A few years ago I got one of those inevitable phone calls from my ex-boyfriend’s latest ex-girlfriend. She asked me a string of questions whether he did this or that, was he a narcissist or just a horrible person. The usual. He is a particularly exploitative type and violent and lots of it is detailed in Crimwife and some of it isn’t. Point is that she went on to tell me about a fight that they had, and how he had thrown his puppy staffie through the bathroom wall.
That’s all I really remember about the conversation because not much mattered apart from that. Anything I had left that wished the best for him, or stood by the promises of old to be loyal or stay friends evaporated away. Out of everything he had done to me or the people close to me, well, this was different again. I don’t know people who throw dogs through walls, and if I find out I do, I don’t know them anymore from that moment. I thought that was an automatic response, but I am very wrong.
It was just the same as watching Brian Houston speak about the crimes his father Frank had committed before his congregation that Sunday morning in 2001. He spoke about the ‘serious moral failure’ that his father had confessed to, the way it had affected him, his wife Bobbie and their children, reassuring the audience that their faith remained strong. Rather than facing a barrage of questions and outrage at his self-obsession, Brian received a standing ovation and rowdy support.
It changed my life. Out of all the confusion and moving bar heights that we were supposed to just limbo on under, the one absolute we surely could cling to is that child sexual abuse is abhorrent. Anyone who knowingly allows it to continue, permits it, covers it up, or furthers its spread is abhorrent too, some say even more so.
But this was not the case at Hillsong. It was all about the Houstons. And despite the lip service and the catch phrases, not much has changed.
I attended the hearings about Frank Houston at the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses into Child Abuse to be an eyewitness to the proceedings. What surprised me was it was half empty. I wondered where all the other curious ex-members were. Didn't they want to see the big boys have to perform on a very different stage, without any backup band? Wild horses couldn't keep me away.
And, it was fascinating. I was absolutely stunned at their behaviour. Clearly they had been coached. This is evident in Brian Houston’s responses to questions. Those he has answers for are the ones he is comfortable with. The unexpected ones, or, as with the other AoG/ACC representatives, questions that are repeated, are met with bumbling incompetence, frustration and an air of defiance. The answers Brian has learned are used again in interviews with media. He has memorised key phrases, introduced them on the stand and dragged them through radio and TV. But the inconsistencies loom large.
Why didn’t they hire consultants to tell them not to get angry on the stand as Keith Ainge did, or point your finger and smile, as Brian did, as if he were mid-sermon? General Manager George Agajanian spoke like a gentleman, a businessman, as if he were aware of his surroundings. The others as if they were in the principal’s office and their Year 6 camp hopes were in grave doubt. It was astounding.
But the issue that has knocked me down out of all is the defence of Hillsong. Yes the love for Pastor Brian flows like a river online. The support is unchallenged. And even still somehow, I don’t blame the newer members so much because it’s all so overwhelming in the beginning. So many lights, new songs, people’s names and events to put in your diary. Despite all the media out there, I understand that the newbies might have too much going on to put it all together. Maybe.
I’ve always found the ways good people turn bad to be compelling. People behave in groups in different ways again. Psychology does say that any of us are susceptible to all kinds of unthinkable actions if placed in certain circumstances for long enough.
So I know that the men of the AoG collude and close ranks. It’s what powerful groups do under fire. It’s more common than not and more common than I realised in the pseudo-Scientology culture of Hillsong.
But it’s the average long term member’s response that has changed me all over again. Wendy calling Ray Hadley and crying with love for Frank Houston; the standing ovation Houston got again on the 12 October 2014 when he addressed the flock about his time at the Royal Commission like he was giving a book report. It’s one of my oldest friends throwing in from overseas that I have never been balanced or honest and that I should disclose what I earn from my blogs and my books. As I told her, I’ve never portrayed myself as balanced.
Watching how the AoG treated the Royal Commission proceedings and reading their secret notes containing explicit instructions to keep Frank Houston’s “serious moral failure” quiet and to offer love to Frank made it all perfectly clear, as they lied away to their own tendered documents. They’re nothing but co-conspirators in an multi-national corporation. This is Wal-mart talking about minimum wage. This is Nike talking about sweatshops. This is Philip Morris talking about big tobacco.
I’m told there are questions as to whether I truly did attend Brian’s speech in 2001 about his father, simply because some of the followers cannot understand how I walked away with such a different impression. There was no clarity as to what Frank had done, no apology to victims, no horror at the crimes, no naming them as crimes, and no promise that this would never happen again as long as Brian Houston had breath in his body. Which I’m told is evident only to the social worker types. Having contact with so many others who are stunned by this response, I can only disagree more strongly than ever.
Rather Pastor John McMartin gave these answers 2 weeks ago to Simeon Beckett acting for the RC as his current understanding of how best to deal with a child sex perpetrator when one is found to be in the church. (day 89 of RC)
Q. Where a matter has been referred to the police and those investigations are concluded, what is the process that occurs after the end of the police and prosecution process?
A. For the abused or the perpetrator?
Q. For both?
A. Okay. For the abused, we will care for them as much as we can and offer them counselling, offer them help and, through our network, just surround them as best we can and bring them to a place of healing. The perpetrator, in many of our churches - are you talking about paedophilia? Is that what we're talking about?
A. In a church of our size, we will encourage them to go to another church where there is less chance of re-offence. Let me state this: it is really hard for us to monitor, you know, the goings-around of a paedophile as such in a congregation, but if they are in a smaller church and we have given the brief to the pastor, where there's less - where there are no children, or something like that, we just feel that's a better way to go in caring for the perpetrator.
Do you have to be a social worker to know that while at least he’s being honest, the responses to both perpetrator and victim are abysmal? Through our network? Bring them to a place of healing? What the living breathing actual what?
Move the perpetrator on to another church so he is best cared for?
There’s easy access to kids in Pentecostal churches. There is an implicit sense of trust in the atmosphere and everyone’s smiling and in a good mood. The word ‘family’ is thrown around like confetti and the people act like Christians strong in their faith. It’s a young population and many have gone forth and multiplied. There are kids everywhere. It’s the kind of place that should be ultra extra super vigilant about child protection. Not perpetrator protection, surely. Yet time and time again, the evidence shows, the commission heard and the witnesses spoke of how this is the case.
The kids are not safe in these churches.
As witness AHA spoke of Houston’s comments to his mother, “I’m sorry about what happened to your son, but the church must come first.”
I remember we used to tsk tsk the Jehovah’s witnesses for cutting off their own parents or children if such people left their church. But there’s nothing very different in Hillsong. That I actually have to lose friends because the Houstons and Hillsong are more important than me is something I’m used to, but this is mind blowing all over again. Now, it seems I have to justify being outraged at the serial sex offences that Frank committed while exploiting his position of power and religion, and the repeated agreement to cover up for as long as possible.
Nothing’s changed, and yet the show goes on, with only a hiccup of an interruption. I have never been as convinced as I was that week that the movement is cult like and all about mind control. Because when it comes to keeping kids far away from paedophiles, call me a fundamentalist, but if you are not for us, then you are against us.