William Francis “Frank” Houston abused as many as nine boys across Australia and New Zealand between 1965 and 1977.
Houston was born and raised in New Zealand. Soon after turning eighteen, Houston commenced officer training for the Salvation Army. Around this time, Houston married his wife Hazel. Together, the couple had five children.
Houston and his wife transferred to the Baptist Church, then joined the Assemblies of God (AOG) in New Zealand. The AOG had a particular focus on the power of the Holy Spirit, believing that Christians today can ask God to do the miracles and healings mentioned in the Bible. It was a small (Pentecostal) church denomination, somewhat outside the mainstream at that time.
Houston rose through the AOG ranks quickly. He became the Superintendent for the whole of New Zealand in 1965 and maintained the position until 1971. It seems it was around this time, as his fame grew, Houston began sexually abusing young boys from church families.
Houston gained a reputation as a fiery preacher who spoke with authority. He practised faith healing and prophecy in church meetings. Soon he was invited to speak and minister at Pentecostal Churches in Australia.
He made several of his own ministry-related trips to Australia while his family was still living in New Zealand.
In Australia, Houston was put up in the homes of families who attended the churches where he’d been invited to speak. This was a common practice. It seems it was around this time Houston started abusing Brett Sengstock, a seven-year-old boy from Sydney.
The Sengstocks invited Houston into their home. They were generous Christian people who opened their doors to Houston and sometimes his teenage son, Brian.
Frank Houston would sneak into Brett’s room at night and sexually assault him on a regular basis. The abuse continued until Brett was 12-years-old. Many years later, Brett told 60 Minutes it was like he had been “murdered” and his innocence died from the first instance of abuse.
In 1977, Frank Houston and his family moved to Sydney where he felt there were better opportunities to grow a larger ministry. He was already known there. He started the Sydney Christian Life Centre (Sydney CLC) in a rented hall in Double Bay.
Houston was energetic and ambitious. He had grand visions of growing a large church. The CLC movement was his own idea – Houston started twenty CLC churches in Australia as well as his own Bible College for training church pastors.
His own church grew. He was having success. Sydney was fertile ground for him.
Houston later bought a warehouse in Waterloo and converted it into a church. It seated 600 people in the main auditorium. His Sydney CLC then joined the Assemblies of God Church in Australia.
The Australian AOG Church movement was really starting to grow in the 1980s. It was shaking off its small church image. It embraced modern youth culture and used a corporate management structure for its churches. Confident, young charismatic leaders began to emerge. AOG attendance numbers were growing. Their success was unheard of in the mainstream Anglican, Catholic and Baptist churches where numbers were dwindling.
His son Brian started up the Hills Christian Life Centre (Hills CLC) at Baulkham Hills in 1983. Brian’s new church grew and grew. There were several talented songwriters and musicians in his church. Hills marketed its Christian music under the “Hillsong” label. The church started annual conferences which attracted tens of thousands, eventually selling out the biggest venue in Sydney. Hills CLC was growing so fast it started to attract media attention.
In early 1999, Frank merged his Waterloo church with Brian’s Hills CLC under the new ‘Hillsong Church’ banner. Brian became Senior Pastor over the combined Waterloo and Baulkham Hills campuses.
By late 1999, Hillsong Church was well and truly the biggest church in Australia; its Christian music albums had enjoyed international success. Brian Houston, now 43-years-old, was the National President of the Assemblies of God in Australia.
It was at this point that Brett Sengstock’s mother reported Frank Houston’s abusive behaviour to the church. Brett asked the Hillsong Church elders not to involve the police in the matter. Brett was aged 36.
So Brian kept it within the church. Neither he nor Brett went to the police. Brian dismissed his father (with a church pension) and stripped him of his credentials to minister in the AOG denomination. Frank was told never to preach again.
Frank pursued Brett for forgiveness and later that year, Brett met with Houston at McDonald’s. Houston paid Brett his last $10,000 as compensation for what he’d done to Brett.
By this stage, Frank Houston was disgraced, financially broke, and in the early stages of dementia.
By November 2000, an ongoing internal church investigation had uncovered several cases of child sexual abuse involving Houston.
Even though Frank Houston was not a minister at Hillsong at the time he was abusing children, Brian disclosed his father’s crimes at church services and at the annual Hillsong Church conference at a packed Acer Arena at the Sydney Olympic Park. It was common knowledge in the AOG and in the wider Christian community that Frank Houston was a paedophile.
Frank Houston died aged 82 in late 2004. His dementia had worsened over five years and in the end, Frank Houston had lost his mind.
In 2013, the Royal Commission Into Institutional Responses to Child Sex Abuse began investigating churches and institutions throughout Australia.
The Hillsong Church’s removal of Frank Houston was of particular interest to the Royal Commission. There was a hearing in 2014. Brian Houston was questioned about the sacking of his father.
In 2015, the Royal Commission found Brian had failed to report Frank to the police as was required by the law at the time, section 316 of the Crimes Act.
It was also found that, as the National President, Brian had acted in a conflict of interest by handling the church disciplinary proceedings against his own father.
Brett Sengstock gave evidence anonymously at the Royal Commission. His name was kept secret from the public.
Section 316 was amended on 31 August 2018. Section 316A (2)(f) says there is no obligation to report a serious indictable offence where the victim is an adult at the time of disclosure. But the new law was not retrospective.
Brian Houston has not been charged. Sections of the Australian media continue to show intense interest in the Royal Commission’s findings against him. Aspects of Brian’s sacking of his father and how Hillsong Church has dealt with Brett Sengstock are still the subject of frequent scrutiny by some journalists.
Brett Sengstock continues to seek compensation from Hillsong Church. He went on television in 2018 when he withdrew his legal proceedings, showing his face and making his identity known for the first time. He has enlisted the support of David Shoebridge MLC, 60 Minutes, A Current Affair, The Project and The Newcastle Herald.
If you have been abused by a member of the clergy or a person of influence within an institution, Kelso Lawyers is here to support you. We have helped hundreds of abused individuals throughout Australia and we can help achieve compensation from the predators who harmed you.
By way of full disclosure, the author of this article has attended Hillsong Church, Newcastle Campus since 2014. The author has never met with or spoken to Brian Houston or any members of his family. Every effort has been made to state the facts correctly and without bias. The facts have been researched in the public domain.