Sengstock did not wish a word of this to be published,” Boulten said. “He was concerned that the church might rake through things. … He was concerned that he might be portrayed as someone with inappropriate sexual attitudes.”
Boulten conceded that not going to the police also allowed Houston to protect his father’s reputation and the reputation of the church. That didn’t change the fact that he was also doing what the adult victim asked him to do.
“You can have more than one reason,” he said.
“An excuse can be reasonable and convenient?” the magistrate asked.
“Yes,” Boulten said. “Just because it was convenient for it not to be prosecuted, my client is not without reasonable excuse. Brett Sengstock said he did not want it to be reported.”
On Friday, the defense continued to argue that Houston had a reasonable excuse not to report to police. Boulten argued that Houston’s behavior, in the days after he learned about his father’s crimes, could not really be characterized as a cover-up.
“The evidence is that when Brian Houston found out about this, he began to talk about it,” he said. “First to his family, then to the elders or board members of the ... congregations. Right from the beginning, he began to tell people.”
Eventually, he talked about his father’s “moral failings” at a 2002 Hillsong conference attended by 18,000 people, including the police commissioner, who also did not immediately file a legal report.
“People talk about controversy,” Boulten said. “They may talk in hushed tones, but they still talk.”
The judge will issue a verdict in the case on August 16. He faces a possible sentence of five years in prison.