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Brian Houston, we have a problem

Dec 17, 2019 • 17m 11s

As the Hillsong Church booms internationally, its local arm is still dealing with the fallout from the royal commission into child sexual abuse.

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Brian Houston, we have a problem

144 • Dec 17, 2019

Brian Houston, we have a problem

[Theme music starts]

ELIZABETH:

From Schwartz Media, I’m Elizabeth Kulas, this is 7am.

As the Hillsong Church booms internationally, its local arm is still dealing with the fallout from the royal commission into child sexual abuse. Rick Morton on the man who fought the church – and the father of its senior pastor.

[Theme music ends]

Archival tape -- Brian Houston:

“Well here I am at the White House. Never say never. It’s a great honour, of course, to have had the chance to go into the cabinet room and even into the Oval Office, and to pray for the President of the United States of America. To me, it’s not about the politics, it’s about the position. And a significant man like the President of the United States can do with all the prayer we can possibly give him.”

ELIZABETH:

Rick, what can you tell me about Brian Houston's trip to the White House last week?

RICK:

It was quite successful, by all accounts. Brian Houston, who's the global senior pastor for Hillsong Church, which started in Australia, he received a direct invitation from the White House to pray for the president and to attend a faith briefing.

ELIZABETH:

Rick Morton is a senior reporter with The Saturday Paper.

RICK:

Now, nobody knew that they were actually going to be met by Donald Trump. He surprised them by walking in on one of those briefings and then brought them all back to the Oval Office, where he asked them, literally in these words, “Pray for me?” And there's a photo that was taken, it’s the official White House photo that Brian Houston didn't put on his social media, but he's standing two people away from the president.

As far as I’m aware he was the only Australian faith leader invited to the White House to pray alongside 49 other leaders from the evangelical movement.

And people have their hands on Donald Trump’s shoulder. And by all accounts, it was quite an electric vibe in that room.

And Brian Houston, as we all know, there was some reporting that he was invited to the White House a few months ago by Scott Morrison, but that was apparently vetoed by White House planning officials.

Now, Brian Houston said then, and he has since told me again, he's had no contact with the prime minister since July. He wasn't given any assistance, according to him, to attend the White House in the most recent trip. And Scott Morrison himself refused to comment on it. He just called it gossip.

ELIZABETH:

Morrison and Houston both deny that he was ever going to join the prime minister’s state visit to the US, but how close are they?

RICK:

Scott Morrison thanked him in his first speech to parliament when he became elected as MP.

Archival tape -- Scott Morrison:

“Growing up in a Christian home, I made a commitment to my faith at an early age, and have been greatly assisted by the pastoral work of many dedicated church leaders. In particular the reverend Ray Green, and pastors Brian Houston, and Lee Coleman.”

RICK:

He has described Brian Houston as a mentor. So Scott and him have come up together. They certainly have been chatty and friends over the many years. And Scott Morrison, one of the first things he did as prime minister after being reelected, was to go to Hillsong’s National Conference in Sydney and jump up on stage alongside Brian Houston and his wife, Bobby. And Scott was flanked by his wife, Jenny.

Archival tape --

“I don’t want to take up much of your time, Brian, thank you so much for that wonderful welcome. And Phil, thanks for your prayer. These guys, like Caleb and Joshua, in this country. They went out and they saw what God saw. That’s what they did. And here we are. We love Jesus.”

RICK:

Scott Morrison himself is part of the broader Pentecostal movement. He attends a separate church that isn't part of Hillsong in the Sutherland Shire. And so they've got a lot in common. Certainly along faith grounds.

Morrison certainly learnt a lot from him through the broader Pentecostal evangelical movement and a lot of the same kind of parables of success and the prosperity gospel propagated by both of them. And certainly Brian Houston speaks quite openly about the fact that in order to serve God, you must succeed because success is service. And that describes their expansionist bent, really, as a church.

ELIZABETH:

And Rick, kind of just zoom out for a second, how big is Hillsong?

RICK:

Hillsong is a leviathan. It had 103 million dollars in revenue last year. $52 million of that came directly from their congregation, who are expected to tithe portion of their personal income. The church is in 25 countries, at least, around the world. It's been growing since the 80s.

And you know, just last week they announced the purchase of a multi-million dollar Manhattan property in the middle of downtown. You know, prime location over three floors in this beautiful old building. They made $9.5 million in royalties alone from their Christian rock music. Brian Houston’s son Joel Houston is actually a huge rock star himself in that Christian rock movement.

