Brian Houston, one of Hillsong's most powerful players, has been charged with concealing child abuse. It's a crime that carries a five-year prison sentence.

Note: this article mentions child sexual abuse.

The news broke yesterday that Brian Houston, senior pastor of the Hillsong church and CEO of its global corporate empire, currently preaching in North America courtesy of an exemption to the overseas travel ban -- oh, and also personal spiritual mentor and friend of Prime Minister Scott Morrison -- had been charged by NSW Police with a serious criminal offence.

Turns out the PM needn't have chucked Christian Porter on the table with a dead cat bounce; this sensational story will suck all the oxygen out of the room.

The charge is that Houston "knowingly concealed information relating to child sexual offences". According to the police statement, they will allege that he "knew information relating to the sexual abuse of a young male in the 1970s and failed to bring that information to the attention of police".

What do we know and, more importantly, what can we say? Bearing in mind both the presumption of innocence and the legal constraints on public commentary about a criminal case in progress, there is a limited amount that can be said regarding the underlying facts of the case or how it might go. Some media have reported that it relates to alleged abuse by Houston's deceased father, Frank Houston.

We can, however, talk about the law. The particular offence with which it appears Houston has been charged is that of "concealing child abuse", under section 316A of the NSW Crimes Act. It has three elements:

  • The accused person knows, believes or reasonably ought to know that a child abuse offence has been committed; and
  • They know, believe or reasonably ought to know that they have information that might be of material assistance in securing the apprehension or prosecution of the offender; and
  • They fail without reasonable excuse to bring that information to the attention of the police as soon as practicable.

There are many child abuse offences; the only clue we have from the police statement is that the relevant offences were "child sex offences". That points us to the parts of the Crimes Act that deal with a wide range of specific sexual offences where the victim is a child. Unsurprisingly, they all carry very heavy penalties, up to life imprisonment in some cases.

If the relevant child abuse offence is one that has a maximum penalty of five years imprisonment or more, then the maximum penalty for concealing it is also five years.

As the crime of concealment includes many elements, it is hard to prove. Strong evidence of what the accused knew, the information or evidence they held, or what they should have known if they'd put their mind to it, is a prerequisite.

Then there is the question, assuming the accused should have informed the police, as to why they did not and whether they had a reasonable excuse for not doing so.

Section 316A provides a list of available reasonable excuses, including where the accused reasonably believes that the police already know about it, or where the alleged victim is an adult at the time that the accused finds out about the alleged offence, and the accused reasonably believes that the alleged victim doesn't want the police to be told. The accused can also try for a reasonable excuse not in the list.

Interestingly (and unusually), a charge under this particular Crimes Act provision cannot be brought by the police on their own volition against a member of the clergy; it requires the approval of the Director of Public Prosecutions. The police statement indicates that that is what happened in Houston's case, following a two-year police investigation.

That's all we have -- for now. The case is in the Local Court for its first mention on October 5. Given Houston's profile, and connections, not to mention the case's broader significance, hardly anybody won't be watching.