In 2014, popular Christian podcaster and pastor, Chris Rosebrough received a letter from Hillsong’s attorney (who happens to be Carl Lentz’s father) – an original identical letter was sent to Boz Tchavidjian, a trusted, experienced, compassionate, and determined attorney. We believe that in publishing this letter, it serves to inform the Christian community (and the media) how dishonest Brian Houston is with the truth in private meetings and letters and how misleading he was before a Royal Commission.
It appears that the aim of the letter was not to ensure the facts of the Frank Houston matter are clear and known, nor to make Boz Tchividjian or Chris Rosebrough more clearer on any particular matter. Its aim was to intimidate the publisher and popular podcaster into removing some claims Brian Houston and Hillsong find damaging to their reputation and brand. The letter suggests the author is engaging in unprofessional and deliberate conduct of defamation and trade libel such that the publisher deserves to be taken to court over it.
Neither the denomination (AOG/ACC), Hillsong nor Brian Houston reported Frank’s Houston’s abuse to police in 1999, which was mandatory. Frank was kept on staff and the matter was kept confidential. That was until another series of allegations from New Zealand (nearly a year later), forced the Australian denomination and Hillsong to investigate the matter properly (without Brian Houston’s interference) this time around. However, the matter was still kept confidential. It was then that Frank’s preaching credentials were permanently removed, and where Frank submitted his resignation (Nov 2000). Frank was allowed to retire quietly, with his reputation untarnished.
LYING TO A ROYAL COMMISSION IS A CRIMINAL OFFENSE.
When we reported on the Royal Commission and attempted to find where Brian Houston went “immediately” to his church to announce his father’s sins, we were perplexed.
Between Nov 1999 to the end of 2001, we could not find evidence to suggest he ever did. When we constructed the timeline, it was not until Nov 2002 when Pastor Philip Powell blew the whistle and Tanya Levin enquired to Hillsong that Brian Houston finally went to his church about Frank’s “moral failure”. That’s nearly three years later. So in what church did Brian Houston “immediately” announce his father’s sin to?
The below letter answers that. One of the most damning revelations in the letter is how Brian Houston / Stephen Lentz added quite the twist to what Brian Houston said at the Royal Commission:
“Mr. Houston also stated that, “From that moment (he suspended his father), I definitely did start talking within the life of the church. I went to the workplace of everyone of the elders of the church by car and told them the story.”
This is how Brian Houston and Stephen Lentz clarified his words:
“In summary, Mr. Houston reported the abuse to those at the head of not just his church, but also maybe the largest governing Christian body in Australia, and he did so shortly after first bearing of the abuse claim against his father.”
Brian is admitting in this letter that did not go straight to his church (in how most people understand the definition of ‘church’), he went to the church elders. But then – the trajectory was not to his congregation but to the leaders of the AOG/ACC.
In other words, Brian mislead the Royal Commission to assume that he was upfront in reporting this incident to his church congregation, when in fact he was alluding to his elders. Brian Houston played this same ‘word game’ to the media.
We will go into more detail of this letter in another article.
View the original letter here:
PDF PF LETTER: Permitted-Tchividjian-Letter_04-11-2014-11-04 (Redacted)
Lentz Law Group writes,
Re: Boz Tchividjian’s October 17th article on Brian Houston
Hillsong Church and Brian Houston have retained our firm to request that you remove Mr. Tchividjian’s October 17th blog article titled Hillsong Church: Abuse unreported, perpetrator rewarded from RNS’s website. As outlined below, your prior amendments to the article, while appreciated on some level, have not rid it of its defamatory and unfair material, which we have reason to believe is harming Hillsong financially and, more importantly, turning people away from its doors and, in some instances, Christianity. Before explaining the grounds on which the article is defamatory, we would like to note that our firm is comprised of Christians and that our clients would like to resolve this matter as amicably as possible. Nonetheless, if appropriate action is not taken by next Wednesday, November 5, we will advise our clients to file a lawsuit seeking a preliminary injunction, as well as possibly monetary claims for defamation and trade libel.
While the definition of a defamatory statement involving a matter of public concern varies state-to-state to some degree, it can generally be defined as a statement made or published to a third-party with negligence or reckless disregard as to its truth or falsity. A journalist, for example, who deliberately alters a quote or prior publication attributed to a public figure can be found to have “knowledge of falsity” if the alteration resulted in a material change to the statement’s meaning. Masson v. New Yorker Magazine, 501 U.S. 496 (1991). Trade libel can be defined as “the knowing publication of false and derogatory facts about the plaintiffs business of a kind calculated to prevent others from dealing with the plaintiff, to its demonstrable detriment.” Segal v. Firtash, Case No. 13-cv-7818 (S.D. NY 2014).