[Christian rock music by Joel Houston plays]

RICK:

They have a child care centre which last year poured in 2.5 million dollars. They have a college, a registered training college, which pumped out 18 million dollars worth of training last year. So, they’re running ahead in leaps and bounds.

ELIZABETH:

A business, essentially what you're describing.

RICK:

It looks and sounds a lot like a business. The bigger they get, the more they're serving God. They think that in order to help as many people to bring them closer to Jesus, that is their mission. And that is the bulk of their charitable work. That's how they view it.

So, you know, Hillsong is huge, but it's actually quite difficult to get a real good handle on precisely where it is, who it is, what it is. Because, you know, certainly in Australia alone, there are at least 19 separate legal entities that form Hillsong. It's quite difficult to run the ruler over and see where everything is going. It's like a spider's web. They've got big designs. They really do. So two thirds of Hillsong’s following, its global following, is now outside of Australia. So, you know, it's up ended itself in terms of its footprint and it's now multicultural. It's spread around the globe. It's everywhere.

ELIZABETH:

We’ll be right back.

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ELIZABETH:

So Rick, at the same time as Hillsong is enjoying a boom overseas, a growing following, it's still dealing with the fallout of the royal commission here in Australia that occurred into child sex abuse. What did the commission hear regarding the Hillsong Church?

RICK:

It heard some pretty shocking details. Frank Houston - he's the father of Brian Houston, who now runs Hillsong. Frank Houston is now dead. But the royal commission heard that in the 1970s, he was the head of Assemblies of God in New Zealand, and he was coming over to Australia quite frequently . And he was staying with the family of a man called Brett Sengstock, who at the time was a 7 year old boy. And Brett sengstock appeared as a case study under the pseudonym AHA at the Royal Commission in 2014.

And he told the whole room that Frank Houston would creep into his bed, many times during the week that he stayed there in the 1970s on subsequent occasions. And he would smother him. He would sexually assault him. He would tell him that he was his golden boy and that this was their little secret. And that was the start.

Archival tape -- Brett Sengstock:

“I could not speak, I couldn’t scream, I couldn’t push back, I just went rigid, and I couldn’t breathe. I was petrified.”

Archival tape -- Unidentified Woman #1:

“Did he say anything to you?”

Archival tape -- Brett Sengstock:

“You know, you’re my golden boy, and you’re special to me, and all these sort of things, which as an adult now I look back at, it makes me want to vomit.”

RICK:

Brett Sengstock told his mother about that when he was a teenager. But she sat on this information. And this is all at the royal commission. She sat on this information for years until one day, for whatever reason, she told her local church pastor. And that set off a chain of events which came to light through the royal commission. And a series of people were informed. First, they didn't know it was Frank Houston, or Brett Sengstock that was the victim.

So in the year 2000, Frank Houston meets with Brett Sengstock at a McDonald's in Thornley in Sydney. And he offers him ten thousand dollars and asks him, in Brett’s words, to sign a, a dirty napkin. And in return for that money, Frank Houston is asking for this not to be pursued either in the public arena or through the courts.

ELIZABETH:

Hmm.

RICK:

Ten thousand dollars is not really a lot of money when your life has been turned upside down. And it wasn't money from the people who should have known, it was money directly from Frank Houston. So it was a personal payment. And Brett Sengstock always thought, he's like, well, Frank was part of something bigger than just himself. I mean, he was the head of the Assemblies of God in New Zealand before he came to Australia. And it subsequently emerged, years after his own abuse, that Frank had victims in New Zealand and that, you know, as many as 50 pastors in New Zealand knew about that.

And then there was what was done after his information became known to the Australian arm, and whether there was enough done to stop Frank perpetrating abuse again.

And Brian Houston, he was very adamant at the royal commission that he swung into gear. He told them that he, as soon as he heard that it was his father and as his father confessed to him that he had sexually assaulted Brett Sengstock, Brian Houston went into the meeting as the chair. He recused himself immediately as a chair. He remained in the room while the national executive, of which he was national president of Assemblies of God in Australia at the time, decided what they were going to do about Frank Houston. And Frank Houston was immediately stripped of his ministry. He was essentially put out to pasture.

ELIZABETH:

And after the royal commission, what did Brett do next?

RICK:

So Brett Sangster launched damages, civil action for damages in the Supreme Court of New South Wales against both the Assemblies of God in New Zealand and Australian Christian Churches, which is the Australian arm. And it didn't go well.

Australian Christian churches came back hard and they were going to, well, they had filed their own notice of motion to strike out Brett's claim, and they were going to go to him for costs. And that was going to be incredibly expensive.

