Hillsong church founder Pastor Brian Houston allegedly told a man who had been repeatedly raped as a child by Houston’s father “you know this is all your fault, you tempted my father,” Sydney’s Downing Centre local court heard on Monday.
The man who was sexually assaulted by Pastor Frank Houston as a child said he was pressured by the church not to report it to “the secular courts” and told he would be abandoned by the church if he reported his assault to police.
Brian Houston’s father, Frank Houston, repeatedly raped and assaulted a young church member, Brett Sengstock, beginning when the boy was seven years old, in 1970.
Brian Houston is on trial for failing to report the abuse to police after his father confessed in 1999 to sexually assaulting the boy.
Brian Houston has pleaded not guilty to one count of concealing a serious indictable offence of another person. His trial, before magistrate Gareth Christofi, is set down for three weeks.
Houston has repeatedly maintained he did not report the allegation to police because Sengstock did not want that to happen. Sengstock has since waived his right to anonymity as a victim of child sexual abuse.
In an opening statement, crown prosecutor Gareth Harrison told the court that in January 1970 Frank Houston, then a pastor with the Assemblies of God church, was visiting Sydney and stayed with the Sengstock family for a week. At night, he came into Sengstock’s room and sexually assaulted him while he was sleeping, placing his hands on his genitals, masturbating him and inserting a finger into his anus.
Brett Sengstock was the first witness called on Monday. He told the court that following the first incident in January 1970 he was “repeatedly” raped by Frank Houston.
He said that years later, as a teenager, he was sent by his mother to Houston for counselling, because he was “running off the road with the law”.
He went to Houston’s office at the Christian Life Centre in central Sydney.
Sengstock told the court that when he visited Houston, the pastor was masturbating under the table, and that he ran out of the centre and went home. He said he then told his mother that Houston had been “molesting” him for several years, and that she went “dead silent”.
“I knew I was in trouble,” he told the court, claiming his family were usually strict with him and that he had previously “received bashings every day in accordance with their religion”. He said he was frightened of his mother when he told her, and that she ultimately responded by saying she didn’t want to be responsible for turning in people from the church because it would be “like a mortal sin”.
Sengstock said he didn’t tell anyone else about the alleged abuse, because in the church homosexuality was frowned upon and because he was “anally raped repeatedly by Frank Houston, I felt that I had committed a sin”.
Sengstock’s mother told another family member who held a senior position in the church, and senior church officials were also informed of the abuse.
A church leader wrote to him, saying “the secular courts are not the way to go,” and telling him he would “get a fair hearing” within the church.
Confronted about the abuse, Frank Houston sought to apologise, telling his victim “he needed his forgiveness because he could not die and face God with this on his head”.
In November 1999, Sengstock met Frank Houston at a McDonald’s in Thornleigh, in Sydney’s north, where he was asked to sign a blank napkin in exchange for $10,000. Sengstock signed, but Houston did not pay the money, the court heard.
Weeks later, Sengstock phoned Brian Houston, asking what had happened to the payment he had been promised by his father.
Sengstock told the court that in that phone call Brian Houston said to him: “You know this is all your fault. You tempted my father.”
He told the court he was “deeply hurt” by the comment, and asked Brian Houston if he had also been “molested by Frank”.
Sengstock said Brian Houston responded angrily, “yelling and swearing” before saying “you’ll be getting your money” and hanging up.
Several weeks later a cheque for $10,000 arrived. In court, Sengstock was asked why he didn’t report his abuse to police.
He replied: “Quite frankly it was because I was paid for my silence.”
Houston contests the details of this phone call, the court heard, saying that allegation “has absolutely no foundation in truth”.
His defence barrister, Phillip Boulten SC, said when Houston learned of his father’s offending in 1999, the victim was 36 and was “adamant” he did not want a police report filed.
“He was making it very clear he did not want the police involved.”
In court on Monday, Sengstock was asked about his evidence to the royal commission into child abuse and agreed he gave testimony saying he did not want any formal investigation of his abuse, telling the commission he would have been “shattered” if someone had reported his abuse to police without his permission.
In court, he said he had felt unable to speak out against the church: “I was in the moral and spiritual control of Frank and the church”.
Houston has previously described learning of his father’s offending as a devastating moment in his life.
Much of the early evidence focused on whether Sengstock’s alleged unwillingness to go to police was a reasonable excuse for Brian Houston not to report his father’s crime.
Boulten said by the time Frank Houston died in 2004, “tens of thousands” of people knew of his offending, almost certainly including members of the NSW police, and none of those made a formal complaint.
Boulten told the court Brian Houston did not report the offending to police because that was the victim’s express wish.
“There is one person who did not want to go to the police, and that is the complainant in this case.
“Your honour cannot be satisfied beyond reasonable doubt that he did not have a reasonable excuse for not reporting this to police.”
However, the prosecution argued before the court that Brian Houston failed to tell police of his father’s crimes out of self-interest.
“The prosecution case is that he didn’t report not because of what the complainant wanted but because of other reasons … The primary prosecution case is the reason he didn’t report it was to protect his father and the church,” Harrison said.
“He knew the identity of the perpetrator, he knew the identity of the complainant, he knew the complainant was a child at the time of the offence. The prosecution case is that the accused failed to bring that to the attention of police and did so without reasonable excuse.”
The trial continues.
• In Australia, children, young adults, parents and teachers can contact the Kids Helpline on 1800 55 1800, or Bravehearts on 1800 272 831, and adult survivors can contact Blue Knot Foundation on 1300 657 380