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Australian megachurch co-founder resigns over complaints of unwelcome behavior to women

Hillsong co-founder Brian Houston speaks onstage during the Hillsong Atlanta grand opening on June 6. (Marcus Ingram/Getty Images)

MELBOURNE, Australia — The leader and co-founder of Hillsong megachurch Brian Houston has resigned after two complaints of unwelcome behavior toward women were investigated by the church board.

A statement released by the board on Wednesday said it had accepted Houston’s resignation and would conduct an independent review of its governance structure and processes during a “time of humble reflection.” The news followed a statement on Friday that detailed the two complaints made against Houston.

About 10 years ago he sent “inappropriate text messages” to a staff member who then resigned, according to the board statement released Friday. It said Houston had a dependence on sleeping pills — from which he has since recovered — and was under the influence of the medication when he sent the messages.

Hillsong board blames anxiety drug, alcohol for landing Brian Houston in a woman’s hotel room

The second incident happened in 2019 at the annual Hillsong Conference, which takes place in Sydney and was opened that year by Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison. Houston knocked on a hotel room door and spent "time with the female occupant,” the board statement said. The church investigation found Houston was disoriented after taking anti-anxiety medication beyond the prescribed dose mixed with alcohol.

The board’s statement did not detail what happened in the woman’s hotel room. According to the Australian Broadcasting Corp., Hillsong interim senior global pastor Phil Dooley told a global meeting of 800 church members on Friday that “the truth is we don't know what happened next.”

“The woman has not said there was any sexual activity,” he reportedly added. “Brian has said there was no sexual activity but he was in the room for 40 minutes.”

Houston had been on leave since January after he was charged by Australian police with concealing sexual abuse perpetrated by his late father, Frank Houston, also a pastor — unrelated to the two complaints made by women.

Authorities allege Frank Houston indecently assaulted a young male in the 1970s and that Brian Houston knew from 1999 but failed to inform police before his father’s death in 2004. He has pleaded not guilty and the matter is yet to be tested in court.

An Australian state banned singing and dancing during covid. Then the Hillsong megachurch held a ‘youth camp.’

The influential Pentecostal church was founded by Brian Houston and his wife, Bobbie, in the Sydney neighborhood of Baulkham Hills in 1983. It has grown to draw 150,000 people to 30 churches worldwide, according to Hillsong, which says its 500 Christian music tracks are sung by 50 million people in 60 languages each week. The celebrity-friendly institution that once counted Justin Bieber as its most famous member has drawn Chris Pratt and a Kardashian sister to services.

A series of controversies have beset the church in recent years. Carl Lentz, a high-profile pastor in the New York branch of the church, was fired two years ago after it emerged he’d had extramarital affairs. Justin and Hailey Bieber distanced themselves from Hillsong after that revelation.

The Sydney branch was criticized for holding a youth camp with singing and dancing despite a ban on music festivals during a strict covid lockdown in January, but was not fined by authorities.

Last year, Australian TV program 60 Minutes aired an allegation from a woman that she had been raped on church premises and that Hillsong did not satisfactorily respond to her complaint. Another woman criticized the church for continuing to employ a staff member at its Sydney college who had pleaded guilty to indecently assaulting her while she was a student.

The church denies it inadequately responded to either incident and called the reporting “factually wrong, sensationalized, unbalanced and highly unethical.”

In its Wednesday statement, the Hillsong board said it was “extremely grateful for all that Brian and Bobbie have given to build His house” and that “we ask that you continue to pray for them, and the entire Houston family, during this challenging time.”