This article is the second part of Sins of the Father, a series on Brian Houston and Hillsong Church. For part one, click here.
Note: this article discusses child sexual abuse.
David Cowdrey knows more than most about how the Houstons operate. What he has to say is an extraordinary insight into Pastor Brian Houston’s approach to dealing with the ghosts of Frank Houston’s past.
In telling his story, Cowdrey is for the first time revealing his identity.
“I’m 67 years old now. I’ve had a huge amount of therapy,” he told Crikey from his home in Nelson on New Zealand’s South Island. “I’ve had success in business but I’ve also been very self destructive. Now it’s sorted.”
Cowdrey’s story starts back in 1962. His father was an elder with the Lower Hutt Assemblies of God church where Frank Houston was pastor. On Saturday nights Frank Houston would arrive for Bible studies and prayer meetings in the lounge room of the family home in Tawa, a suburb of Wellington.
“I was eight years old at the time,” Cowdrey recalls with absolute clarity, nearly six decades on.
“Frank would visit my room on the excuse of going to the toilet. This black shadow would come into my room.”
For years Cowdrey thought he was alone. He only became aware in 2006 that Houston was a child sex abuser when he was told by another New Zealand pastor, Don Barry, who had earlier learnt of six other cases of abuse.
It was a life-changing conversation. Cowdrey started therapy which unlocked the events of the past and shed light on his emotional development: a pattern of forever fighting with his bosses and the authority figures of his life.
In 2009 Cowdrey’s wife Denise decided Brian Houston should know about the damage his father Frank had done. She emailed Brian via Hillsong’s public contact page.
“Could you please contact me urgently about your father and my husband,” she wrote. “David’s mother is about to be 80 and I would really like all this abuse stuff sorted before she moves off to heaven.
“What your father did to my husband has had an impact on all our lives. To move forward we need to deal with it. Sorry, realise it wasn’t you but unfortunately I think you are the only one to deal with it,” she concluded.
Brian Houston responded that he was “very alarmed and shocked” about what had happened. He also remembered David “very well as a kid” and had “often wondered what had happened to him”.
“Whereabouts in New Zealand do you live?” Houston asked. “I will be in Auckland April/May and would be very happy to catch up with David.”
Cowdrey says he heard nothing more from Brian after the email, and that he “couldn’t do it” anyway. “I was too broken,” he said, and the cost of flying to Auckland from Nelson too prohibitive. “Financially I was in a bit of a mess too.”
By 2009 Hillsong was bringing in tens of millions of dollars in tax-free income via tithes and donations. Brian Houston was a powerful figure in religion and politics.
In strict legal terms, Brian Houston owed David Cowdrey nothing. But was there any offer to help out?
“No there wasn’t. There was nothing more than the email,” Cowdrey remembers. Not that he was looking for much: “A phone call from Brian would have been healing.”
The lack of any gesture from Brian Houston to help the Cowdreys move forward disappointed but did not surprise David. His family and the Houstons went back decades.
“I grew up with Brian and [Brian’s brother] Graeme. We were good friends,” he said.
Cowdrey contemplated taking legal action against Frank Houston’s old church in Lower Hutt but was unable to muster support. He told Crikey he has never received an apology from anyone.
“They called it ‘moral failure’,” Cowdrey says of the way Brian Houston and other senior Pentecostal figures characterised the crime of child sexual abuse.
“I know the foundational players in New Zealand. There’s so much hidden,” he said.
Cowdrey has put a lot on the line by speaking with Crikey. It’s the first time he has used his full name to tell his story. He has also waived the anonymity which was granted to him at the McClellan royal commission into child sex abuse. The 2009 email exchange between Denise and Brian Houston was an exhibit at the commission, with David’s name redacted and replaced with a code name.
Cowdrey is speaking out in the hope that it will encourage others to do the same, and perhaps realise why they might have suffered in their lives.
“When I read [abuse victim] Brett Sengstock’s testimony from the royal commission in 2014 it was identical to what I went through as an eight-year-old,” he said. Sengstock was abused as a seven-year-old by Frank Houston from 1970. “It was my ‘a-ha’ moment about what had happened to me in 1962,” he said.
“I never had the language to explain it. So I talked about the ‘black shadow’ coming into my room. That’s how I explained it to my parents.”
Next: Why did it take six years to charge Brian Houston?
Survivors of abuse can find support by calling Bravehearts at 1800 272 831 or the Blue Knot Foundation at 1300 657 380. The Kids Helpline is 1800 55 1800. Further support is available at Lifeline is on 13 11 14 and Beyond Blue is 1300 22 4636.
If you or someone you know is impacted by sexual assault or violence, call 1800RESPECT on 1800 737 732 or visit 1800RESPECT.org.au.