Embattled Hillsong Church founder Brian Houston intentionally covered up his late father Frank Houston's sexual abuse of a boy and shielded him from criminal prosecution to protect the church's image and likely knew about a $10,000 payment that was made to silence the victim, a prosecutor alleged during closing arguments in an Australian court Thursday.
"The reason the accused failed to report the matter to the police was he was trying to protect the reputation of the church and the perpetrator, who was his father," Crown prosecutor Gareth Harrison said, according to The Sydney Morning Herald.
Houston, who has pleaded not guilty, was formally charged in August 2021 with failing to report his father's abuse after a two-year investigation by the New South Wales Police in Australia. If found guilty, Houston could be imprisoned for up to five years.
Authorities allege that Houston "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." Court documents allege Brian Houston knew as early as September 1999 that his father had committed an indecent assault in 1970 when Brian Houston was a teenager.
Frank Houston, who died in 2004, was the head of the Assemblies of God in New Zealand until 1971. Brian Houston, who founded Hillsong Church in 1983, was the head of the Australian branch of the Assemblies of God from 1997 to 2009.
In an interview with The Sunday Project, Brett Sengstock, the victim who is now 61, claims that Frank Houston repeatedly raped him from the age of 7 until he was 12. It wasn't until he turned 16 that he found the courage to tell his mother about what the revered church leader did to him.
"We were big in the church and had strong ties in the church, and Frank Houston came over to a Christian camp," Sengstock said. "Then he came back to my family's house.
"One night, Frank Houston came in and climbed on top of me and started choking me and turned me over, and I passed out. And he raped me. This went on repeatedly for days during that week," he recalled.
"And me and Brian Houston would play on the sand together, and Frank would rape me again. Late in the night, back on top of me."
Sengstock, who says he is still recovering from the trauma of the abuse with the help of his wife, alleges how Frank Houston would let him know he was his "golden boy" as he was being abused, according to an interview he did with "60 Minutes Australia."
After Sengstock's mother reported his abuse to church leaders in the 1990s, he said Frank Houston contacted him and offered him $10,000.
He further stated that Brian Houston facilitated the payment of the money and even blamed him for tempting his father.
"Brian Houston facilitated the money but said something to me that rocked me to this day," Sengstock said. "He said, 'You know, this is all your fault. You tempted my father.'"
In his closing arguments urging the court to find Houston guilty, Harrison described Frank Houston as a "founding father" of Hillsong, which started out as Sydney Christian Life Centre, alleging there was an "entrenched reverence" towards him.
The reverence for Frank Houston, argued Harrison, "enforced a culture of silence," which allowed Brian Houston to "control the narrative" while protecting his father and the church.
"It appears that no one … when told that a very high-ranking pastor was a pedophile, none of them thought it was a matter that should be raised with the police … On the accused's evidence, he was certain none of them said anything," Harrison said. "The culture in the church, and its members, was, therefore, to protect the church from scandal."
Harrison argued that Houston's claims Sengstock did not want to report the matter to police isn't true. He also argued how Frank Houston tried to manipulate the victim.
"Frank Houston told him, 'You're going to get some money; let's keep this between ourselves.' He even went on to say, 'No one will believe you anyway,'" Harrison said.
Houston's defense attorney, Phillip Boulten, argued that the case against his client should be dismissed because a reasonable excuse for not reporting the crime is that the victim, as an adult, did not wish to press charges. He argued that that is enough for Houston to be acquitted under Australian law today.
"If it's a reasonable excuse now, it was a reasonable excuse then," Boulten said. "Just because he is ashamed of what his father did, and just because it was going to be a terrible blow to anybody who trusted him to learn about this, and because — to use your honor's word — it was maybe convenient for it not to be prosecuted ... does not mean [Brian Houston] is without reasonable excuse."