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The Sins of the Father

10 min read

There are some big, heavy themes in this post. Please come back to it later if it’s too much for you.

I write to process. Often I delete or save things in draft, but the act of committing to sentences helps me figure out how I feel and how to frame things I’m wrestling with. At times I can make meaning, make peace.

You may have seen yesterday that Hillsong Founder Brian Houston was found not guilty of concealing his father’s sexual abuse of a child.

I was there that morning in 1999, when Brian told the church about his father’s “moral failure”. Good Christian soldier that I was, earlier that week I’d called his PA and spoken to her about it, there were rumours on the internet I’d heard about, and in a show of loyalty I wanted to make sure he knew. The internet was like a new toy then, dial-up and expensive, social media and smart phones still years away, websites were clunky. A rumour on the internet today is not worth raising an eyebrow, back then it was significant.

Before the service Brian smiled and thanked me for making the call. I felt good, like I’d done the right thing. Belonging is a powerful driver of behaviour. I’d been part of Hillsong since I was 13.

On stage, he framed it as being an event many years ago. We didn’t know the details, it sounded like a one-off thing, “moral failure” being a term used widely for pastors who had affairs. It seemed like something inappropriate my circle of church friends and I thought, obviously not ok, but surely not worse than that. We never really talked about it.

The structure of churches like Hillsong means questioning of leadership is actively discouraged. Headship models mean lack of accountability is rife. Cognitive dissonance and magical thinking abound.

Brian shared that morning how painful it had been for him and how disappointed he was, his idol and ministry example had fallen from grace. He was worried about what his kids would think. There was no word of the child, no reference to how it had been addressed.

We never for a second suspected the sins of his father could have been the devastating, repeated child sexual abuse and rape of many boys over many years. We couldn’t have imagined Brian didn’t go to the police or follow what we assumed were the reporting procedures in place to handle something like that in the then Assemblies of God (now Australian Christian Churches).

We trusted him and the church leaders to handle it properly. Frank was after all, still coming to church from time to time, still on the front row at Hillsong Conference events, still being honoured by Brian publicly. We assumed it must have all been above board. How wrong we were. How sorry I am not to have had the language or understanding, ability to challenge, think critically and ask questions that I have today. I was in my twenties and this community was my family.

Hillsong and the AOG should have publicly done everything in their power to make things right, apologised and developed reporting and accountability measures that should have already been in place. These don’t exist even now within the ACC to the standard they should. I hold far too many stories of people who have experienced grooming, abuse, manipulation and assault that happens in these churches. These things should not be so.

Of course, Frank should have been reported, he should have lived out his years in jail. As shattering as it would have been, Brian should have let things implode. The boy, turned man, who had come forward should have been treated with compassion and dignity. His story should have been centred, appropriate support should have been given.

We know abuse happens in every institution. But what is devastating about church abuse is the level of trust given, the ways in which a person’s faith and spirituality is devastated in the process, the shame experienced because of church teachings on purity and sexuality, the burden victims feel not to rock the boat or risk the reputation of the abuser or the church for fear of people’s eternal destiny being at stake. It is trauma and too much in every sense.

I worked for an agency of the Uniting Church in the years after the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse. I watched them tirelessly, and with ownership and humility, establish redress processes, create liturgies for repentance, sell properties and commit resources to ensuring Uniting Church spaces would be as safe as possible. They set up a unit to manage the complaints and they apologised. They set up survivor-centric processes to receive people’s stories. They invited them.

This, in stark contrast to what I have seen from Hillsong and other Pentecostal (evangelical) churches and movements who remain defensive and tight fisted, more concerned with the reputation of the church and the power that would be lost if people were to be exposed, if money were to be committed to making things right.

I have heard it said so many times, “but look at all the good the church does, you’re focussing on the negatives” and honestly, this argument makes me want to punch something. It’s costly work if the assault of children is worth that. Toxic positivity perpetuates these cycles. It’s like saying #notallmen. Obviously, not all men and not all churches, but throwing hands up in the air and pointing to the good to defend the rotten and the evil, isn’t going to lead to church growth.

What is ironic and not well thought through is how much more inviting and healthy church could be for people if it modelled consequences and accountability for abuse, safety for the vulnerable and justice and healing for those who have been wronged. The Hillsong community would have been able to care for Brian, his family and the impact on them and support a process of justice and compensation for Frank’s victims, being led by them. It could have been a model for doing this well. It would have been hard and messy and no doubt left many disillusioned, but that has happened anyway.

Instead, the dynamics and narrative continue to serve the small number of power holders and as victim-survivor Brett Sengstock said after the court hearing yesterday, it shouldn’t be this hard.

To Brett and the other incredibly brave ones who have been public about Frank’s abuse – I’m so sorry this has been your journey. You are so right, it shouldn’t be this hard to get justice or even acknowledgment of wrongdoing.

The pain and anger this has stirred up among so many, again, is so real. The sense of personal and institutional betrayal, the grief and rage, makes it hard to breathe.

I wasn’t expecting criminal consequences for Brian’s actions through the system. I think many were hoping for a different outcome and had perhaps seen this as an opportunity for a sense of justice for all of the ways they’ve been hurt by church and what Brian represents. We often want to burn it all down. The ways in which leaders turn things around and make it about their own persecution at times is also crazy making.

But neat resolutions are unlikely to come and we must tend to our healing.

If you’re feeling rattled by this news, perhaps for ways you can’t find words for yet or it’s brought up big emotions, talk about them, let them work their way through your body. Dance, shake, walk, run, yell. Who can you talk to and express what you’re feeling? What are you doing for your own radical self-care? Radical because self-care often involves removing ourselves from situations and setting boundaries; Getting off social media, avoiding the news, putting our faces in the sun and finding time to process and be still.

Feel free to reach out to me, DM on Instagram or email me. And if you’d like to make a time to talk in more detail, I’m here.

Be kind to yourself. Go gently.

PS. Also if you’d like to read my story, you can download it here. If money is an issue I’ll just email it to you, let me know. Sometimes it helps to see ourselves reflected in someone else’s experience.

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