As Hillsong Church Global Senior Pastor Brian Houston announced Sunday that he is stepping down from his role for all of 2022 as he faces criminal charges of allegedly concealing sex abuse committed by his father decades earlier, the significance of the move rings hollow for some who have legally tangled with the evangelical network over abuse.
“My guess is that Brian Houston will still run the show…and if he’s acquitted, he’ll return as a ‘hero’ who survived ‘persecution,’” Billy Graham’s grandson and attorney Boz Tchividjian wrote in a statement on Twitter Sunday. “Remember, it’s only a guess…”
Tchividjian is the founder of an organization that helps survivors of abuse called GRACE (Godly Response to Abuse in the Christian Environment). He advocated for former Hillsong College student and Pennsylvania pastor’s daughter, Anna Crenshaw, who said she was assaulted sexually by a Hillsong Church administrator in Australia.
In a statement to The Christian Post Monday, Crenshaw said while Houston stepping down is the “right thing to do,” it doesn’t carry much weight in her world.
“Brian Houston stepping down from senior pastor is the right thing to do. However, Hillsong continues their practice of attempting to paint their failings in good light, including their spin on the founder losing his title while he is on trial for the concealment of child sexual abuse,” she said.
“It is off-putting that Laura Toggs, Brian’s daughter and the youth pastor of Hillsong Young and Free, is calling the step down a ‘sabbatical’ and a time of ‘rest,’” she added, pointing to an Instagram post made by Toggs on Sunday.
“A sabbatical is a time of rest and renewal. Being on trial for concealment of child sexual abuse should not be a time of refreshment. It’s offensive to the court system and to the victims of Frank Houston and their families.”
Authorities in Australia charged the 67-year-old Houston with one count of concealing a serious indictable offense by his father, Frank Houston. The charge relates to sexual abuse of a young male in the 1970s that Brian Houston was allegedly informed about in 1999 while he was the head of the Australian branch of the Assemblies of God. He founded Hillsong in 1983.
Frank Houston, who died in 2004, had formerly served as the head of the Assemblies of God in New Zealand until 1971. Brian Houston expressed “shock” and professed his innocence upon his indictment last year. He vows to "vigorously defend" the charge.
Anna Crenshaw told The Christian Post last year how Hillsong Church treated her as she fought to hold Jason Mays — a married Hillsong staff administrator, volunteer singer and the son of the church’s head of human resources — accountable for inappropriately fondling her while at a social gathering. The experience eventually forced her to cut ties with the global church network.
“I’m not interested to support an organization that’s willing to treat abuse the way I’ve seen them treat abuse. What happened with my relationship with Hillsong is once I did report to [the] church, that’s when things started going downhill. … That’s when I saw how they dealt with abuse, and it’s something I’m not willing to overlook in my relationship with the church,” the then 23-year-old told CP last March.
Early last year, Houston issued a public apology and presented a raft of sweeping policy changes expected to correct “the issues and misalignment of the culture and practices” that led to multiple sex and financial abuse scandals at Hillsong East Coast in the United States, formerly led by celebrity preacher Carl Lentz.
By August 2021, however, Houston was facing his own scandal.
Police allege that Houston, who served as the head of the Assemblies of God Australia branch from 1997 to 2009, “knew information relating to the sexual abuse of a young male in the 1970s and failed to bring that information to the attention of police.”
During his tenure, Frank Houston was found to have abused many young boys in New Zealand and Australia. Brian Houston reportedly immediately forced his father to resign from the Sydney Christian Life Centre with a pension once he learned of the claims against him.
One accuser, who is now 59 years old, told the Royal Commission Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse in 2014 testimony that Brian Houston accused him of having “tempted” his father when he was a child. Houston, however, told the Commission at the time that the claim was false.
In a statement addressing the court case and his decision to step down for 2022, Houston said he and his team at Hillsong Church agreed it was the right thing to do.
“In December, during our board meeting, Hillsong’s external legal counsel gave the board advice regarding the current charge I am facing – that it would be ‘Best Practice’ for me to step aside completely from church leadership during the court proceedings,” he said.
“The court processes are likely to be drawn out and take up most of 2022 (especially considering the backlog in the courts, exacerbated by the Covid pandemic). Along with this, the board and I have had detailed discussion around the requirements for leadership,” he added. “We have talked about the effects of the situation with my father, which go back many years up to the current legal case, and the impact this has had on me emotionally.”
When asked for a response to Houston’s decision to step down, Anna Crenshaw’s father, Ed Crenshaw, who also serves as senior pastor of Victory Church in Audubon, Pennsylvania, pointed CP to his public response to Tchividjian’s statement on Twitter.
“We know for certain from Anna Crenshaw’s case that Hillsong hires high level image management firms to intimidate their victims and burnish their own public image,” said Crenshaw, who told CP earlier that Hillsong Church had a tendency to focus on protecting their image rather than victims. “No reason to expect anything different in this case.”
A Hillsong Church spokesperson previously argued that it would be “unfounded” to discuss Frank Houston’s failures as a part of Hillsong culture since his alleged abuses were committed before Hillsong was launched.
“The incidents involving Frank Houston took place in the 1960s and early 1970s. Hillsong Church was not founded until 1983, and Frank Houston was never a pastor at Hillsong Church,” the spokesperson said. “To discuss this as a feature of Hillsong culture is simply unfounded.”