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Hillsong Church founder found not guilty of concealing his father's child sex crimes

Hillsong church founder Brian Houston arrives Thursday at the Downing Centre Local Court in Sydney. He was ruled not guilty of a charge of concealing his father's child sex crimes.
Bianca De Marchi
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AAP Image via AP
Hillsong church founder Brian Houston arrives Thursday at the Downing Centre Local Court in Sydney. He was ruled not guilty of a charge of concealing his father's child sex crimes.

CANBERRA, Australia — Hillsong Church founder Brian Houston was ruled not guilty Thursday of an Australian charge of concealing his father's child sex crimes.

Houston, 69, was the Sydney-based church's senior global pastor when police charged him two years ago with concealing a serious indictable offense. He resigned from his church roles months later.

Sydney Magistrate Gareth Christofi ruled Brian Houston had a reasonable excuse for not reporting Frank Houston's offenses to police. Christofi accepted that Houston believed the victim Brett Sengstock did not want the abuse in the 1970s reported to police.

Sengstock testified in the trial that began in December that he never told Houston not to report the abuse.

Sengstock told reporters outside court that the verdict blamed him for the church's failure to report the elder Houston to police.

"Frank Houston was no pioneer for Christianity. His legacy remains a faded memory of a pedophile," Sengstock told reporters.

The Associated Press does not usually identify victims or alleged victims of sexual abuse, but Sengstock has chosen to identify himself in the media.

"Regardless of today's outcome, I have received a life sentence. Blaming the victim is as repulsive as the assaults themselves," Sengstock added.

The magistrate said that regardless of what Sengstock told Houston, Houston had been told of Sengstock's attitude by others.

"Victims of sexual abuse ought to feel safe to confide in others without being concerned they are exposing those others to a criminal offense," Christofi said.

Houston appeared teary-eyed when he spoke to media outside court.

"I want to express my sadness to Brett Sengstock, genuine sadness about what my father did to him and all his victims. He was obviously a serial pedophile. We probably will never know the extent of his pedophilia," Houston told reporters.

"A lot of people's lives have been tragically hurt and for that I'll always be very sad. But I'm not my father," he added.

Hillsong acknowledged the ruling in a statement from the church. "Our prayer is that those impacted deeply and irrevocably by the actions of Frank Houston will find peace and healing, and that our former senior pastor Brian Houston and his family can look to the future and continue to fulfil God's purpose for their lives," it said.

Houston became aware in 1999 of his father's abuse of the then-7-year-old Sengstock. His father confessed and was defrocked as an Assemblies of God pastor. Frank Houston died in 2004 at age 82 without being charged.

Brian Houston shared information about his father's crimes with church leaders but not with police.

Prosecutor Dareth Harrison said Houston had found a convenient excuse to avoid reporting the allegation to authorities to protect both the church and his father.

Christofi said proving that motivation beyond reasonable doubt was a "tall order indeed."

Prosecutors also submitted that Brian Houston had used vague language when he spoke publicly about his father's abuse and removal as a minister.

Christofi found that while Brian Houston might have used euphemisms in public, his meaning was obvious and speaking "widely and freely" about his father's abuse indicated Houston wanted people to know, the magistrate said.

"That is the very opposite of a cover-up," Christofi said.

The charge followed the findings of an Australian government inquiry published in 2015 into institutional responses to allegations of child sex abuse.

The inquiry found Frank Houston had been allowed to retire quietly in response to his crimes. Brian Houston had faced a potential 5-year prison sentence if convicted.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

The Associated Press