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How she fought back after assault by Hillsong Church administrator

How she fought back after assault by Hillsong Church administrator

Anna Crenshaw, 23, a former Hillsong College student and former Hillsong Church volunteer. | Anna Crenshaw

It’s 7 a.m. on a recent Friday and Anna Crenshaw is “feeling alright” in Sydney, Australia. Months after her arrival in the Land Down Under to attend Hillsong College in 2016, though, this pastor’s daughter from Pennsylvania was left in shock after a Hillsong Church worship leader assaulted her.

The now 23-year-old, who spent four-and-a-half years studying and training between Hillsong College and Hillsong Church, says she initially struggled with the decision to report what happened, partly because she was asked to keep quiet. With the help of her counselor in the fall of 2018, however, Crenshaw found the strength to share her story with church leadership.

“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 2018 statement reviewed by The Christian Post.

She told Margaret Aghajanian, Hillsong Church’s head of pastoral care oversight, how Jason Mays — a married Hillsong staff administrator, volunteer singer and the son of John Mays, the church’s head of human resources — assaulted her.

“I felt like I could not say anything about the Jason incident because his friend had said not to, insisting that he was a good guy and this was not a normal behavior for him. After the incident until now I feel uncomfortable when I come into the same area as him,” Crenshaw said in her statement to Aghajanian.

If she didn’t have a strong support network, Crenshaw believes she wouldn't have been able to get Mays to plead guilty to “assault with an act of indecency” in 2019.

That support network includes her father, Victory Church Senior Pastor Ed Crenshaw, and Billy Graham’s grandson and attorney, Boz Tchividjian, who represented Crenshaw in his capacity as an attorney. Tchividjian is also the founder of an organization to help survivors of abuse called GRACE (Godly Response to Abuse in the Christian Environment).

“I [have] … come across a lot of survivors who don’t end up like Anna, who end up walking away from the Church, who end up feeling in shame and left isolated, who feel like the Church being a representative of God has turned its back on them. And then, they feel that God has turned their back on them, and it’s not good,” Tchividjian told CP.

“Quite frankly, these church leaders, for the most part, don’t care [be]cause they keep on moving forward with their ‘ministry’ and they don’t seem to remember the people laying on the sides of the streets that are laying there largely because of what they’ve done and how they’ve failed to address the harms that have been perpetrated upon these people, oftentimes by people within their churches.”

Anna Crenshaw said how Hillsong Church treated her as she fought to hold Mays accountable eventually forced her to cut ties with the denomination last September when they “put Jason Mays back onto [the] stage for singing.”

“I’m not interested to support an organization that’s willing to treat abuse the way I’ve seen them treat abuse. What happened with my relationship with Hillsong is once I did report to church, that’s when things started going downhill. … That’s when I saw how they dealt with abuse, and it’s something I’m not willing to overlook in my relationship with the church,” the 23-year-old told CP via Zoom on March 19 in response to a Hillsong Church statement to CP about her case. She called the church's statement “dishonest.”

What happened to Anna Crenshaw?

Anna Crenshaw (L) serves with Hillsong Church's CityCare ministry. | Anna Crenshaw

In her statement to Hillsong Church about the assault, Crenshaw recalled how Mays asked if she and her friend would be “sleeping over tonight” while they were hanging out at the house of a “random guy” on the night of the incident.

And while the males who were allowed to drink at the event were having just one drink, “Jason kept turning around and drinking more and more,” she wrote in her 2018 statement.

He appeared to get upset when he was asked about his wife, Ashley, who he had married some two years earlier. Shortly after, he sat in a chair next to her along a table and placed his hand on her “left leg — mid thigh and just kept it there.” 

When Anna Crenshaw eventually tried to leave, she said, “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.”

Another male at the event pulled her out of further harm’s way but asked her not to say anything about it. She said Mays claimed he had no memory of the assault the following day.

In their description of the event to CP, Hillsong Church appeared to suggest that the assault was the result of a hug gone wrong.

“According to court documents the Magistrate who sentenced Jason, without trivializing the nature of the offense, spoke to the ‘low level of objective seriousness of the offense’ and the fact that it occurred in the presence of a number of other people. The Magistrate stated that Jason, while drunk and still seated attempting to hug the victim, ‘leaned toward [Crenshaw] putting his arms and hands around her upper legs, crotch and bottom on the outside of her clothing,’” a Hillsong Church spokesperson noted.

In response to Hillsong's statement to CP, Anna Crenshaw said, “We have all been hugged before, and what I describe above is certainly not a hug. It is completely minimizing of Jason’s actions and the effect on me.” 

She further challenged other claims made by Hillsong Church that Mays has never denied the assault allegations made against him and expressed regret for his behavior from the first time it was addressed with him.

“When Jason was first confronted, he challenged my story. Hillsong Church had spoken to two others who were present the night Jason Mays assaulted me and both of them corroborated my story. Even though the church had three statements in agreement, Margaret Aghajanian proceeded to ask me question after question regarding Jason’s different statement. They asked me if I was sure his wife was not there,” Anna Crenshaw added.

