Hillsong Church founder Brian Houston violated the church’s code of conduct by entering the hotel room of an unidentified woman for 40 minutes while under the influence of alcohol and prescription drugs during the church’s annual conference in 2019, officials revealed Friday.
In a statement outlining investigations into two complaints against Houston's behavior in the last 10 years, the global evangelical church network also said that its global senior pastor exchanged an “inappropriate text message” with a staffer in 2013, resulting in her resigning shortly after.
In a recording of a meeting with 800 staffers of the global megachurch cited by Crikey, Hillsong Interim Global Senior Pastor Phil Dooley said Houston doesn’t recall having sex with the unidentified woman in the hotel room in 2019.
Dooley took over for Houston earlier this year as he fights criminal charges of allegedly concealing sex abuse committed by his father decades earlier.
Houston reportedly met the woman, who was not a member of Hillsong, in the foyer of the Pullman Hotel where several Hillsong officials were drinking.
“It was after one of the conference nights, and he [Houston] was drinking with a group,” Dooley said during the meeting, according to the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.
“Later that evening, he went to go to his room, didn’t have his room key and ended up knocking on the door of this woman’s room, and she opened the door, and he went into her room.”
Dooley said the church couldn’t conclusively say what happened.
“This woman has not said if there was any sexual activity. Brian has said there was no sexual activity,” he said. “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.”
As local news reports of the complaints began unfolding Friday, the Hillsong Global Board, which had informed church members about the situation earlier in the day, released a public statement defending the church’s handling of the complaints.
“There is significant media coverage around these issues, and it is important that you hear from us, understand the truth, and have knowledge of the actions of the board during these times and the heart behind these actions,” the statement reads.
“As you are aware, Pastor Brian recently stepped aside from his ministry duties. When he stepped down in January this year, the reasons he gave were genuine. The situation with his father over many years had taken a personal toll that was greater than he had realized, and he needed to focus on his upcoming legal issues.”
When Houston announced he would temporarily step down from his role as global senior pastor, Hillsong said it “did not make a public statement because we were still working through a number of issues privately with Pastor Brian.”
“These issues are now public, and therefore we would like to share with you the details,” the statement adds, confirming earlier media reports less explicitly.
Australian media reported that while Houston had been publicly promising to reform policies concerning misconduct as sex and financial scandals plagued some Hillsong campuses, he did not submit to the discipline of his church when officials tried to sit him down for the 2019 incident.
Dooley told Hillsong staffers that even though the woman in the 2019 incident had “a lot of conflicting emotions” about the incident with Houston in her hotel room, she told someone at the church about the encounter. The woman also asked for her conference fee and a “kingdom builder” donation to the church returned. Houston repaid her from his personal funds.
Hillsong’s global board appointed a four-person “integrity” unit to investigate the complaint and concluded Houston required church discipline, but he was not held accountable.
“It was found that Pastor Brian became disoriented after a session at the Hillsong Conference, following the consumption of anti-anxiety medication beyond the prescribed dose, mixed with alcohol. This resulted in him knocking on the door of a hotel room that was not his, entering this room, and spending time with the female occupant,” the Hillsong’s global board confirmed.
“The investigation by the integrity unit appointed by the global board found that although all parts of the complaint were unable to be sustained, important elements of the complaint were sustained and the conduct was of serious concern. Ultimately, the board found that Brian had breached the Hillsong Pastor’s Code of Conduct,” they added.
The board further confirmed a statement reportedly made by Dooley that they tried and failed to discipline Houston for the hotel room 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, who reportedly cried during the meeting, said.
The incident was brought to the attention of church elders at the end of 2021. Houston was asked to take more time off and encouraged to address his alcohol use.
“We also acknowledge that whatever the circumstances at this time, this person did not deserve to be placed in the situation she found herself in by Pastor Brian,” the Hillsong board statement reads.
“We felt that we did all we could to assist the person who made the complaint and treated this person with compassion and respect, and also abided by her requirement for confidentiality. We apologize unreservedly to the people affected by Pastor Brian’s actions and commit to being available for any further assistance we can provide.”
In a 2013 incident, Dooley said Houston sent a text message to the former staffer “along the lines of, ‘If I was with you I would like to give you a kiss and a cuddle or a hug,’ words of that nature.”
The staff member was so upset by the message that she reported the incident to senior Hillsong official George Aghajanian and resigned. Hillsong Church blamed Houston’s actions on “sleeping tablets.”
“At the time, Pastor Brian was under the influence of sleeping tablets, upon which he had developed a dependence. He immediately apologized to the person,” the Hillsong global board said. “We also worked closely with Pastor Brian to ensure he received professional help to eliminate his dependency on this medication, and this was achieved successfully.”
Dooley said he was not aware of the incident until the end of 2021. He said the staff member could not find another job, so she was paid “a couple of months’ salary.”
He further noted that in handling the complaints privately at first, they were seeking to offer grace to Houston.
“In light of the evidence before the global board, the decision was made to offer what I would call ‘grace’ — not to cover up and not to expose,” Dooley said. “The idea was that Brian would use the time to get healthy.”
However, not all of Hillsong’s elders agreed with that approach, and they had started raising the issue publicly with congregants.
“We’re not about exposing people,” Dooley said, according to Crickey.
“I look at the example of Jesus, [and] what does the Bible say about these situations. We acknowledge that Pastor Brian has made significant mistakes here and no one at a senior level wants to cover any of that up. But to come to a place of healing, that involves honesty, that involves transparency, that involves repentance and an acknowledgment that mistakes have been made and a desire to make it right.”
Dooley encouraged prayer for Houston, his wife, Bobbie, and the entire Houston family.
“Sin is messy, and it brings all kinds of pain,” Dooley said.
While they “endeavored to act biblically” in handling the complaints against Houston, Hillsong’s global board admits that the church needs to “review” its governance model.
“The board has always endeavored to act biblically and in accordance with good governance. However we understand that there has been a significant breach of trust. The board has been seeking external, wise counsel and is reviewing our governance structure and measures to ensure higher levels of accountability across Hillsong Church globally,” the statement assures.
“Like many other churches of its size, Hillsong’s governance model has historically placed significant control in the hands of the senior pastor, but we recognize that the way we do things needs to be reviewed. We know there are areas on which we can improve, and we will work honestly and transparently to that end.”