What comes next at Hillsong?
Hillsong Church needs to do a lot more to establish the truth after making some disclosures about founder Brian Houston.
That’s because the published accounts of what staff have been told, and Hillsong’s statements, are sketchy. We have learned that at a church conference in 2019 Houston along with other staff were drinking at a hotel in which they were staying. The combination of anti-anxiety medication and alcohol caused Houston to go to the wrong room.
“The truth is we don’t know exactly what happened next” – Interim Global Senior Pastor Phil Dooley
The email sent to church members minimises Houston’s conduct when compared to a briefing to staff. Church members were told that Houston went to the wrong room in a hotel during a 2019 conference. The email described him as “knocking on the door of a hotel room that was not his, entering this room and spending time with the female occupant.”
In a recording of the staff briefing, Interim Global Senior Pastor Phil Dooley said the woman “opened the door, and he went into her room. The truth is we don’t know exactly what happened next. This woman has not said if there was any sexual activity. Brian has said there was no sexual activity. But he was in the woman’s room for 40 minutes. He doesn’t have much of a recollection because of the mixture of the anxiety tablets and the alcohol. This woman had also been drinking so her recollection is not completely coherent.”
Of particular concern is Brian Houston’s reported unwillingness to withdraw from ministry when the global board became aware of the 2019 incident.
“It was decided Brian should take three months off from ministry but, unfortunately, he didn’t abide by that. He did conduct some ministry and he did consume some alcohol,” Dooley said.
A key flaw in Dooley’s account is that the Hillsong global board appointed a “four-man” investigation team of long-serving Hillsong figures with two other pastors from outside Hillsong Church.
Global board should announce an independent inquiry
It is a common feature of other scandals in evangelical Christianity that only a truly independent investigation will suffice to get to the truth and allay concerns. This has been proven true in high-profile cases such as world-famous author Ravi Zacharias’ abuse of women and British evangelical leaders John Smyth and Jonathan Fletcher, who abused young men.
The Royal Commission into the Institutional Response to Child Sexual Abuse contains a large number of examples where in-house inquiries failed, besides the Australian Christian Churches’ Houston case.
Newcastle Anglican Diocese is probably the most egregious, with some very senior clergy being involved in abuse, failure to report and falsifying evidence.
But Roger Herft, the one-time bishop of Newcastle and later Archbishop of Perth was defrocked late last year for failing to protect children in Newcastle. This is an example of a church investigation getting a result – the Anglicans have a special group to discipline Bishops – but all the hard work was done by the Royal Commission.
Herft and Catholic Archbishop of Adelaide Phillip Wilson, who was jailed but later acquitted on appeal, are parallel cases to Brian Houston, as leaders of religious organisations who failed to report child abuse to the authorities.
High-profile ministers need to be investigated properly by groups independent of the ministries led by them
An independent investigation might, for example, establish that other Hillsong staff at the conference may also have drunk too much.
If the investigation determined that there was such a problem, it could mean other church events also need to be investigated.
A second Houston case – of inappropriate text messaging by Houston – would also benefit by being investigated independently. The former staffer involved should be given that option.
For Hillsong’s sake – as well as the cause of Christianity generally – an in-house effort is not good enough.
Having a church committee with a heart to do the right thing is not enough…
The Hillsong announcement reveals that Brian Houston’s standing aside due to his impending court case was, in part, a mandatory suspension. If, after further investigation, it is found that a period of suspension longer than the year Houston planned to be away is required for his court case, then it is likely that Houston will not return to his Global Senior Pastor role at Hillsong.
The lesson from Houston’s appearance at the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse is that having a church committee with a heart to do the right thing is not enough and trying hard to do the right thing is not sufficient. The Royal Commission found that Houston failed to report his father Frank Houston’s paedophilia.
An independent investigation team should be asked to benchmark any restoration process against best practice. It should not fall to those who have been nurtured by Houston in their ministries – such as Dooley – to make the call.