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Note: The following article contains descriptions of indecent assault.

Hillsong has brought in a high-powered firm of corporate lawyers specialising in crisis management in the wake of an indecent assault case at the church’s bible teaching and leadership college in Sydney.

The church is also dealing with what it calls a “lengthy” letter setting out concerns from current and former students of the college. The concerns relate to how Hillsong handled allegations made by a young international student, Anna Crenshaw, who was indecently assaulted at a 2016 gathering attended by Hillsong students and staff in Sydney’s northwest.

The church has switched to crisis-management mode following months of mishandling the allegation. In an email signed by Pastor Brian Houston and obtained by Inq, Hillsong’s senior executives have assured students that “we hear your concerns loud and clear”.

Not the only one

The church’s unprecedented action has come in response to claims from Crenshaw that the church did not take her allegations seriously at first, failed to provide proper care and had been slow to act after she informed a senior administrator of the assault, committed by Jason Mays. Mays is the son of a senior Hillsong employee who has worked with the family of pastor Brian Houston for more than 30 years.

Mays pleaded guilty to the assault at the beginning of last year and was placed on a two-year good behaviour bond. Hillsong has since allowed him to return to work on the church’s staff as creative director at Hillsong’s music publishing arm. The decision to reinstate Mays was the breaking point for Crenshaw, who said she could no longer remain with the church. She has since moved to another bible college in Sydney.

Crenshaw, now aged 23, was only 20 years old when she reported the assault to Hillsong, a step which she found “scary” and “intimidating” as a young foreign student confronting a network of established relationships at the top of Hillsong.

She told Inq that she has since been contacted by more than half a dozen other young women from Hillsong campuses in Sydney, Melbourne and overseas with similar stories.

“They have left the church and most are too scared to say anything,” she said.

Evangelical royalty take a stand

Adding to the pressure on Hillsong and Houston, the young woman’s father Ed Crenshaw, a respected senior pastor with an evangelical church in Philadelphia, has stepped in to support his daughter. Crenshaw has alleged that Hillsong acted in “self-protection first” when it became aware of the assault on Anna and that it only involved the police after he had intervened.

Crenshaw in turn has brought in the support of American evangelical royalty — lawyer Boz Tchividjian, who is the grandson of preacher Billy Graham, a towering figure in American evangelism.

The founder of GRACE (Godly Response to Abuse in the Christian Environment), an organisation dedicated to ending abusive practices in the church, Tchividjian has thrown his weight behind Anna Crenshaw’s decision to speak out against Hillsong.

“I’m so proud of my client, Anna Crenshaw, for taking the bold step forward in bringing darkness to light inside of @Hillsong,” he said in a tweet after Crenshaw blew the whistle in a Vanity Fair expose on Hillsong earlier this year. “My hope is that her words will empower others who are suffering in silence to take that step forward.”

Crenshaw told Inq that “the saddest part of the story” for her was that nothing would have happened to her attacker if she had not reported it — even though there had been several witnesses.

“My biggest hope out of all this is that people in my situation will come forward,” she said. “I believe coming forward and holding abusers accountable is the way to see the statistics lessen in the years to come.”

The night of abuse

In 2016 Crenshaw was at an evening get-together with other Hillsong friends. She was only 18 and had recently arrived to study at the Hillsong college campus in Sydney’s northwest — “a great school”, Crenshaw recalls. The college attracts fee-paying students from around the world, particularly the United States, with its focus on giving students practical ministry experience and leadership skills. (Hillsong’s teaching and training arm, Hillsong College Ltd, generated almost $17 million in fees and tax-deductible donations last year, according to its latest report.)

Crenshaw found herself seated next to Jason Mays, a young, married man — his wife was also part of the Hillsong community — who was employed as a Hillsong staff administrator and who was also a volunteer singer.

Crenshaw recalled that Mays had been drinking heavily. He placed his hand on Crenshaw’s upper thigh and left it there. Crenshaw said she just “froze”. Meanwhile, another young man at the gathering realised what was happening and offered to take her and the other students from the college home. Crenshaw got up to leave but Mays wouldn’t let her go.

