Why Brian Houston is an odd target for 60 Minutes

Other churches beware of schadenfreude

Christians outside of Hillsong church should beware of “schadenfreude” following an attack on its global pastor Brian Houston by Channel Nine’s high-profile current affairs show, 60 Minutes.

Schadenfreude is the delight in others’ misfortune. And misfortune is an apt description of 60 Minutes’ attempted takedown of Hillsong’s global pastor.

But it is fair to say 60 Minutes scored something of a scoop in interviewing a survivor of sexual abuse, Brett Sengstock, who was known as AHA at the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse.

Sengstock, now facing stage-4 cancer, is brave to appear on 60 Minutes. His courage deserves to be applauded, along with the other survivors who appeared before the royal commission and made public appearances.

Sengstock had not only requested there be no police investigation but also that no church investigation should take place.

“I am sick of other people telling the world how I feel,”  he tells reporter Liz Hayes.

“I could not speak, I could not scream, or push back. I just went rigid. I could not breathe. I was petrified,” Sengstock recounts of his experience as seven-year-old being sexually assaulted by Frank Houston, Brian Houston’s father, who was visiting Australia as head of the New Zealand Assemblies of God church network.

Sengstock’s 60 Minutes interview repeats the story viewers could have watched on the royal commission livestream. But the royal commission’s Case Study 18, which examines several Pentecostal cases, contains information missing from the 60 Minutes account. For example, Sengstock had not only requested there be no police investigation but also that no church investigation should take place. This goes against the theme of cover-up in the 60 Minutes story. The Case Study 18 transcript also makes it clear there were memory problems, which is not apparent in the 60 Minutes story.

60 Minutes’ intro to the story states that Brian Houston “did not want to have anything to do with this story.” This is technically true in that he did not take part in its latest report. But it is misleading in that he has, quite voluntarily, been upfront and part of the story of his father’s downfall for years. And he announced it, in sorrow, to the church. This is not a story Houston has evaded. Schadenfreude is not called for at this point.

The 60 Minutes narrative reads as though Brian Houston was a passive or evasive participant in the public exposure of his father. But this is far from the truth.

For example, as the royal commission transcripts show, Brian Houston, as national president of the Assemblies Of God (AOG), suspended his father’s ministerial credentials, and was tasked with conveying that decision to him.

“The matter was quietly dealt with,” Liz Hayes summarises. “Frank confessed and Brett was paid $10,000 for his forgiveness,” 60 Minutes says, “but there was no apology and ultimately no justice.”

“I would have expected some godly assistance, some help, maybe some counselling,” Sengstock tells 60 Minutes. “But it was swept under the carpet.”

“I did not have any doubt that it was criminal conduct.” – Brian Houston

However, in the royal commission transcript, Sengstock says he would not have accepted counselling from the church.

While the Sengstock interview is new, other parts of the story are told as though 60 Minutes is revealing material for the first time when this is not clear.

A critical part of the 60 Minutes report is the footage of Brian Houston at the royal commission: “I did not have any doubt that it was criminal conduct,” Houston tells the commission.

“But Brian Houston took the view that it was up to Brett to report his abuser to the police,” Liz Hayes then comments.

It was slightly more complicated than that. Sengstock testified at the royal commission that, at that time, he did not want there to be “an investigation by the public authorities.”

This makes sense of the next bit of Brian Houston’s testimony to the royal commission, as shown in the 60 Minutes report: “Rightly or wrongly, I genuinely believed that I would be pre-empting the victim if I was to call the police.”

Wrongly, as it turns out.

Many have made this exact error, in many cases with catastrophic effect, which is not the case with Houston.

In common with many cases of abuse, people who hear a report are tempted not to report it when a victim asks them not to. But in the case of a criminal act, it is any citizen’s responsibility to report it.

This brings us back to schadenfreude because many have made this exact error, in many cases with catastrophic effect, which is not the case with Houston. This writer is unaware of any suggestion that at the time the younger Houston heard about the sins of his father, his father was still an active pedophile. In many cases of abuse by clergy in other case studies by the royal commission, not reporting crime to the police left offenders free to offend. There is one high-profile case we are unable to report on.

Houston was the subject of particular misfortune. He was tasked with punishing his father. The royal commission case studies show many religious leaders acting out denial about colleagues or friends. Overseas cases such as the Catholic cases in Boston show the same. But Houston followed through in dealing with the sins of his father.

It may have been better for the AOG to ask someone else to take charge of that. (That was the view of the royal commission). But the younger Houston discharged his responsibility. Ministers in the AOG were informed of a serious moral failure by Frank Houston and that he had lost his licence as a result. The AOG should have made a public announcement, as other denominations do when a minister is removed.

But members of other churches should bear in mind that sexual abuse was taking part in church institutions on an industrial scale; entire networks of pedophiles stretched across  state boundaries; elaborate cover-up schemes operated for decades.

The royal commission stats indicate why any schadenfreude in regard to Hillsong or the Australian Christian Churches denomination is unwarranted. In all, 1334 survivors told the royal commission in private sessions about abuse by an adult in a Catholic institution, 309 in an Anglican one, 126 Salvation Army, 66 Uniting, and 27 Pentecostal.  (The Pentecostal number will include abuse within denominations other than the ACC/AOG network.)