Here, the article at issue contains several statements constituting defamation and trade libel. First, the article’s title, the only reasonable interpretation of which is that one or both of our clients failed to report Frank Houston’s abuse and instead rewarded him, is defamatory.
Contrary to the first part of the title ‘s allegations (i.e., “Abuse unreported”),1 and as reported by the Daily Mail on October 12 before Mr. Tchividjian’s article was published, Mr. Houston, acting in both in his individual capacity and as representative of his church and the Assemblies of God of Australia (“AoG”) (now known as the Australian Christian Churches), reported his father’s abuse to the AoG national executive and other AoG senior officials. More specifically, the Daily Mail reported that Keith Ainge, the former AoG national secretary, testified before the Royal Commission that Brian Houston “called a special meeting of the executive [in December] 1999,” during which he reported the claim of his father’s abuse.2 Various documents were introduced into evidence that substantiated this contention, including signed statements and minutes from an AoG meeting. An online statement issued by Brian Houston on October 12 provides further support:
There was no delay in action – from the moment we knew and he confessed, his ministry stopped. I then consulted the elders of what was then Sydney Christian Life Centre and we referred the matter to the national executive of the Assembly of God.
The investigation and subsequent actions were then handled by the AOG without my interference. 3
Mr. Houston also stated that, “From that moment [he suspended his father], I definitely did start talking within the life of the church. I went to the workplace of everyone of the elders of the church by car and told them the story.” In summary, Mr. Houston reported the abuse to those at the head of not just his church, but also maybe the largest governing Christian body in Australia, and he did so shortly after first bearing of the abuse claim against his father.
Contrary to the second part of the title ‘s allegations (i.e., “perpetrator rewarded”), this is blatantly false. Frank Houston was never rewarded. Brian Houston immediately “suspended his father’s credentials,” and his father “never preached again from that moment.”4 Frank Houston was eventually asked to leave the church. These penalties were maintained even after Brian’s mother complained about their “severity.” And to the extent Mr. Tchividjian was suggesting that the “retirement package” was a reward, this was improper. As repeatedly claimed by Brian Houston, the “retirement package,” which is a mischaracterization, was provided for the benefit of Brian’s mother, who had devoted most of her life to the church. In other words, it was done primarily so as not to inadvertently punish Brian’s mother for her husband’s actions. It is false and intentionally casting a false light that Brian Houston or his church was rewarding, or even compensating, his father when you do not know their motives or the specifics of the “retirement package.”
Second, the middle of the second paragraph provides that, “Even after the confession, Brian Houston doesn’t’ call the police, but according to The Guardian newspaper, instead attends a meeting with his father, an attorney, and others, where it is decided to offer the victim $ I 0,000 as ‘ final payment.”‘ Contrary to this statement, the Guardian Australia (“the Guardian “) reported that Brian Houston attended a meeting with his father, a lawyer, and one other person to “discuss the allegations [of his father’s abuse].”5 Mr. Houston maintained that the meeting “didn’t go into the idea of compensation or money or anything like that.” [Transcript of Royal Commission Into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, Oct. 10, 2014, at p. 9378]. Regardless, the next sentence in the above-referenced Guardian article then provided that, “Following the meeting, the lawyer drafted a document offering [the victim] $10,000 compensation as a ‘final’ payment.”
Thus, RNS’s article misstates the facts, but also fails to fact check and negligently includes statements contained in the Guardian‘s article that are false. Brian Houston had no part in the negotiations or payment of this money. RNS’s article spins the Guardian’s spin6 on the facts, all in a manner to unfairly and intentionally prejudice our clients. For example another Guardian article reported that the victim claimed that just Frank Houston and another “unknown” gentlemen were present when the offer was made to him. 7 The Guardian also noted that Brian Houston maintained during this Royal Commission testimony that he “wasn’t involved in the payment of money.” And in his above-referenced on line statement, Brian Houston wrote that “There have been reports of money being paid to the victim… This was between my father and the victim. It had nothing to do with me or Hillsong Church.” Speed nor format (online article or blog) excuses the allowed inaccuracies and contradicts entirely the notion of ethical journalism. The failure of RNS, its staff and contributing writers to ignore the additional facts or comments and only include the statements that are defamatory, as well as, state opinions and examples that cast an intentional false light on Brian Houston and Hillsong Church are actionable.