“Jason grabbed me, putting his hand between my legs and his head on my stomach and began kissing my stomach. I felt his arms and hands wrapped around my legs making contact with my inner thigh, butt and crotch,” she wrote in a statement she later made to Hillsong.

At the time, she recalled, a friend of Jason’s told her not to say anything about what had occurred, insisting that he was “a good guy” and this was “not normal behaviour for him”, according to her later statement. Mays claimed he had no memory of the assault the following day.

The episode left her feeling a deep sense of shame, with the attack reviving a traumatic childhood event when she had been abused by a youth leader. A counsellor in Sydney suggested she had the option of reporting and naming the perpetrator. It took two-and-a-half years but eventually she did just that.

In so doing, though, Crenshaw was to run into a thicket of old friendships at the very top of the Hillsong hierarchy.

Friends in high places

Jason Mays’ father, John Mays, was Hillsong’s long-serving head of HR, a position he still holds. Prior to that, he had been Hillsong’s business manager for 23 years, taking his association with the Houstons back to 1984 and the earliest days of Hillsong and its predecessor church, started by Brian Houston’s father, Frank. Frank Houston retired in disgrace after admitting to sexually abusing at least one young boy. (Read Inq‘s report on Frank Houston’s $10,000 payment to abuse survivor Brett Sengstock, made in a suburban McDonald’s.)

When Crenshaw summoned up the courage to inform Hillsong, she was directed to the church’s head of pastoral care oversight, Margaret Aghajanian. Aghajanian is married to George Aghajanian, Hillsong’s long-serving general manager who has been Brian Houston’s right hand man and the driving force of Hillsong’s extraordinary success. He is a director of Hillsong Church Australia, Hillsong College Ltd and its international entities.

On Crenshaw’s version of events, the church took three months to notify Mays of her claim and then took no further action for another two months.

“It took them three months before they ever talked to Jason Mays even though they interviewed the victim multiple times, which is a huge no-no in terms of handling victims of abuse or assault,” Pastor Ed Crenshaw, Anna’s father, has said.

Hillsong contests this version. It asserts that it only understood how serious the incident was after Crenshaw made “a formal complaint”, four months after Crenshaw first provided information. Hillsong then “immediately” consulted outside legal counsel “as is our policy when a complaint of a serious nature is received”, according to its statement, made in March this year.

At the end of 2019 Mays pleaded guilty to “assault with an act of indecency”. In its public statement on Mays, Hillsong has highlighted that the magistrate “chose not to record a conviction”. It noted that Mays was “at a private party” and characterised the event more as a drunken hug gone wrong: “He was seated and leaned in to give Ms. Crenshaw a hug goodbye,” it noted. “As she stood up, he touched her inappropriately over her clothing.”

A habit of self-protection

Anna Crenshaw and her father are having none of it. Anna Crenshaw has called Hillsong’s statement “dishonest”.

“The statement completely minimises Jason’s actions and the effect on me,” she said. “What happened was certainly not a hug.”

“I was shocked when I reported it and I wasn’t taken seriously,” she told Inq. “It was very disappointing for me as someone who had been involved with Hillsong for so many years.”

Anna Crenshaw also points to Hillsong’s “selective” application of policies to support women.

“There’s a lot of talk about empowering women, through the work of Bobbie Houston (wife of Brian Houston.) Yet that wasn’t the case when I reported. They spent more time making excuses for the perpetrator.”

Pastor Ed Crenshaw says Hillsong has developed “a habit of self-protection”.

“They have failed victims, even going back to the victims of Frank Houston,” Crenshaw told The Christian Post.

Inq contacted Hillsong for comment but received no reply.

Tomorrow: the high-powered crisis management lawyers running Hillsong’s independent investigation.

If you or someone you know is impacted by sexual assault, domestic or family violence, call 1800RESPECT on 1800 737 732 or visit 1800RESPECT.org.au.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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