“The statement from Hillsong speaks of Jason apologizing and expressing regret for his behavior from the first time it was addressed with him. I do not think someone who is sorry would change the story to discredit the victim,” she asserted.

Crenshaw also recalled how Mays once called the police on her in a move she believes doesn't reflect that he is sorry for what he did to her.

She explained that when she first started working at Hillsong Church, she volunteered for CityCare, a community outreach ministry at the church. 

“After I reported to church about Jason’s actions … [December 2018] after that, three months later, they placed Jason’s wife as my leader," Crenshaw added. "They actually made my leader redundant and placed Ashley as my leader instead. They didn’t do anything to help me stay in my serving position. So I actually had Jason’s wife calling me, texting me, trying to meet up with me because she didn’t know. They hadn’t even talked to her, talked to Jason about it, I don’t think after three months.” 

Crenshaw said she met with the pastoral care team and they suggested that she serve somewhere else now that his wife was there.

“I thought that was very victimizing that they didn’t do anything to help me continue in the area that I had been,” Crenshaw said.

She eventually stepped down from all of her roles within the church except for work with CityCare for one service each Sunday. She said Mays’ wife eventually learned about the charges against her husband and stopped attending services on Sundays in which Crenshaw was scheduled to serve. On one Sunday, however, she showed up.

At this point, Mays was in the middle of court proceedings.

“I was nice but tried not to talk to her much. And then Jason called his lawyer, who reported to the police that I was going out of my way to be around his wife and family when I was just serving in the same place that I had for four years and his wife knew I would be there and she came anyway,” Crenshaw said.

She said the police later contacted her about the call from Mays, and she, in turn, raised the issue with pastoral care.

“When I told pastoral care what had happened, their response was, ‘How do you think Ashley would feel?’ The response was, ‘I’m sure Jason is very sorry,’” Crenshaw recalled.

“It did make me feel very unwelcome, the fact that church decided to side with him on that. So if they’re saying that Jason was apologetic from the very beginning, I really find it hard to believe someone apologetic would do something like that a year after I reported,” Crenshaw explained.

She served with the ministry only one more Sunday after that. 

Hillsong Church policy, practice and 'self-protection'

Anna Crenshaw (R) is pictured on the Hillsong Hills website in Sydney, Australia. | Hillsong Hills via Anna Crenshaw

Hillsong Church’s Global Senior Pastor Brian Houston recently issued a public apology and presented a raft of sweeping policy changes expected to correct “the issues and misalignment of the culture and practices” that led to multiple sex and financial abuse scandals at Hillsong East Coast, formerly led by celebrity preacher Carl Lentz in the U.S.

Houston addressed it as a local problem in an email to members published on the denomination’s website in March.

Houston said immediate changes to improve leadership culture and practice at Hillsong East Coast included: "Additional training for staff and volunteers intended to increase awareness of the specific types of power dynamics that often arise in a church setting; revised and reinforced Code of Conduct for all staff; uniform HR policies, procedures and training; a clear and consistent system for reporting grievances and issues related to inappropriate behavior; a stringent sexual misconduct and harassment policy and mandatory training; improved financial accountability policies; as well as increased safeguards for staff and volunteers."

Crenshaw argues that the mishandling of abuse is a problem that extends beyond the failures of the East Coast branch of the church, and it’s not due to a lack of policies.

“I think that there are other people [like me]. I’ve heard from one girl in particular that dealt with Margaret Aghajanian as well, and she went through a very similar experience and no longer attends. She didn’t continue to go forward ‘cause she felt like she lost all her community and support when she stopped attending Hillsong. As well, I’ve heard of other stories at other campuses where Hillsong has protected the perpetrator over the victim,” she said.

“They’ve had policies in place for years. Even when I reported, they had policies in place. I went to their college, and I was a part of the church and many trainings that had to go over these policies. But if they’re not followed when an incident actually occurs and is brought forward, then writing more policies doesn’t mean much ‘cause you can just go around those as well if it’s more convenient for them as it was with my situation,” she added.

Her father, Pastor Crenshaw, contends that the focus on the East Coast scandals under Lentz has taken the spotlight off what he sees as a broader problem in how the denomination, in general, has handled abuse.

“They’ve developed a habit of self-protection. And, I think, when it comes to dealing with somebody like my daughter who had an accusation against the son of Hillsong’s top HR guy, and she reports it to the wife of Hillsong’s chairman of the board … that they tend to slip into self-protection mode, and I think they are still in that,” the Pennsylvania pastor said.

“Even with their comments about HR changes and how they dropped the ball … It gives too much blame to Carl Lentz and doesn’t take responsibility for how, in their own situation, they have failed victims, even going back to the victims of Frank Houston,” Crenshaw told CP.

And it's not the first time the Hillsong leader would have been accused of failing victims or minimizing an assault. Brian Houston’s father, Frank Houston, who died in 2004, was the head of the Assemblies of God in New Zealand until 1971. Brian Houston was the head of the Australian branch from 1997 to 2009, and founded Hillsong in 1983.

During his tenure, Frank Houston was found to have abused many young boys in New Zealand and Australia. Brian Houston immediately forced his father to resign from the Sydney Christian Life Centre with a pension once he learned of the claims against him.

