Tanya Levin, author of People in Glass Houses, explains why Hillsong should absolutely be answerable to the Royal Commission for its response to the sexual crimes of its founder.
It’s been seven interesting years since People In Glass Houses came out, interesting for a number of reasons. Since that time, the membership of Hillsong has grown to an estimated 100 000 around the world, and more and more branches have popped up.
The message of Hillsong has changed. You don’t have to believe definite things. It’s open to a lot more interpretation, certainly much more than when I was a young person attending Pastor Brian Houston’s small 300-strong congregation 30 years ago, and even compared with ten years ago.
Recent theological movements have relinquished the absolute necessity of believing in some of the old favourites like hell, or Eden, or even the idea that the Muslim god is any different to the Christian god. The issue of accepting gay and lesbian people into Hillsong is up in the air but it seems this is changing too. It’s all about acceptance now, and finding your purpose in life.
The music is more wildly popular than ever, so much so that Warner Bros is in the process of filming a Hillsong movie about Hillsong United, Joel Houston’s (Brian’s eldest son) band and the success of his fabulous parents.
There’s just one problem for a church that is defying the odds and growing globally in membership. The founder, Frank Houston, Brian’s late father, was a sex offender. Some of these offences were against adults, some against children. All, as far as has been established, were against males. And this fact isn’t going away.
It frustrates me that the question I am asked most often is about the church’s finances: “Where does the money go?” or “How much do they really make?” seems to be the matter of most concern for the general population.
As I outline in my book. the most alarming part was when Pastor Brian Houston was revealing to his congregation that his father had privately admitted that he was guilty of sex offences. I was present at one of the services when Brian informed his congregation, after asking for only the close members to stay. For me, it was abhorrent. Pastor Brian talked only about the impact on his own family and his church. In later interviews and in the pulpit he described his distress, but there is still no policy in place for the reporting of child abuse to authorities, or for how victims should be treated.
Now, 12 years after Brian’s speech, the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse wants to speak to him.
There will be many who argue, as Hillsong did, that what Frank did was a long time ago, and the man has been dead ten years as well.
Still, this is the whole point of the Royal Commission. Not that it happened, but what the people with power did about it. It is often the cover up that seems to cause more damage than the incidents themselves.
It is the parents who fail to believe their children that cause the long-term damage. It is the priests who cover up for their colleagues, deny what happened and prevent the justice of the courts that underlie the reasons people abandon their faith. As we have seen in Australia, the refusal to say sorry is a powerful weapon to wield.
Hillsong’s response to Frank Houston’s crimes was appalling. At no time were the crimes reported to the police. Of the two men who came forward with allegations, one was underage at the time of the offence. The Assemblies of God in Australia, of which Brian was president at the time, refused to have anything to do with these men, and it was AoG New Zealand who eventually took their complaints seriously.
But of course, there were more. More recent evidence indicates there were several younger boys molested by Houston Sr in NZ in the 1970s, leading to his sacking from a church.
There is also another reported case of a man who was molested by Frank every time the elder Houston stayed at his home from the age of 7 onwards. The abuse lasted for years. When he finally mustered the courage up to tell his parents, they refused to support him in any way, threatening to cut him off completely.
There are lots of sinister stories, but that’s not the point. The Royal Commission will expose and hopefully instruct institutions that such offences are crimes.
While priests or pastors or any kind of religious leaders think they are not answerable to the laws of the land, the people they claim to represent are not safe.
It will be interesting to see how Brian Houston takes sitting in the witness box in a court of law. A place where there is no music, no warm lights, no crowd of supportive fans hanging on his every word.
The Pentecostal movement is inherently irrational as it promises many outcomes it can never deliver. As the bar keeps moving, its own doctrine is unreliable. Thus their methods of logic can be constantly shifting. The courtroom will come as an enormous shock to Brian, unless they are kind to him, because he has always been in complete control of his audience. He has always been able to explain and re-explain on his own terms.
Much more urgently, the questions asked of him will be of a standard he does not yet understand: that of the society in which he lives. Hillsong do not understand that the laws of the land, unlike the laws of the bible, are not open to any interpretation that suits your speech. Rather, the law is very clear in many areas about expectations regarding behaviour.
Going to Hillsong is a choice, of course, and I’m told frequently that it’s not a bad one if you appreciate it for its good side. However, people are entitled to informed consent, and they are entitled to practice their faith in a place that is safe and law abiding.
Attendees are entitled to know that their children are safe in the crèches and nurseries that Hillsong provide, as well as at youth groups and camps. They should know that should any inappropriate sexual behaviour be inflicted upon a child in Hillsong’s care, Hillsong will immediately act in the most ethical and legal way to protect that child or young person, as a crucial part of their care.
Judging from how they have responded to child sexual assault so far, I would have no confidence in any of that happening. People need to know. Even though they participate by choice, Hillsong’s 100 000 members still have rights.
Publisher’s Note: Hillsong Church have released a statement confirming they have a zero tolerance for sexual abuse and have comprehensive child protection policies which are constantly reviewed.