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It has been Hillsong’s darkest secret for five decades and now the global megachurch itself is on trial – both in court and in the eyes of the world.
Australian police sensationally charged co-founder Brian Houston, 67, in his home state of New South Wales on Thursday.
Houston was accused of concealing his dead father Frank’s sexual abuse of seven-year-old boy, after learning of the allegations against his dad in 1999.
Seven years ago, a royal commission found that Frank had confessed to having abusing the young boy during trips to Sydney in 1969 and 1970.
But when the claims eventually came to light Brian didn’t report the crimes to NSW Police.
Hillsong’s ‘global senior pastor’ said he will ‘vehemently’ defend the case in court. But if found guilty, he faces up to five years’ jail.
However the fallout from the legal bombshell won’t just be confined to intense scrutiny of wealthy and well-connected Houston and the possibility he serves jail time.
The global reputation of the church, known its glamour, gospel rock music and celebrity following, is on the line.
Much is on the line for Brian Houston (right), who with wife Bobbie is the co-founder of the Hillsong church. The megachurch grew out of an evangelical parish in the north-western suburbs of Sydney, Australia
Sins of the father: Frank Houston (above with wife Hazel) died in 2004 aged 82. He had confessed to having a sexual interest in young boys prior to his death, including abusing a boy, seven, in 1969 and 1970
Star power: Two of the church’s most famous parishioners were pop star Justin Bieber (who no longer follows Hillsong) and its celebrity pastor Carl Lentz (who was ousted in a sex scandal)
Hillsong under siege, at home and abroad
Hillsong, which grew out of an evangelical church in Sydney’s north-west, has a massive global following.
The church has outposts in 28 countries and a popular record label – all of which could be put at risk if its co-founder was found guilty of a crime.
The Christian empire’s name has already been tarnished by recent scandals, particularly that of former New York pastor and tabloid favourite Carl Lentz.
Lentz left the church last year after admitting cheating on his wife and ever since been the subject of a series of sordid revelations and tell-all interviews.
Just in April, the Daily Mail revealed a married New Jersey pastor resigned in April for sending another woman selfies of himself in a revealing pair of gym tights.
But the perception that Hillsong turned a blind eye to sexual abuse – as has been the case with many religions – could be even more damaging.
‘Hillsong Completes Transformation Into Mainstream Religion, After Leader Charged With Concealing Sex Offences,’ was the headline of the satirical website The Shovel this week.
Critics of the church and the Australian government have also latched onto the criminal proceedings to bash Hillsong and Prime Minister Scott Morrison.
Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison with Brian Houston – who has been described as a ‘spiritual mentor’ to the PM
Brian and Bobbie Houston have been travelling in Mexico and the United States despite Australia’s closed border and ‘Fortress Australia’ restrictions
Above is the church in Norwest, Sydney, from which Brian and Bobbie Houston started a global phenomenon
Houston has been described as a ‘spiritual mentor’ of Mr Morrison, the country’s first evangelical PM.
Houston sparked controversy only recently when he and wife Bobbie travelled to the United States and Mexico – despite ‘Fortress Australia’s’ closed borders.
The connection between the PM and Houston was this week seized upon by Opposition figures and sexual assault survivor Grace Tame this week.
‘This is Morrison’s mentor and mate,’ tweeted the former Labor Senator Doug Cameron.
Mr Cameron pointed out that Mr Morrison has admitted trying, and failing, to score Houston an invitation to a White House state dinner hosted by US President Donald Trump in 2019.
Ms Tame said the Federal government had a problem with sexual abuse, both alleged and not. ‘Houston, we have a problem,’ she quipped.
What Houston’s court fight will come down to
Brian Houston after giving evidence to the royal commission against child sexual abuse in 2014
Both Brian Houston and his victim have spoken at length about their matter in the past.
And the influential pastor is expected to argue that he has a legal defence to the charge.
Seven years ago, a royal commission found that Frank Houston had confessed to his son that he had abusing the victim during a trip to Sydney from his native New Zealand, in 1969 and 1970.
Frank Houston stepped down as a pastor afterwards and died in 2004, aged 82, after arranging for the victim to be paid $10,000 at a meeting at a McDonald’s restaurant.
Brian Houston didn’t report the matter to the police claiming he didn’t think it was appropriate because the victim was 35 or 36 years old at the time.
Houston has also claimed the victim told him in a phone conversation that he didn’t want the matter pursued by authorities.
The victim has denied that happened.
The law Houston has been charged under states that a person has a ‘reasonable excuse’ not to notify police of a serious indictable crime if three criteria are met.
The crime has to be a sexual or domestic violence offence, the victim has to have been an adult at the time the crime was learned of, and the accused must believe the alleged victim doesn’t want the information reported to police.
Whether Houston is guilty or not will be up to a court to decide. He will face Sydney’s Downing Centre Court on October 25.