Third, the end of the fourth paragraph provides that, “Brian Houston never provides a reason for not reporting the other eight cases of abuse perpetrated by his father.” This, too, is false and defamation per se. With respect to the number of cases, there was no evidence to suggest that Mr. Houston had direct knowledge of any more than two or three allegations of abuse. With respect to the non-reporting claim, Mr. Houston did in fact report the allegations of which he had direct knowledge to the AoG. [See the Minutes from the AoG’s Nov. 22, 2000 Special Executive Meeting and Statement by George Aghajanian, General Manager of Hillsong, dated January 1, 2000, both of which were exhibits to the Royal Commission’s hearing]. The Royal Commission evidence was that the New Zealand Assemblies of God reported8 other allegations of abuse to the Australia AoG’s Vice President, John Lewis, and National Secretary, Keith Ainge, when they attended a meeting in New Zealand in November 2000. [See Report on trip of John Lewis and Keith Ainge, which was also an exhibit to the Royal Commission’s hearing]. According to this Report, the allegations had already been “investigated by the New Zealand executive.” Brian Houston did not attend the meeting, as, by this time, the AoG “had asked him to remove himself from the matter as [Frank Houston] was his father to allow for a thorough investigation.” [See George Aghajanian’s above-referenced statement]. Thus, Brian Houston had no direct knowledge of “eight cases of abuse perpetrated by his father” and by misstating the fact that he, Brian Houston, knew of such allegations and did not report them is defamation per se. The statement in the article is directly injurious to his profession as a pastor and insinuates he committed a crime of moral turpitude and must be corrected.
These are just some of the defamatory or libel statements contained in the amended version of the article. The original version of the article was far more defamatory, and the statements contained therein that have since been removed or amended can still serve as a basis for a civil claim ( e.g., suggesting that the $10,000 offer was made in part by Brian Houston for the purposes of keeping the victim from suing the church; that Hillsong uncovered eight other cases of abuse by Frank Houston; and that Brian Houston’s and Hillsong’s actions amounted to a premeditated conspiracy to sweep this matter under the rug for public relations reasons, among other things).
Putting the law aside for a moment, the article clearly does treat our clients unfairly. In addition to the false statements outlined above, the article spins the truth, and on some occasions fails to report the whole truth. It appears that the article was designed (consciously or not) to tarnish our clients’ reputation and to cause them harm, which it undoubtedly has. I hope that you can realize that the article is defamatory and unfair.
In light of the above, we request that you remove the article by no later than next Wednesday, November 5, and issue a statement to the effect that “the article was written and posted without proper regard for its truthfulness or falsity, or proper respect for its subjects, Hillsong Church and its President Brian Houston, to whom we now issue a sincere apology.” Again, if timely appropriate action is not taken, we will advise our clients to pursue litigation.
If you have any questions or ·would like to discuss this matter, please feel free to call us at (757) 965-5402. With kind regards.
Very truly yours,
Stephen D. Lentz, Esq
1 The article’s very first sentence similarly provides that, “Disturbing news surfaced last week that [Brian Houston] . . . failed to report his father for sexually abusing children.” For the reasons that follows, this sentence is defamatory, too.
2 See http://www.dailymail.eo.uk/news/article-’2790346/it-s-obvious-paedophile-behaviour-repetitive-hillsong-s-brian-houston-believes-father-sexually-abused-victims-decade-fears-more.html.
3 See http://hillsong.com/media/statement-regarding-the-royal-commission-into-institutional-responses-to-child-sexual-abuse. AoG National Secretary
6 As a general rule, a republisher (i.e., one who repeats a defamatory statement) is liable on the same general basis as the original publisher. This is even so if the republisher states the source. See, e. g., Restatement, Second, Torts § 578 (197’/) (“one who repeats or otherwise republishes defamatory matter is subject to liability as if he had originally published it”).
8 The New Zealand AoG is independent from the Australia AoG, and the Australia AoG does not, and did not, govern Hillsong Church. Your article blurs the clear lines between the three entities, prejudicially suggesting that they are one in the same.
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“Have I then become your enemy by telling you the truth?” Galatians 4:16