Chances are that if your church has delved into contemporary worship in the last two decades, you’ve sung songs from Hillsong Music Australia. My church in Charlotte is no exception; a lot of Hillsong tunes are staples there. But it’s going to be awfully hard to listen or sing them in the same way after it emerged that the man largely responsible for this worship juggernaut didn’t adequately respond to reports that his father was a serial child molester.
Brian Houston is the founder and pastor of Hillsong’s namesake, Hillsong Church in Sydney. It’s spawned 25 branch churches around the world, including Los Angeles and New York City. From 1997 to 2009, he was also the president of the Australian Assemblies of God, which now brands itself as the Australian Christian Churches. In 1999, he was hit with a bombshell–his father, Frank, a prominent Pentecostal pastor in his own right, had molested a boy in his home in Sydney over several years in the 1960s and 1970s. His response to that information is being scrutinized by the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, which is investigating how various government, religious and secular institutions in Australia handled allegations of child molestation.
Houston testified before the commission on Thursday. He said that when he learned about what his father had done to the victim, identified only as “AHA,” he was “totally devastated.” He confronted his father, who immediately admitted what he had done. However, neither Brian Houston nor anyone else reported his father’s acts to the police. While Houston said that he knew his father had broken the law, he felt that since AHA was 35 at the time he came forward, he would have been “pre-empting the victim” by going to the police. Had the victim been under 18, Houston said, “we would have gone to the police then and there.”
I hope I’m reading this wrong. I really am. It sounds like Houston is putting the onus for reporting abuse on the victim if the victim isn’t a minor. Sorry, but this kind of buck-passing doesn’t cut it. What about others whom Frank Houston may have abused? Apparently Houston forgot that he had an obligation to protect those victims. If he’d been in a state in this country where clergy are required to report abuse allegations, Houston would have exposed himself to criminal charges. But frankly, it shouldn’t take a law to know that if someone tells you about an allegation of child abuse, you go to the police. And that should especially be true if you’re a pastor.
If that wasn’t enough, when another person came forward with claims that Frank Houston had molested him years earlier in New Zealand, Houston callously told him to take his complaint to the New Zealand AofG. He told the commission that he didn’t feel that he had any “legal responsibility” to report it, since it took place before Hillsong even existed. Um, Brian? What about moral responsibility? And to pile obscenity on top of insult and injury, an internal probe by the Australian AofG revealed that Frank Houston had molested at least seven other boys in Australia and New Zealand over the years. Despite this, the police were never notified before Frank Houston’s death in 2004.
The matter was largely kept quiet at the time. While Frank Houston had his credentials suspended, he was allowed to quietly retire in 2000–something that the Australian AofG’s former national secretary admitted ran counter to the denomination’s own policy. The letter announcing Frank’s retirement mentioned nothing about the abuse. Years later, according to The Guardian, Houston wrote a letter to the Hillsong network’s member churches saying that he didn’t feel the need to announce the new abuse cases publicly because–wait for it–he didn’t want the church’s critics to use them to “further their own agendas.”
I thought it would take a lot of effort to get nearly as offensive as the most backwards thing I’d read from a Christian leader regarding child abuse. Two years ago, one of my friends on Daily Kos discovered that Pat Robertson’s Christian Broadcasting Network had an outrageous teaching paper on its Website that told victims of sexual abuse that they could “consent” to sexual abuse and “allow yourself to be molested.” I did some digging, and discovered that this teaching paper had existed at least as early as 1996, when CBN first went online. Whether Marion Gordon actually still believed this or he was just too lazy to take it down, it finally came down after a blizzard of calls to CBN. But this letter Houston wrote to his flock comes pretty close. In what world can sounding the alarm about child abuse be construed as furthering an “agenda”? Rather than use this as a chance to help anyone else harmed by his father get healing, Houston sought to protect his church’s image. Frankly, I’m at a loss to describe how hurtful, disgusting, and flat-out wrong this was.
Houston also denied claims AHA made a day earlier that Houston accused him of bringing the abuse on himself by “tempting” his father. That would be an outrage in and of itself if true. However, even if nothing more comes of that claim, there is already ample evidence that for all of Hillsong’s forward thinking on worship, its pastor’s attitude toward child abuse is backwards in the extreme. Simply put, when a leader in any realm thinks that informing his people about child abuse by someone in his ranks would only serve to give ammunition to his critics, it’s time for that leader to go.
By all accounts, Houston was emotional on the stand about the emotional toll it took on him when he learned his father was a child abuser. Sorry, Brian, but that isn’t good enough. You not only failed to report your father’s crimes to the police when you knew laws were broken, but you had the gall to say that telling your church about it would only help your critics. You, sir, may resign your post–and resign now.
Darrell Lucus, also known as Christian Dem in NC on Daily Kos, is a radical-lefty Jesus-lover who has been blogging for change for a decade. Follow him on Twitter @DarrellLucus or connect with him on Facebook.