The Guardian • Issue #1974

Questions raised on PM’s friendship to Hillsong Church founder following abuse concealment charge

A two-year investigation has led to Hillsong pastor Brian Houston being charged with obscuring information regarding the historical sexual abuse of a seven-year-old boy.

“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,” a NSW Police spokesperson said.

Hillsong Church released a statement in which it firmly casts Houston as innocent to the charges. However, sources relating events to the investigation accused him of failing to report the abuse Houston’s late father Frank Houston committed.

“Child abuse is abhorrent but attempting to blame Pastor Brian and tarnish his reputation is not going to advance the cause of any victim. Pastor Brian has ensured that Hillsong Church has a zero-tolerance policy for abusers and has best-practice child-protection policies and procedures in place,” says the statement.

The choice to put a “but” after “child abuse is abhorrent” detracts from victims’ experiences and the seriousness of the abuse. The statement puts emphasis instead on Houston’s reputation.

Frank Houston abused several young boys from between 1965 and 1977. When the mother of one victim reported it to Hillsong Church elders, the victim asked them not to report it to the police. Brian Houston sacked his father and put him on a church pension.

The fact that Frank Houston was a child sex abuser became an open secret in the community, but Brian Houston never reported his father’s crimes to the police.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison is himself a Pentecostal Christian and attends Horizon Church in Sydney’s Sutherland Shire. In fact, he’s the first Pentecostal leader in the West. Morrison considers Brian Houston a close friend and cites him as an inspiration, even acknowledging him in his first parliamentary speech.

In 2019, he wanted to invite Brian Houston to a state dinner at the White House during his visit to the United States. The Hillsong Pastor was also allowed to leave for Mexico just two weeks prior to the charges against him being made public. NSW’s Police Minister David Elliot called Brian Houston an “ungrateful twat” in an interview with Peter FitzSimons for the Sydney Morning Herald.

“[Brian Houston] had to go overseas and he wanted preferential treatment for quarantine, to go into a five-star suite,” Minister Elliot said. “We arranged it – despite the fact that the Pope, President Biden and Foreign Minister Marise Payne can do most of their foreign work remotely, and he is just a suburban preacher – and then he criticised our COVID policy!”

Morrison claims that his Pentecostal faith remains separate from his politics. Though, a belief in the divine struggle between good and the evil of the Christian devil must influence followers’ perspectives beyond Sunday. Mega-churches have a history of inserting themselves into public affairs.

Professor Jean Comaroff, who writes on African and African American Studies and of Anthropology, penned a paper titled “Pentecostalism, Populism and the New Politics of Affect.” It discusses the role these churches play in global economies, welfare as well as public affairs.

“In England and the US, Pentecostal corporations run a growing number of privatised prisons,” Professor Jean Comaroff writes. “In America, mega-churches have become sites ‘where Wall Street meets the pulpit,’ where pastor-CEOs preach a ‘gospel of entrepreneurship and sound business practices’ that many see as a response to God’s call, which enjoins to economically empower the humble.”

Professor Comaroff refers to government and business’ current relationships to faith as “post-secular.” It stands to reason that in this atmosphere, it’s hard to take Morrison’s separation between the two at face value.

When the Pentecostal movement developed in the USA during the late 19th century and into the early 20th century, many denominations taught pacifism and many followers were conscientious objectors.

In the 1950s and 60s the Pentecostal movement became politicised. Many white American Pentecostal churches aligned themselves with the Republican Party, while majority black congregations found themselves affiliated with the Democrats.

In this time, evangelical pastors began turning to television to reach wider audiences and espouse conservative beliefs. These include belief in a literal heaven and a “fire and brimstone” depiction of hell; the direct experience of the Holy Spirit through individuals and their being born again; and morality stemming from biblical literalness and belief in the inerrancy of the Bible, and growing wealth.

After the 1960s, Pentecostalism grew in the Global South and took off in Australia in the 1970s. This is linked to the suburban sprawl and the lack of institutions and social infrastructure established. While the movement in the United States influenced Australia’s own Evangelical movements, there differences have developed.

In Australia’s Pentecostal churches, there’s an emphasis on personal experience over dogma. However, the Prime Minister’s Horizon Church is a member of Australian Christian Churches. Churches that are a part of the Pentecostal network adhere to a statement, which includes “the personality of the devil, who, by his influence, brought about the downfall of man, and now seeks to destroy the faith of every believer in the Lord Jesus Christ.”

Australian Pentecostal churches such as Houston’s Hillsong or the PM’s Horizon, require its followers to believe that Jesus is a guiding hand in all aspects of life. While Prime Minister Scott Morrison may not openly proselytise or divulge details on his spiritual life, it’s quite clear that these churches require their beliefs to underpin how followers like Morrison live every day. It’s hard to imagine that this excludes his Prime Ministership.

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