MELBOURNE, Australia — The leader of Hillsong, the Australian megachurch that has attracted throngs of young people and celebrities worldwide, has stepped down as he prepares to fight a criminal charge of concealing historical child sexual abuse by his father.
The church’s leader, Brian Houston, said in a statement published on Hillsong’s website on Sunday that he had agreed to give up “all ministry responsibilities” until the end of 2022 to focus on his legal battle following the advice of Hillsong’s legal advisers.
The Australian police charged Mr. Houston in August 2021 with one count of concealing a serious indictable offense by his father, Frank Houston. The police alleged that the younger Mr. Houston, now 67, “knew information relating to the sexual abuse of a young male in the 1970s and failed to bring that information to the attention of police.”
Mr. Houston has vigorously denied the accusation and reiterated in his statement on Sunday that “these allegations came as a shock to me, and it is my intention to vigorously defend them.”
Mr. Houston has entered a not guilty plea, according to the Sydney court where his case is being heard.
The police investigation came after an allegation was made to the Australian royal commission on child sexual abuse. In 2014, the commission heard evidence that his father had sexually abused a 7-year-old boy decades earlier. His father, who died in 2004, was never charged.
The Hillsong megachurch grew out of the merger of two organizations: Sydney Christian Life Center, founded by Frank Houston in 1977, and Hills Christian Life Center, founded by his son. It became a global juggernaut at a time when religion was struggling in a secularizing Europe and North America. Powered by a lucrative recording label that dominated Christian contemporary music, Hillsong sold millions of albums and lured large crowds to arena concert performances.
Using a “seeker sensitive” approach, it sought to attract young Christians in big cities, or people wary of or unfamiliar with more traditional churches. It attracted celebrities like Justin Bieber, Selena Gomez and Kevin Durant. The church has drawn, by some estimates, 100,000 people to its pews each weekend and racked up millions of followers on social media. Its songs have been blasted in churches from Uzbekistan to Papua New Guinea.
The ideal Hillsong sermon “leaves people feeling better about themselves than they came,” Brian Houston has said.
But scandal and criticism have dogged the church.
The church has been slammed for taking a hipster approach to Christianity and for dodging a firm public stance on same-sex marriage and homosexuality.
In November 2020, Mr. Houston fired Carl Lentz, the head pastor of Hillsong’s New York branch, for “leadership issues and breaches of trust, plus a recent revelation of moral failures,” according to an email to churchgoers. Mr. Lentz later wrote on Instagram that he had been unfaithful in his marriage.
Mr. Houston apologized in June 2020 for comments from the leader of the church’s London branch who appeared to make dismissive comments about the death of George Floyd and the subsequent antiracism protests.
This month, the church also apologized after footage emerged of churchgoers singing and dancing at a youth camp in Sydney seemingly in violation of pandemic restrictions.
After he was charged last year, Mr. Houston stepped away from some responsibilities but retained his role as leader of the church. Then, in December, Hillsong’s legal counsel advised the church’s board that it would be “best practice” for Mr. Houston to step away from the church leadership completely while the court proceedings were continuing, the statement on Sunday said.
The hearings would most likely “be drawn out” and take up most of the year, with the pandemic exacerbating a backlog in cases, Mr. Houston said.
Two pastors will take on the roles of interim leaders, and Mr. Houston’s wife, Bobbie Houston, will continue to “remain fully engaged in church life.”
The next hearing in the case is on March 3.