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Questions raised over church’s response to paedophile preacher Frank Houston

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A high-ranking member of the Pentecostal church has defended the movement’s handling of paedophile preacher Frank Houston, saying is was shielding parishioners from “possible abuse” by standing him down.

Hillsong founder Brian Houston is facing trial in Sydney’s Downing Centre Local Court, where he is fighting allegations he covered up his father Frank Houston’s sexual abuse of a young boy in the 1970s.

He has pleaded not guilty to concealing a serious indictable offence and has denied being part of a cover-up, arguing he was abiding by the victim’s wishes when he did not go to authorities.

Brett Sengstock was sexually assaulted by Frank Houston, who was at the time a New Zealand-based preacher, inside his family’s Coogee home in January 1970.

Mr Houston learned of his father’s abuse of the boy in 1999 and the case is hinging on whether he had a “reasonable excuse” to not pass on the information to police.

Mr Sengstock has denied telling Mr Houston that he did not want to go to the authorities.

Pastor Keith Ainge was in 1999 a member of the national executive of the Assemblies of God when Brian Houston called an urgent meeting at Sydney Airport to discuss revelations that Frank Houston had abused the boy.

Mr Ainge, who was the AOG national secretary at the time, has previously told the court that Brian Houston told the meeting that “the victim was not wanting to have his name released to anyone” and that “he wanted to keep it quiet”.

The AOG board decided that Frank Houston would be stood down, would enter into its “restoration program”, would refrain from preaching for 12 months and would be offered counselling and support, the court heard last week.

The court has heard that Frank Houston was dismissed from the church in late 1999 after having his credentials removed by his son Brian.

Mr Ainge told the court Mr Frank Houston’s credentials were removed as a “protective measure” to stop him carrying out “possible abuse”.

Under the terms of his punishment, he was still allowed to enter churches, but was not allowed to preach as a minister.

“How does that protect somebody from possible child abuse?” Magistrate Gareth Christofi asked.

“I guess reducing the exposure would be the only thing that I’d suggest … A minister is in a position of power,” Mr Ainge said.

“There’s an authority that comes with being a minister. And by removing the credentials, you remove the authority, which in some way removes the threat.”

According to minutes from the December 1999 meeting, the AOG had obtained legal advice indicating it did not have to disclose the matter to police because by that time Mr Sengstock was in his 30s and could make his own complaint.

Mr Ainge told the court on Tuesday morning that, with the benefit of hindsight, the AOG national executive should have sought to check that Mr Sengstock wanted neither to be identified, nor take part in a church investigation.

Mr Ainge told the court that it was Brian Houston who told the meeting that the victim did not want to come forward to speak with either police or the church.

Asked whether anybody – who did not have a possible conflict of interest – attempted to verify the information, Mr Ainge said: “With the benefit of hindsight, we should have done that.

“We believed the evidence Brian was giving us was correct and we were working on the basis that the victim didn’t want to be identified and didn’t want to be contacted by the church.

“We were working with his wishes.”

He told the court he considered Brian Houston trustworthy and had no reason to doubt his statements about Mr Sengstock’s wishes.

The court heard that in November 2000, the Australian Assemblies of God was approached by New Zealand counterparts about allegations that Frank Houston had sexually abused other boys in New Zealand decades earlier.

“Before that meeting, Brian Houston had drawn to your attention the fact that the New Zealand AOG had information about his father apparently having committed offences back in the 1970s,” defence barrister Phillip Boulten asked.

“That’s correct,” Mr Ainge replied.

The trial continues on Wednesday.

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