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Founder of Hillsong global megachurch charged with concealing child sex abuse

Brian Houston, founder of the Sydney-based global Hillsong Church, leaves a hearing in Sydney in 2014. (Mick Tsikas/AP)

SYDNEY — Australian police have charged the founder of the Hillsong megachurch, Brian Houston, with concealing alleged child sexual abuse by his pastor father in the 1970s.

Hillsong is an international megachurch founded in Australia that has exported its influence to major cities worldwide, including many in the United States. Houston, 67, said the charges came as a shock, and vowed to defend against them in a Sydney court in October.

“I vehemently profess my innocence … and I welcome the opportunity to set the record straight,” the pastor said in an emailed statement Friday.

The charges are the result of a police investigation launched in 2019 into reports that a church leader had “knowingly concealed information relating to child sexual offences,” police in New South Wales state said in a statement Thursday.

“Police will allege in court the man 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,” the statement added.

The case could cast a pallor over a megachurch that has expanded from its early beginnings in Australia about four decades ago into a global entity with satellites in 30 countries. It is a big producer of chart-topping musical hits for other evangelical churches, especially those that are Pentecostal. Hillsong’s services have more closely resembled rock concerts than traditional services.

The popularity of Hillsong soared in the United States in part because of Carl Lentz, previously a top pastor in New York whose ties to Justin Bieber and professional athletes helped make him a celebrity. Lentz was fired last November after the church said he had carried out extramarital affairs.

In an emailed statement Friday, Hillsong Church said it was “disappointed that Pastor Brian has been charged, and ask that he be afforded the presumption of innocence and due process as is his right.”

The scandal also threatens to entangle Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison, who counts Houston as a personal friend. Morrison, who leads the center-right Liberal Party, had asked for Houston to be invited to a White House state dinner President Donald Trump held in the prime minister’s honor in 2019. The request was not granted, but Houston did pray for Trump in a White House visit that December.

Morrison, a Christian, credited the Hillsong pastor as spiritual mentor in his first speech to Parliament in 2008. In a sermon to a church conference on the Gold Coast this year, Morrison noted the presence of Houston, among other pastors in the audience, according to local media.

The prime minister’s office didn’t respond to multiple requests for comment Friday.

The charges against Houston relate to child sex offenses allegedly committed by his father, Frank Houston, in the 1970s. An official inquiry into institutional responses to child abuse launched in 2013 heard allegations that the older Houston sexually abused a 7-year-old boy when he came to Australia from New Zealand to preach in 1969 and 1970.

Frank Houston started Sydney Christian Life Centre, the forerunner to Hillsong Church, in 1977. He died in 2004.

Brian Houston gave evidence to the inquiry in 2014 that he knew his father was at risk of being charged while alive. He added that he did not report his father because he believed it was up to the victim to decide how to proceed, according to the inquiry.

“Rightly or wrongly, I genuinely believed that I would be preempting the victim, if I were to just call the police at that point,” he testified.

The inquiry concluded that he knew his father’s actions were criminal, but that he “made no attempt to report his father to the police at the time the confession was made.”

According to the inquiry’s final report, Houston testified that, upon hearing the allegations against Frank Houston, he was shocked because “Frank is my father.” He decided to confront him, and after hearing his father’s confession, Houston took steps to investigate on behalf of the church. Houston later ended his father’s preaching career.

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