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Closing Arguments in Brian Houston Case: A Cover-Up or ‘Reasonable Excuse’ Not To Report Dad’s Abuse?

Screenshot from YouTube / @JamesRiverChurch

In a Sydney courtroom this week, the Crown prosecutor and a defense attorney offered two contrasting versions of Brian Houston and how he handled knowledge of his father’s predatory behavior. During closing arguments, the two sides portrayed starkly different motives behind the actions of Houston, founder of the embattled Hillsong megachurch.

Houston, 69, has been on trial for allegedly failing to report sexual abuse by his now-deceased father, Frank Houston, from the 1970s. Brian Houston, who has pleaded not guilty, faces up to five years in prison if convicted. A judge will issue a ruling mid-August.

Prosecution: Brian Houston Covered Up Father’s Crimes

In closing arguments, Crown prosecutor Gareth Harrison portrayed Brian Houston as dishonest, controlling, and eager to “protect the reputation of the church and his father.” The entire Hillsong organization, Harrison said, maintained a culture of cover-up, and even when Houston did speak about his father’s abusive actions, he used vague terms such as “serious moral failure.”

Houston, Harrison added, intended to conceal “the true extent” of his father’s behavior rather than offer specific details. The prosecutor said people at Hillsong viewed Frank Houston with “entrenched reverence,” which “enforced a culture of silence.” As a result, Harrison said, Brian Houston was able to “control the narrative” and prevent people from reporting abuse to police.

Victim Brett Sengstock, now 61, went public with abuse accusations against Frank Houston on “60 Minutes Australia” in 2018. He claimed that Frank Houston raped him repeatedly between the ages of 7 and 12, later offering a cash settlement, but no apology. Sengstock said Brian Houston, while facilitating the settlement, told him he was at fault because he “tempted my father.”

Defense: Brian Houston Had ‘Reasonable Excuse’ of Protecting the Victim

Phillip Boulten, Houston’s attorney, called allegations of a cover-up “very unfair” and “so flimsy.” The defense case is based on the Australian legal concept of “reasonable excuse,” which allows some exceptions to reporting sexual abuse. One recently added exception is if the adult victim requests that the abuse not be reported.

During Boulten’s closing arguments, he said Sengstock insisted back in 1999 that Brian Houston not go public with details of the abuse. “There can be absolutely no doubt that [back then] Brett Sengstock did not wish a word of this to be published,” argued Boulten. “He was concerned that he might be portrayed as someone with inappropriate sexual attitudes.”