The mother of the man who was raped as a child by pentecostal preacher Frank Houston “tried to dissuade” her son from publicly revealing the “sordid mess”, a Sydney court has heard.
Another relative – a senior church pastor – told him he would be supported if he kept his complaint within the church but if he went to “the secular courts” he would be abandoned.
Brett Sengstock was a seven-year-old boy in 1970 when Frank Houston, then a senior pastor with the Assemblies of God, began assaulting him over years, including raping him in his bedroom in the family home in Sydney.
Frank Houston died in 2004. His son, the founder of the Hillsong megachurch Brian Houston, is currently on trial for failing to report his father’s abuse to police after his father admitted it to him in 1999.
Brian Houston has pleaded not guilty to one charge of concealing a serious indictable offence of another person.
On Monday, in Sydney’s Downing Centre local court, Sengstock said he first told his mother of Frank Houston’s abuse about nine years after it occurred – when he was 16 – after he was sent by his mother to see Frank Houston for counselling. Frank Houston was masturbating under his desk during the meeting causing Sengstock to leave, he told the court.
In the witness box on Tuesday, Sengstock, who has chosen to waive his right to anonymity, was shown diary entries written by his late mother written about 15 years after he says he first reported Frank Houston’s offending.
In 1994, when Sengstock was 32, she wrote her son’s allegations were “a bombshell” and that she felt “my whole foundations are rocking”.
She wrote that she visited her son and “talked to him to try to dissuade him from publicising this sordid mess”.
Brian Houston’s defence barrister Phillip Boulten SC said the diary entries implied Sengstock had first told his mother of the offending in 1994 – not when he was a teenager in about 1979. “It looks like that’s when you told your mum for the first time,” Boulten said.
Sengstock rejected this stating: “I told her when I was 16.”
Sengstock said when he confronted Frank Houston over his abuse, Frank Houston apologised, sought forgiveness and “was emotional”, but, Sengstock said, “without being sorry for the damage he caused, only that it might be exposed”.
The court heard on Monday that in 1999 Sengstock signed a blank napkin at a meeting with Frank Houston at a McDonald’s restaurant in exchange for agreeing to accept a $10,000 payment, which he described as him being “paid for my silence”.
When the money had not arrived weeks later, Sengstock called Brian Houston who, Sengstock said, told him: “You know this is all your fault, you tempted my father.” The money was ultimately paid.
In court on Tuesday, Boulten put it to Sengstock that Brian Houston never said those words to him. “He did say that,” Sengstock said.
Barbara Taylor, Sengstock’s great-aunt, was a pastor at Emmanuel Christian Family Church when she was informed of Frank Houston’s abuse by Sengstock’s mother in 1998.
She said she was shocked to learn of Frank Houston’s offending, but did not tell anyone because she had committed to keeping it confidential.
Giving evidence on Tuesday, she was taken to contemporaneous diary entries where she wrote she had counselled Sengstock not to tell police. She wrote that she told him: “If he goes to the church I will stand with him, if he goes to the secular courts, I will not.”
In court she said: “I believe that judgment should begin at the house of God. I believe the church should have disciplined him. Not only disciplined the perpetrator, but minister to the wounded man.”
“The court could bring justice but not reconciliation and as a pastor, I’m into reconciliation,” Taylor said.
She later wrote in her diary: “I believe Frank is guilty that he needs to repent to Brett and seek to restore his confidence (if that is possible).”
In court on Tuesday she said: “I was trying to negotiate a meeting so that he could ask for forgiveness from Brett, so Brett could be healed inside, because this family really loved Frank Houston.”
Taylor told the court her efforts to broker a reconciliation “failed miserably” but said she did not know how she was supposed to respond to allegations of abuse.
“Now, we’ve been given very clear direction about what we should do. But at that time, it was very vague.”
Brian Houston and his wife Bobbie founded the Hills Christian Life centre in 1983, which, in 2001, merged with the inner Sydney parishes founded by his father to become Hillsong. The pentecostal, evangelical Hillsong has since grown to become a global megachurch with places of worship in 30 countries.
Brian Houston was the most senior member of the Assemblies of God church when he confronted his father about the allegations of abuse in 1999, and his father confessed to them.
The court has heard this week it would not be contested that Frank Houston sexually assaulted and raped Sengstock as a child.
During opening statements on Monday, Boulten told the court Brian Houston’s defence for not reporting his father’s crimes to police would be predicated on him having a “reasonable excuse” – that he understood Sengstock did not want his allegation reported or investigated by police.
Boulten said Sengstock was “adamant” at that time he did not want Frank Houston’s offending reported or investigated. “He was making it very clear he did not want the police involved.”
Boulten told the court there were “tens of thousands of people”, including members of the NSW police, who also knew of the allegations but did not report them.
The hearing, before magistrate Gareth Christofi, continues.