(CP) An Australian court has found former Hillsong Senior Pastor Brian Houston not guilty of concealing his father's sexual abuse of children.
Sydney Magistrate Gareth Christofi ruled on Thursday that 69-year-old Houston had a valid reason for not reporting his father Frank Houston's abuse of Brett Sengstock to police in the 1970s, reported The Associated Press.
Frank Houston, an Assemblies of God leader who founded Hillsong in the 1980s and died in 2004, had reportedly abused multiple children, including Sengstock.
According to the court, after learning about his father's abusive behaviour in 1999, Brian Houston reported his father's abuse to church leaders and made multiple public references to it.
Although Sengstock had testified during the trial that he had not told Brian Houston not to report the abuse to authorities, Houston was told by others that Sengstock did not want it reported to police.
"Frank Houston was no pioneer for Christianity. His legacy remains a faded memory of a pedophile," said Sengstock after the verdict, as quoted by the AP. "Regardless of today's outcome, I have received a life sentence. Blaming the victim is as repulsive as the assaults themselves."
In comments after the verdict, Houston expressed sympathy for Sengstock and what he went through, saying that he felt "genuine sadness about what my father did to him, and all of his victims."
"He was obviously a serial pedophile. We probably will never know the extent of his pedophilia, and a lot of people 's lives have been tragically hurt, and for that, I'll always be very sad," Houston stated, as quoted by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.
Houston added, "I've been found not guilty today, but in fact, I've always been not guilty," believing that he was the victim of a "targeted attack" by authorities.
"I'm not my father. I did not commit this offense," he continued, as quoted by ABC. "I feel a sense of relief that at last the truth has come out. If I wasn't Brian Houston from Hillsong, this charge would never have happened. And I know a lot of people agree with me on that."
In August 2021, Australian police charged Houston with concealing the child sex offenses of his late father, with the megachurch pastor releasing a statement at the time through Hillsong expressing surprise at the charges.
"These charges have come as a shock to me given how transparent I've always been about this matter," stated Houston at the time. "I vehemently profess my innocence and will defend these charges, and I welcome the opportunity to set the record straight."
Because of the trial, Houston stepped down as leader of the multisite Hillsong in January 2022, following the advice of the church's external legal counsel.
In a separate case, Houston pled guilty to driving under the influence of alcohol stemming from a DUI arrest in California last April. Houston received a $140 fine, three years' probation and other penalties as punishment.