(NewsNation) — A day after the founder of global megachurch Hillsong stepped down amid swirling sexual assault allegations, a former church member says church leaders have been quashing sexual misconduct complaints and allegations for years.
The church’s founder, 67-year-old Brian Houston, resigned Tuesday night after an internal investigation found that he had breached the church’s code of conduct with two women who accused him of inappropriate behavior.
The church is known for its Grammy-winning songs and A-list celebrity members — including Justin and Hailey Bieber and Chris Pratt and his wife Katherine Schwarzenegger. In recent years, it’s also received negative attention for a series of sex abuse scandals.
“If you have a core group who is committed to keeping abuses or assaults in the church quiet, that’s not who should be leading your church,” said Anna Crenshaw, a former church-goer who said she was assaulted by a church staff member in 2016.
Crenshaw, who was a student at Hillsong’s Bible college in Sydney at the time of the assault, told NewsNation she was considering legal action against the church for the way it handled her case.
“I eventually left … Hillsong completely because I just realized they didn’t care,” she said.
In 2016, Crenshaw said she was at a gathering of Hillsong church members that included married staff member Jason Mays.
“He’s sitting next to me and he puts his hand on my thigh and I just was, like, frozen,” Crenshaw said. “So I was, like, ‘OK, this guy is drinking too much, making inappropriate comments. And now he’s touching my leg under the table,’ and I just didn’t know what to do.”
When Crenshaw stood up to leave, she says Mays groped her.
“He leaned over and he grabbed me around my waist,” she said. “He put his hands in between my legs, around (my) butt, around that whole area and he lifted up my shirt and was kissing my stomach. So I’m just, like, stuck there with this guy groping me.”
She says she pulled herself free. Two years later, she reported the inappropriate behavior to the church.
“Four or five months goes by before they even speak, until they say they’ve even spoken to Jason Mays,” said Boz Tchividjian, Crenshaw’s lawyer. And it took even more time, the attorney said, before the incident was “reported to law enforcement.”
Then, Crenshaw says Mays’ wife was appointed as her new church leader and she felt like she was “almost being punished” for “telling the truth.”
Mays was later charged with assault with an act of indecency to which he pleaded guilty in January 2020.
However, Crenshaw did not feel the church reacted appropriately to her complaint or his conviction. In an email to her father, church leaders wrote that they’d disciplined Mays but that they had “an obligation to care for Jason,” which would remain confidential.
In 2021, when Crenshaw’s story started to surface, Houston told staff in a prepared statement that “the Lord has forgiven Jason, and we felt he deserved another chance.” In the statement, Houston told staff that the magistrate characterized Mays’ actions as “attempting to hug” Crenshaw.
“That (was) definitely not a hug,” Crenshaw said. “I think even if someone drunk is trying to give a hug, it doesn’t involve grabbing you in between your legs, around your butt and lifting up your shirt and kissing your stomach.”
Mays was allowed to remain on staff at the church, a move that was blasted by students at Crenshaw’s college who wrote a petition to church leadership, voicing their fear over a church and college “whose response puts an abuser back into a position of power and influence.”
“There are several reasons why Jason Mays was given another opportunity to remain on staff including the comments of the magistrate who chose not to record a conviction, asserted the ‘low level objective seriousness of the offence’ and acknowledged that it occurred in the presence of several other people who did not fully corroborate her version of the events,” the church wrote in a statement in September.
Hillsong did not respond to NewsNation’s request for comment.
Crenshaw said Houston and church leadership never apologized to her and she would like to see Mays fired.
“I think it sends a really poor message to the whole church community,” she said. “When you keep someone on staff that behaves in that way, I think it shows that you can be on staff and you can assault someone and we’re going to protect you and let you keep your job.”
“In so many of these circumstances, and in my opinion, in the circumstance of Anna Crenshaw, Hillsong speaks the gospel, but live the exact opposite of it, which meant they sacrifice the individual in order to save the institution. That’s not the gospel of Jesus,” Tchividjian said.
Allegations against Brian Houston
The allegations of abusive and inappropriate behavior at Hillsong extend to church leadership, as well, resulting in investigations and the resignation of founding Pastor Brian Houston on Tuesday night.
In January, Houston, who is married, stepped away from the ministry. He said in a statement that he wanted to focus on the criminal charge he faced of concealing information concerning the child sexual abuse committed by his late father, Frank Houston. His trial resumes later this year.
The church released new details Friday of the internal investigation, conducted by “board members or a body appointed by the global board,” into allegations against Houston. The first incident occurred a decade ago, when a church staffer received inappropriate text messages from Houston and then resigned.
“’It was along the line of, ‘If I was with you, I’d like to give you a kiss and a cuddle or a hug,’ words of that nature,” Hillsong leaders told staff members about the text messages in audio obtained by NewsNation.
In the statement released Friday, the church said that at the time of the text messages, Houston “was under the influence of sleeping tablets, upon which he had developed a dependence.” Church leaders said they “worked closely” with Houston to “help eliminate his dependency on this medication.”
The second incident took place in 2019 when the church said Houston became disoriented after mixing alcohol with a higher dose of anti-anxiety medication than was prescribed to him.
“This resulted in him knocking on the door of a hotel room that was not his, entering this room and spending time with the female occupant,” the church wrote. “Ultimately, the board found that Brian had breached the Hillsong Pastor’s Code of Conduct,” they added, describing his behavior as being “of serious concern.”
fallout within the church
Sam Collier, pastor and founder of Hillsong Atlanta, announced Wednesday that he was resigning and founding a new, unaffiliated church.
“My greatest reason for stepping down as Pastor of Hillsong Atlanta is probably not a secret to any of you. With all of the documentaries, scandals, articles, accusations and the church’s subsequent management of these attacks it’s become too difficult to lead and grow a young Church in this environment.” Collier’s statement said.
Hillsong Pastor Phil Dooley praised Collier in an Instagram video and wished him luck in his new venture, but did not address why he left.
“It is a tough season. There’s no doubt there’s a whole lot going on in our world, but we just want to say that we are continuing to put our trust and our hope in Jesus, and we really appreciate your prayers at this time,” Dooley said in the video.
Hillsong Kansas City also rebranded this week to Kingdom City Church, though churchgoers NewsNation spoke with said it took them by surprise and couldn’t explain it.