Hillsong Church Says Brian Houston, Its Founder, Breached Code of Conduct

SYDNEY, Australia — Hillsong, the global megachurch that cultivated an image of cool, urban Christianity for years, has apologized “unreservedly” to two women who had accused the church’s Australian founder, Brian Houston, of inappropriate behavior.

Mr. Houston, 67, stepped away from all ministry duties in January. He declared at the time that he needed time to fight a criminal charge of concealing child sexual abuse that the Australian police say his late father, who was also a pastor, committed decades ago.

But in a statement published late Friday, Hillsong’s board said that Mr. Houston had been under investigation by the church for his own actions and that he had breached the church’s code of conduct at least twice over the past decade.

The revelation further tarnishes the reputation of a church that had attracted celebrities like Justin Bieber with compelling music and an upbeat message that many described as if it were a brand: comforting Christianity, adorned with pop music and chic fashion.

At its peak two years ago, Hillsong had congregations on six continents and said it had average weekly attendance of 150,000. But it got its start in Australia with Mr. Houston, a charismatic leader now accused of the kinds of indiscretions that have toppled wealthy, powerful men in other fields.

The first incident that the church investigated, from 2013, involved “inappropriate text messages” that Mr. Houston had sent to a staff member, “which subsequently resulted in the staff member resigning,” according to the Hillsong statement.

The statement did not describe the content of the texts. But in a video leaked to the Australian news media, another Hillsong pastor, Phil Dooley, told church members that they had included comments along the lines of, “‘If I was with you, I’d like to kiss and cuddle you,’ words of that nature.”

The second incident occurred in 2019, during the church’s annual conference in Sydney. In the video, Mr. Dooley said Mr. Houston had met a woman there who was not a member of the church and that after “he was drinking with a group,” Mr. Houston ended up knocking on her door.

“The truth is we don’t know what happened next,” Mr. Dooley said. “The woman has not said there was any sexual activity. Brian has said there was no sexual activity, but he was in the room for 40 minutes.”

In one indication of Hillsong’s reach, and of Mr. Houston’s connections, the 2019 conference was opened by Prime Minister Scott Morrison, a Pentecostal Christian.

In its Friday statement, Hillsong’s board said that at the time of the 2013 episode, Mr. Houston had been under the influence of sleeping tablets, on which he had developed a dependency that the church helped him recover from. During the 2019 incident, he was “disoriented” after mixing alcohol with a higher-than-prescribed dose of anti-anxiety medication, the board said.

The board apologized to both women. It said Mr. Houston had apologized immediately to the staff member he texted in 2013, and that its investigation of the 2019 incident found that “important elements of the complaint were sustained and the conduct was of serious concern.”

“We also acknowledge that this person did not deserve to be placed in the situation she found herself in by Pastor Brian,” the statement read, adding: “Ultimately, the board found that Brian had breached the Hillsong Pastor’s Code of Conduct.”

In both cases, Hillsong said, Mr. Houston personally paid the women. He gave the staff member the equivalent of two months’ salary, and he compensated the woman he met at the Sydney conference for her conference fee and for a donation she had made to the church.

“Pastor Brian was extremely remorseful,” the board said.