Hillsong pastor suffers for sins of father

Annette Blackwell

Should the sins of the father be visited on the son?

There is a certain biblical resonance to the current case before the child sex abuse royal commission.

It is looking at how the Pentecostal movement and its then leader, Hillsong founder Brian Houston, responded to his father Frank Houston's admission that he molested children.

Brian Houston has spoken of his humiliation at having to face the cameras and answer questions about his father's "indefensible" crimes.

He stresses how deeply he feels for the victims.

Apart from Brian Houston's suffering, what is certainly clear after the first week of evidence at the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse is while some evangelists might be good at spreading the word of God they're not so hot at spreading the word one of their own is a pedophile.

Not doing so in a timely and clear fashion robbed churches of the power to keep Frank Houston at bay, not to mention leaving possible victims to cope alone, never knowing that their pastors could and would have helped.

The Houstons were treated like royalty by the followers of this charismatic movement, which grew like wildfire after Frank planted his church - the Christian Life Centre (CLC) in Waterloo, Sydney in 1977.

Brian Houston uses the term "planting" to describe what they do, because a congregation grows around the new church.

When his father's CLC merged with his Baulkham Hills CLC in Sydney's north west, Hillsong was created.

And grow it did.

It has a congregation that would curl the toes of Catholics and Anglicans - it attracts 30,000 mostly under-30s to gatherings to praise, and a music label that is a global brand.

Brian Houston now heads the biggest, most influential evangelical church in Australia with offshoots in 11 countries. He counts celebrities and politicians among his followers.

In 1999 he was also the national president of Assemblies of God in Australia (AoG) an umbrella body for more than 1000 affiliated Pentecostal churches.

It is now known as Australian Christian Churches.

The merger that gave birth to Hillsong followed Frank Houston's seemingly rushed decision to retire in 1999.

Brian Houston told the commission he now realises that during 1999 Frank Houston was trying to keep his abuse of a boy in Sydney 30 years earlier from becoming public knowledge.

In the 60s and 70s Frank Houston, who had a ministry in New Zealand, was in demand as a preacher in Australia and would sometimes stay in Sydney with the family of AHA - the man he abused as a minor.

It was AHA who told the commission of the Houstons' royalty status among people like his devout parents.

When he was 16 AHA told his mother about the abuse. She discouraged him from speaking about it then, but 20 years later, in 1998, she told the pastor at a small church in Mount Druitt.

It was then that Frank Houston's world began to crumble.

AHA testified this week to his own feelings of shame and anger at what his mother had done and his desire to keep the matter private.

Brian Houston in his evidence said he was told about AHA's "brittle" state and it was one reason he and the AoG executive did not follow up with an investigation or go to police.

Problem is that neither Brian Houston or his executive committee followed their own rules when it came to dealing with a pastor who had confessed to being a pedophile.

Frank Houston should have had his credentials stripped for life, they were not.

He was suspended for two years by the AoG. What AHA got was a very uncomfortable meeting with Frank Houston in a McDonald's where he was asked to sign a food-stained napkin to receive $10,000 and forgive his abuser.

Brian Houston says he knew nothing of this until his father told him.

A lot of this hearing is taken up with timelines: who knew what and when.

Brian Houston swore once at the commission and offered to swear twice that he knew nothing ever about his father's pedophelia until a "devastating" day in October 1999 when the general manager at the Hills church told him.

The AoG executive says it knew nothing until Brian Houston called a special meeting on December 22, 1999.

It was almost a year earlier that AHA's story first became known in evangelical circles, including by some NSW church elders.

And 50 pastors in New Zealand were well aware by then that Frank Houston had a reputation for child abuse.

But it was not until November 2000 that the news of the "substantial" allegations in NZ reached the national executive of the AoG in Australia.

They sent two people to NZ to find out more and on their return the Australian AoG headed by Brian Houston wrote to state executives.

The statement dated December 8, 2000 read in part: "The National Executives of the Assemblies of God in Australia and New Zealand have had the very sad responsibility of investigating claims of a serious moral failure against Frank Houston.

"The incidents that have been investigated happened more than 30 years ago and Frank has admitted to the failure with great remorse.

"The Australian Executive has no alternative but to remove his credential."

It carries the addendum that the statement was prepared as an answer that could be given in case anyone asked questions.

One year later on December 24, 2001 John Lewis vice-president of the AoG wrote to all ordained and probationary ministers in Australia repeating the serious moral failings line.

He asked the ministers not to make an announcement at each church or further afield.

This letter, like the earlier statement, made made no mention of the fact that Frank Houston abused children.

The son Brian Houston says at the time he was telling pastors and congregations himself about the sins of his father but could not remember his exact words.