Australian church says head quits over inappropriate behaviour with women

SYDNEY, (Reuters) – Australia’s biggest evangelical church said on Wednesday its founder had resigned after acting inappropriately towards two women, another blow to an influential organisation already reeling from charges the leader had covered up sex abuse.

Hillsong Church said an internal investigation into complaints from two women had found that its global senior pastor, Brian Houston, had breached worshippers’ trust.”We understand there will be much emotion at this news, and we all share these feelings,” Hillsong said in a statement on its website.

“We acknowledge that change is needed. We have committed to an independent review of our governance structure and processes, understanding that this is a time of humble reflection.”

The church said Houston, 68, had sent unacceptable text messages to a female staff member and had entered the hotel room of, and spent time with, another woman who was also involved with the church after an event.

Houston was not immediately available for comment and Reuters was not able to determine if he had a legal representative.

Hillsong did not reply to an email from Reuters seeking comment from Houston and his contact details.

Houston, founded the 150,000-strong church in Sydney with his wife, Bobbie, in the 1980s and set up ministries in Europe, Asia, and North and South America.

He had stood aside in January to fight criminal charges of concealing sexual abuse by his late father in the 1970s.

His resignation, and the reasons for it, are likely to deepen the turmoil for the church, which has regularly had political leaders attend its events, including Prime Minister Scott Morrison, who led prayers at a 2019 church conference.

Morrison is expected to call an election within weeks.

In a March 18 statement, Hillsong said its investigation found text messages from Houston to a female employee resulted in the woman resigning a decade ago. It said Houston had blamed his actions – which were not described further – on sleeping pills.

In 2019, the church found Houston became “disoriented” after taking anti-anxiety medication mixed with alcohol after a church conference, which led to him “knocking on the door of a hotel room that was not his, entering this room and spending time with the female occupant”, Hillsong said.

Hillsong said it could not substantiate every aspect of the second woman’s complaint but that ultimately it found Houston had breached its code of conduct.