Phil Dooley, the new global senior pastor of Hillsong Church, has promised he will clean house.
“I can’t change the past, but I can play a significant role in changing the future,” he said during a Sunday service in Sydney, shortly after the board chair announced a forensic audit of church spending under Dooley’s predecessors, founders Brian and Bobbie Houston. “Our structure and culture is changing and needs to change more to ensure we are held to a higher level of accountability, and I welcome that.”
The opportunity to declare a new beginning came, unexpectedly, when an Australian member of parliament representing Tasmania made a speech charging the global megachurch with misuse of funds.
“Hillsong followers believe that the money they put in the poor box goes to the poor,” said MP Andrew Wilkie, surrounded by piles of binders he said contained financial records leaked by a whistleblower. “But these documents show how that money is actually used to do the kind of shopping that would embarrass a Kardashian.”
According to Wilkie, internal Hillsong documents show the church paid for extravagant lifestyles for church leaders. He alleges, for example, that Bobbie Houston received a $6,500 Cartier watch and $2,500 of Louis Vuitton luggage, and the Houston family spent $150,000 of church funds for a three-day luxury retreat in Cancun.
“These other documents show former leader Brian Houston treating private jets like Ubers—again, all with church money,” Wilkie told parliament. “For example, in one three-month period, Brian Houston’s trips cost $55,000, $52,000, $30,000, $22,000 and $20,000.”
It is unclear whether the amounts are calculated in Australian dollars, US dollars, or both.
Wilkie also alleged the church paid for another couple’s shopping sprees, including $16,000 for custom skateboards. And he said the church passed out cash gifts, including $15,000 for one pastor’s birthday, $36,000 for another’s 30th anniversary, and $10,000 each to two external pastors who investigated allegations that Brian Houston sent inappropriate texts to a woman who worked for the church and spent time alone with her in a hotel room in 2019.
The revelations made a splash in the media and shocked some of the estimated 150,000 people who attend the 30 Hillsong locations worldwide, but it came as no surprise to the church’s inner leadership.
The information was part of a court-ordered mediation in a federal case brought by an ex-Hillsong employee. Two Australian media outlets have named the employee as Natalie Moses, who worked for two years at the Sydney headquarters in fundraising and governance.
She reportedly claimed that she was suspended from her job for providing information to the Australian Charities and Not-for-profits Commission, the sector’s federal regulator, and that the church practiced “illegal and unethical” accounting. The church has denied any wrongdoing. Wilkie’s speech came in the final days of mediation.
In response to the public disclosure in parliament, Hillsong’s board chair Stephen Crouch told a Sunday service that the church has commissioned a forensic financial accounting. Grant Thornton, an international firm, will look at the court documents.
Crouch promised the report would be released publicly but did not set a timeline.
The church also took the opportunity to say the new leadership is going in a new direction.
“Hillsong is a different church now than we were twelve months ago, and we are under new pastoral and board leadership,” Hillsong said in a statement. “We are working hard to set a course for the future that ensures our structures are accountable, transparent, and honouring to God. Anything less has the potential to hinder our primary focus, which is to be a community of believers focused on the life-changing power of Jesus, driven to bring hope to the world around us.”
Speaking to the church, Dooley confirmed the substance of many of the allegations are accurate.
“There are thousands of documents that contain information that I had no knowledge personally about,” he said, “but I'll take full responsibility for how we do things going forward.”
Some of Wilkie’s claims directly implicate Dooley, however. According to the member of parliament, the pastor also received a watch worth $2,500 and racked up more than $132,000 in business-class flights. The allegation that he once said he flew only economy has not been substantiated.
Dooley addressed the questions about travel expenses in a lengthy statement to the church. Some of the cost, he said, can be attributed to the emergency call for him to return from his church in South Africa to Australia in Hillsong’s time of crisis.
“We were leading our church in South Africa when we received a call asking us to help look after our church globally at the end of 2021 with a focus on Australia,” he said. “And guys, what a wild ride it’s been. Sometimes I've called it the haunted house ride. I literally just don’t know what’s around the next corner.”
Dooley said his flights also cost more because he does not fly alone, as part of a commitment to accountability in his marriage, and because travel costs have risen.
“I also want to say we are committed to managing our travel requirements effectively with flight times and associated costs and seeing where we can adjust so that we pay less,” Dooley said. “If we have been doing things in an excessive manner or that are out of alignment with our mission, those things will stop.”
It remains to be seen what impact this will have on Hillsong attendance. During COVID-19 pandemic lockdowns, the average number of weekly livestream views was above 444,000, according to a church report. In 2021, as a series of scandals rocked the church, total online and in-person attendance dropped to around 21,000. In the same period, giving declined by about 12 percent, down to $76.9 million.
Outside Sydney and the United States, attendance has been strong. And in Sydney, too, it was growing again. There was some sense that Hillsong had been through its reckoning and begun to come out the other side. At The Gospel Coalition Australia’s first-ever national conference late last year, speakers went out of their way to acknowledge Hillsong’s impact for the gospel and prayed for the church.
Hillsong, however, is facing more challenges to come. The timing of the next one is already known: On June 15, attorneys will make verbal submissions in the case against Brian Houston, who is accused of concealing his father’s sexual offenses against a child 20 years after they happened.
Houston is charged under a little-used provision in the law that says it is illegal to fail to report a serious crime to the police. There has been only one well-known prosecution of this crime to date. The Roman Catholic Archbishop Philip Wilson was found guilty of covering up the abuse of a junior priest, despite a record of facing up to child sexual abuse in multiple Catholic dioceses after that. The 2018 conviction was overturned on appeal.
During the trial, Houston’s lawyers argued he had a legal reason not to report because the survivor did not want the church to go to authorities. After the closing arguments, the court will render a verdict.
In the meantime, Dooley and the Hillsong leadership will continue to trumpet changes and point people to a brighter future.