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Hillsong Church founder Brian Houston was found not guilty in an Australian courtroom Thursday of not notifying the police after his father admitted to sexually abusing children decades ago.
Houston, 69, a former senior global pastor of the world-renowned megachurch based in Sydney who police charged two years ago with concealing a serious indictable offense, was found not guilty by Sydney Magistrate Gareth Christofi, who ruled Houston had a “reasonable excuse” for not reporting Frank Houston’s offenses to the police.
The case against the younger Houston dated back to 1999, when he first became aware of his father’s abuse of the then-7-year-old Brett Sengstock. At the time, his father confessed and was resigned as a pastor.
Brian Houston shared information about his father’s crimes with church leaders but not with the police, which prosecutor Dareth Harrison argued was intentional to protect both the church and his father.
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Hillsong church founder Brian Houston arrives at the Downing Centre Local Court in Sydney, Thursday, Aug. 17, 2023. Houston was ruled not guilty Thursday of an Australian charge of concealing his father’s child sex crimes. (Bianca De Marchi/AAP Image via AP)
Christofi said proving that claim beyond reasonable doubt was a “tall order indeed” and ultimately agreed with Houston’s claim that victim Brett Sengstock did not want the abuse in the 1970s reported to the police.
“Victims of sexual abuse ought to feel safe to confide in others without being concerned they are exposing those others to a criminal offense,” Christofi ruled.
Following the verdict, the younger Houston expressed empathy for his father’s victims outside a Sydney courtroom but maintained his own innocence.
“I want to express my sadness to Brett Sengstock, genuine sadness about what my father did to him and all his victims. He was obviously a serial pedophile. We probably will never know the extent of his pedophilia,” a teary-eyed Houston told reporters.
He added: “A lot of people’s lives have been tragically hurt and for that, I’ll always be very sad. But I’m not my father.”
Brian Houston is the new Senior Pastor at Hillsong Church in Brisbane, May 23, 2009. (Paul Harris/The Sydney Morning Herald via Getty Images)
Sengstock told reporters outside court that the verdict was tantamount to victim-blaming.
“Regardless of today’s outcome, I have received a life sentence. Blaming the victim is as repulsive as the assaults themselves,” Sengstock told reporters. “Frank Houston was no pioneer for Christianity. His legacy remains a faded memory of a pedophile.”
During the trial, which began in Dec. 2022, Sengstock testified that he never told Houston not to report the abuse.
Hillsong Church also acknowledged the ruling.
“Our prayer is that those impacted deeply and irrevocably by the actions of Frank Houston will find peace and healing, and that our former senior pastor Brian Houston and his family can look to the future and continue to fulfill God’s purpose for their lives,” it said in a statement.
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The Hillsong Church scandal rocked Christianity communities around the world and it impacted the U.S. as Hillsong has locations in New York City, New Jersey, Los Angeles, and San Francisco.
(AUSTRALIA OUT) The Panetshakers meeting at Hillsong Church, 7 January 2005. (Fairfax Media via Getty Images/Fairfax Media via Getty Images)
Prosecutors offered as evidence statements from Brian Houston, who used vague language when he spoke publicly about his father’s abuse and removal as a minister.
Christofi found that while Brian Houston might have used euphemisms in public, his meaning was obvious and speaking “widely and freely” about his father’s abuse indicated Houston wanted people to know: “That is the very opposite of a cover-up.”
Frank Houston died in 2004 at age 82 without being charged.
Brian Houston had faced a potential 5-year prison sentence if convicted.
The embattled pastor resigned from the church in 2022 amid allegations of “inappropriate behavior” he allegedly exhibited toward two women, the church previously announced.
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Now-senior pastor Phil Dooley announced the allegations and subsequent resignation in March of that year.
“We would like to advise you that Pastor Brian Houston has resigned as global senior pastor of Hillsong Church and the board has accepted his resignation,” Dooley said at the time.
The resignation came after the Hillsong Global Board investigated a pair of accusations, one of which was from 2019 and the other was from more than ten years ago.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.