And at the same time, and they knew this, Brett had been diagnosed with terminal cancer, a particularly rare type of peripheral T cell lymphoma, which is very resistant to chemotherapy. And ACC, their lawyers put together this deed of release that essentially said, we will stop, we will drop our action. We won't force you to pay our costs as long as you sign this document that says you will never have the right to sue us now or at any point in the future. We will extinguish your right for justice through the courts. If you sign this and we will let you carry on without any more debt. And Brett, thinking that he was going to die and wanting to protect his wife, Lisa. He did want to leave her without the resources to pay for a funeral even, which is what they're all staring at. And he signed it.

Brett Sengstock has never felt like he's had an apology, he's never felt like he's had any support or counseling either from Hillsong or Assemblies of God in Australia, now Australian Christian churches.

Archival tape -- Brett Sengstock:

“I would’ve expected some godly assistance, some help, maybe some counselling...it’s just like it’s been brushed under the carpet.”

ELIZABETH:

And Rick, one of the key recommendations out of the royal commission was for the establishment of a redress scheme to compensate people like Sengstock - has Hillsong signed up to that scheme?

RICK:

Not yet. They have said they will participate in the scheme.

The ACC is an umbrella organization that includes members who are autonomous churches. There was apparently, in their words, quite a lot of detail to work out about how they could be quote unquote onboard to the national redress scheme. Certainly at the moment, they are not on the official register.

ELIZABETH:

You spoke to Brett last week. What did he tell you about watching Hillsong’s recent success in light of how he's being treated.

RICK:

Brett was...you could tell that he's someone who's fought this for a very long time because he was almost resigned in his attitude. You know, I think the anger has long past. And now he just wants justice. And he looks at what Hillsong does around the world and he just said it hurt. He didn't say it with any anger or malice in his tongue. He was just saying, you know, I'm not surprised by any of this anymore. He's been watching them for a long time. And the way he put it to me was that he doesn't see anything in what they do that reflects what Jesus would have actually done when he walked the earth, in terms of this focus on money and this focus on glory and property.

He's now in remission and has been for 12 months, for a year, and having almost bankrupted himself and his wife through the court action and the the health battle, and he said to me that he thought it was a blessing, that he's in remission and a blessing from God particularly.

And the fact that he still believes and can still see the good in the world just really struck me. And I think that, you know, if ever there was a Christian worldview, Brett Sengstock is that view. And he just says, I don't see Jesus in them.

ELIZABETH:

Thanks, Rick.

RICK:

Thank you.

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[Theme music starts]

ELIZABETH:

Elsewhere in the news:

The Federal Government’s forecast budget surplus has been slashed by more than $2 billion this financial year, from $7.1 billion down to $5 billion. The latest budget update shows that Australia’s economic growth, wages, investment and household spending have all slumped since the delivery of the April budget. The Government has blamed the hit on droughts and bushfires, with treasurer Josh Frydenberg saying, quote “our devastating drought has already taken a quarter of a percentage point off GDP growth.” The shadow treasurer, Jim Chalmers, has said the result was a reflection of the Coalition’s poor economic management.

And Jetstar is cancelling 10 percent of its domestic flights in January amid strikes over pay and conditions. The airline failed to resolve the wage dispute over the weekend, during which approximately 100 flights were cancelled. Jetstar chief executive Gareth Evans has blamed the Transport Workers Union for making what he called “unsustainable” demands that could threaten the business’s long-term health. The TWU has disputed this, claiming that Jetstar has been misreporting their demands and that baggage handlers, for example, are, quote, “struggling to pay bills and provide for their families.”

This is 7am. I’m Elizabeth Kulas. See you Wednesday.

[Theme music ends]

As the Hillsong Church booms internationally, its local arm is still dealing with the fallout from the royal commission into child sexual abuse. Rick Morton on the man who fought the church – and its senior pastor’s father.

Guest: Senior reporter for The Saturday Paper Rick Morton.

Background reading:

Sexual abuse survivor rebukes Hillsong head in The Saturday Paper
The Saturday Paper
The Monthly

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7am is hosted by Elizabeth Kulas. The show is produced by Emile Klein, Ruby Schwartz, Atticus Bastow and Elle Marsh. Brian Campeau mixes the show. Our editor is Erik Jensen. Our theme music is by Ned Beckley and Josh Hogan of Envelope Audio.

This episode was produced in part by Elle Marsh, features and field producer, in a position supported by a grant from the Judith Neilson Institute for Journalism and Ideas.

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144: Brian Houston, we have a problem