You should have done more, Royal Commission tells Brian Houston

Hillsong’s Senior Pastor Brian Houston has been criticised by the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse for failing to refer allegations against his father to the police.

“The hearing heard evidence that when allegations about Mr Frank Houston’s abuse of AHA (a victim) emerged in 1999, Mr Frank Houston’s son, Pastor Brian Houston, was the National President of the Assemblies of God in Australia,” the Royal Commission says. “He confronted his father, who confessed to the abuse.”

“The Commissioners express the view that the New South Wales Executive failed to appoint a contact person for the complainant, interview the complainant, have the State or National Executive interview the alleged perpetrator, or record any of the steps it took.”

The Royal Commission also criticises the National Executive of the (then) Assemblies of God along with Pastor Houston for not going to the police.

The sad case of Frank Houston’s paedophilia has been well publicised, and is covered in detail in Brian Houston’s new book Live, Love, Lead. The chapter about Frank Houston was published in the Weekend Australian Magazine this year.

Brian Houston recounts the story of his father’s unmasking:

“My father, Frank Houston, had always been my hero. My earliest memories are of tent revival meetings with him in New Zealand. Entire villages of beautiful Maori people were being saved as he preached the good news of the gospel, night after night. During the day the locals would teach my brother and me how to ride horses, and how to catch eels with our bare hands.

“My childhood was filled with memories of waving good-bye to my dad as he took off on yet another ministry trip; I remember believing that I, too, would do the same one day. So much of my motivation for wanting to serve God and build the church came from him. He had raised me, loved me, and taught me so much about the ministry. The thought that my father, who was then in his late 70s, would commit such a heinous act as sexual abuse was crippling.

“I learnt that this incident, which took place during a visit to Sydney by Dad in the late ’60s or early ’70s – before my parents moved to Australia and pioneered Sydney Christian Life ­Centre – involved a boy under 10. I thought to myself, “This is not just immoral, it’s criminal.” My father had committed paedophilia. I’d been a youth at the time. As I processed these thoughts, they began to overwhelm me. It felt like the worst day of my life. Little did I know how much worse the whole thing would get.

“My father was overseas at the time, which gave me time to seek more information in preparation for the hardest conversation I’ve ever had. Soon after his return, he came into my office for what he thought was a routine meeting. I tried to stay calm as I outlined to him the call we’d had. As he listened, he seemed to age before my eyes. When I’d finished talking there was a long pause, and then he began to speak, his mouth going dry. He admitted that yes, the accusation was true.

“It was my responsibility then and there to ­suspend him from ministry and to ask for his ­credentials. I believe he left my office that day knowing that he would never preach again – and he never did.”

Houston recounts the discovery of other  incidents of abuse by Frank Houston and having to tell his children about their grandfather.

“I believe with all my heart that I handled an impossible situation with transparency and honesty. In hindsight, would you do some things differently? Always. And yet I certainly did my best at the time with what I knew.”

The Royal Commission has determined that in their view Brian Houston should have done more.

It is worth noting that this case varies from most of the cases before the Royal Commission in one significant aspect: it is not a story of a cover up. The Frank Houston story has been well-known for years. It stands in contrast with the current investigation of abuse at Brisbane Grammar School and St Paul’s School in Brisbane where authorities did not believe complainants and in fact punished them.

Or one of the first cases in the Royal Commission where YMCA managers attempted to blame junior staff.

Or the two Anglican Archbishops who have resigned because of the mishandling of child abuse cases.

In Live Love Lead, the story is told this way:

“It’s not about you – it’s about your father.”

“These words introduced me to a nightmare that would change my life. I was 45 years old and what developed after that sentence was a product of someone else’s past that would frame so much of my future.

“On that spring day the general manager of Hillsong, George Aghajanian, with whom I’ve worked for many years, sat across from me in our weekly meeting. We moved through the agenda quickly; I thought we might wrap up early, so I could get in a quick jog. But then George looked at me and said, “There’s just one more thing, Brian.” He hesitated, and I sensed he had something important to tell me; the look in his eyes suggested it was not going to be good news.

“It’s not about you,” he said. “It’s about your father.” My heart pounded, and it felt as if all the blood drained from my face. George told me of a phone call to our office: the caller said he’d recently been ministering at a local church where a lady confided in him a secret she’d carried for years: “Frank Houston sexually abused my son.”

Hillsong have released a statement which clarifies that the church was founded after the incidents took place.

We are confident that the actions of Pastor Brian, from the moment he discovered the news about his father, were done with the best intentions towards the victim. The findings of the Royal Commission confirmed that his actions resulted in the perpetrator being immediately removed from ministry.

It should be emphasised that Pastor Brian is not a perpetrator of abuse, has never been accused of abuse, and took immediate action to expose and stop a child abuser.
Here are the facts that are indisputable and were part of the evidence given at the Commission by both Pastor Brian and the victim of his father:
  • The victim was a 36 year old adult when this abuse became known and could have taken the matter to police himself at any time.
  • The victim did not want Pastor Brian or others to go to the police or to make this matter public.
  • At no time did Pastor Brian attempt to dissuade anyone – including the victim – from going to police.
  • Pastor Brian immediately reported the abuse to each board member of Sydney CLC and also the executive of the Assemblies of God, the denomination that issued the ministry credentials for Frank Houston.
  • The perpetrator, Frank Houston, was immediately removed from ministry by Pastor Brian and church leadership and never ministered in the church again, ensuring no child was placed in danger. He is now deceased. 
The evidence also stated that there were many others who knew about this abuse well before Pastor Brian was told and after, as Frank confessed to different people about separate cases of abuse. In the 16 years since these revelations came to light – despite Pastor Brian widely sharing this information, even to the entire church – no one had ever advised that this historical complaint coming from a mature adult needed to be reported to the police. On the contrary our barrister provided the Royal Commission with a strong argument that Pastor Brian acted appropriately and legally. 
In terms of the findings of a “potential or perceived” conflict of interest, it is easy to look back many years with hindsight, however Pastor Brian acted in the best way he felt at the time and took decisive and immediate action against his own father.