ABC Investigations / By Lorna Knowles
Three years ago, Hillsong Church founder Brian Houston tweeted: “Failure is never wasted if you are teachable, humble and transparent enough to grow and change.”
Yet it was a lack of transparency from Hillsong that has sparked a major rift within the mega-church and led to the unravelling of Mr Houston’s legacy.
Mr Houston and his wife Bobbie established the church in 1983 in Sydney’s north-west.
Today, it is a global empire with ministries, a 24-hour television channel and colleges across six continents and has attracted celebrity worshippers such as Justin Bieber, Chris Pratt and Kylie Jenner.
In January, the 67-year-old announced he would step aside as the church leader to defend a criminal charge that he had concealed his father’s child sexual abuse.
He made no mention at the time of two women’s complaints about his own inappropriate behaviour.
This angered a group of Sydney-based church elders, who believed it amounted to a “cover up” by the board.
Last week, one elder resigned after reading a letter from one of the female complainants to his leadership team.
Unable to contain the leaks, acting Hillsong senior global pastor, Phil Dooley, decided to act.
On Friday, he called an emergency meeting of 800 global staff to detail what he described as Mr Houston’s “indiscretions”.
The revelations were extraordinary and have sent shock waves through the church, with some asking why Mr Houston was permitted to resign and was not sacked.
During the emotional Zoom conference, Pastor Dooley denied any allegations of a cover-up, stating the board acted appropriately under the circumstances.
He said the decision was made to offer “grace”.
“We have always been a church that sees the grace of God expressed in Jesus and that our desire is not to expose anyone,” he said.
Pastor Dooley and the Hillsong Global Board said an investigation into two incidents involving Mr Houston — almost a decade apart — found he breached the church’s moral code for pastors.
The church said Mr Houston engaged in conduct of “serious concern”, and offered an unreserved apology to his “victims”.
In a detailed letter sent to members, the church said Mr Houston sent “inappropriate text messages” to a female staffer in 2013.
Pastor Dooley said the texts were along the lines of: “‘If I was with you, I’d like to kiss and cuddle you, words of that nature”.
The female staff member was “obviously upset and felt awkward” and complained to Hillsong general manager George Aghajanian before resigning.
Mr Houston apologised immediately and later paid the woman a few months salary as compensation.
The church said at the time, Mr Houston was under the influence of sleeping tablets, which he had developed a dependency on.
Though the church has since helped Mr Houston kick his dependency, medication would later play a role in another incident at an annual conference opened by his friend Prime Minister Scott Morrison.
In 2019, Mr Houston “became disorientated… following the consumption of anti-anxiety medication beyond the prescribed dose, mixed with alcohol”.
The church said Mr Houston was drinking with a group of people and after being locked out of his hotel room, ended up knocking on the door of a woman who he met earlier in foyer of the Pullman Hotel.
The woman, who was not a member of the church, opened the door and Mr Houston went into her room and spent 40 minutes there.
Pastor Dooley said “no sexual activity” was reported, but the woman raised it with the church’s leadership team.
The investigation did not uphold all parts of her complaint but “important elements of the complaint were sustained and the conduct was of serious concern”.
“Ultimately, the board found that Brian had breached the Hillsong Pastor’s Code of Conduct,” the global board said in a statement published on the weekend.
It was decided that Mr Houston would take three months off, during which time he would abstain from alcohol. Pastor Dooley said he unfortunately did not keep his promise.
It was brought to the board’s attention in December — just before he announced he was stepping aside due to the court case.
Yesterday, Pastor Dooley called another emergency meeting to inform staff Mr Houston had resigned.
Space to play or pause, M to mute, left and right arrows to seek, up and down arrows for volume.
Former Hillsong members who were shunned by the church for “moral failings” told the ABC they were devastated by the findings against the church leader.
Though the church apologised for his behaviour, it thanked Mr Houston and his wife for their commitment and service to Hillsong and said it would pray for their wellbeing.
Pastor Dooley said announcing Mr Houston’s resignation was one the hardest days of his life.
At the helm of the country’s dominant Pentecostal force, Mr Houston steered Hillsong through scandal after scandal, including allegations of worker exploitation, misuse of grants and anti-gay stances.
But yesterday was the final fall from grace for the embattled pastor, who has remained silent from his home in California since the complaints were aired.
He is not expected to return to Australia until his criminal trial begins in December.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison is yet to issue a statement about his friend Mr Houston, who he thanked in his maiden speech to federal parliament in 2008.
Mr Houston made global headlines in 2019 after the Wall Street Journal revealed that Donald Trump’s White House rejected repeated requests by Mr Morrison’s office to include him on an exclusive guest list to a state dinner.
Pastor Dooley will remain in the top job until a successor is found, and has acknowledged a “change is needed”.
In the meantime, the church board says it will review its governance structure and processes to prevent a repeat of past mistakes.
As Pastor Dooley told his followers on Friday: “Sin is messy”.