One accuser, who is now 59 years old, told the Royal Commission Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse in testimony in 2014 that Brian Houston had accused him of having "tempted" his father when he was a child. Houston, however, told the Commission at the time that the claim was false.

The Hillsong Church spokesperson argued that to discuss Frank Houston’s failures as a part of Hillsong culture is “unfounded.”

“It’s important to clarify some facts related to your question. The incidents involving Frank Houston took place in the 1960s and early 1970s. Hillsong Church was not founded until 1983, and Frank Houston was never a pastor at Hillsong Church. To discuss this as a feature of Hillsong culture is simply unfounded,” the spokesperson said to CP.

Pastor Crenshaw said if Brian Houston was serious about changing the culture of how abuse is handled at Hillsong Church, Mays would not be on staff at the church.

“If somebody on my staff at my church indecently assaulted a young woman, they would be fired. That would be one thing,” he told CP. “The other thing I would like to see is that they actually get training from an organization that really does know how to handle this: a third party, not just somebody they hired to affirm their approach, but somebody like GRACE.”

Lentz attracted a list of celebrities to Hillsong Church, including pop singer Justin Bieber, before he was fired from his post with Hillsong East Coast last November over “leadership issues” and moral failures, including being unfaithful to his wife.

In the wake of Lentz’s failures, Hillsong Church later confirmed that they investigated and took action on a 2018 letter of complaint alleging inappropriate sexual relations between staff and volunteers at the Hillsong NYC location, but added that not all of the allegations made in the letter were accurate. Allegations of financial abuse were also thrown at the church.

“I think Brian Houston is one of the best leaders in the church world today, [but] I just think there’s a blind spot here,” Crenshaw said. “… Like a lot of big organizations, [they have] a tendency to prioritize self-protection.”

The Hillsong spokesperson acknowledged to CP that they have indeed developed policies and procedures to treat complaints of abuse seriously. The spokesperson further noted that “we are in no way defending Jason’s actions. There is absolutely no excuse for his behavior.” It was noted that at the time of Anna Crenshaw’s assault, "Jason Mays was an employee of Hillsong Church, but not a ‘pastor.’”

“Hillsong Church vehemently denies any allegation of a culture that tolerates abuse. We take every complaint seriously and regularly demonstrate our commitment to updating our policies and procedures," the spokesperson continued. "We equip believers across the globe to flourish—cultivating healthy relationships, healthy family units, fulfilling vocational pursuits and spiritual growth. There are many thousands of people with longevity in our church who appreciate the welcoming and supportive culture of Hillsong. We receive stories and testimonies frequently from people who are filled with gratitude for our pastoral teams, kids and youth ministries and the positive impact Hillsong Church has and is having on their lives."

The Lord has forgiven Jason Mays

Hillsong Church's Jason Mays. | Facebook/Ashley Mays

Mays's LinkedIn profile says he is now the creative director and head of sync at Hillsong Music.

Vanity Fair, which first highlighted Crenshaw’s assault in a report last month, reported that Mays received two years’ probation and mandatory counseling after pleading guilty to indecent assault. A church spokesperson also told the publication that Mays served a 12-month ban from any ministry before he was reinstated in his administration role, and now occasionally volunteers as a singer.

“There are several reasons why Jason was given another opportunity to remain on staff, including the comments of the magistrate who chose not to record a conviction and placed Jason on a two-year good behavior bond, including stringent requirements that he followed diligently,” Hillsong Church's spokesperson said. “Additionally, the Magistrate spoke to the significant punishment already received through his employer [Hillsong] with suspension relating to paid work and volunteering activities. Hillsong is certain that appropriate measures were taken legally and to care for Ms. Crenshaw throughout this process.”

At a recent Hillsong Church staff meeting, a clip of which has been reviewed by CP, Houston explained that Mays was kept on staff because “the Lord has forgiven Jason,” and he is just not a “sexual predator.”

“The Lord has forgiven Jason and we felt he deserved another chance after we weighed up the judge’s findings and comments. As well as giving consideration to the suspension Jason had served and the conditions he had met. He was restored to paid work and volunteering, which we believe to be in line with biblical principles of discipline and restoration,” Houston said. “One thing I do know is that we are not talking about a sexual predator here. We’re talking about a young man, young married man who did something stupid. Got much drunker than he should, which is an issue that we should keep addressing, and got himself in a bad situation.”

Anna Crenshaw agrees with her father that Mays should have been fired by Hillsong Church. She said that keeping him on as a staffer sends a bad message to his colleagues, many of whom did not know about the assault until after the Vanity Fair report was published in February.

“I think the message it sends to the rest of the staff and the rest of the church by keeping Jason on staff is that they can get away with actions like Jason. I think that when staff see someone who’s very involved, whose family is very involved, be able to not only be supported but still kept in their role and given even a better job during this time, it shows people that you can get away with anything as long as you have the right connections within the higher level staff,” she told CP.

“They did not come forward with this [her assault] at all until Vanity Fair brought it forward,” said Crenshaw. “I think people [Hillsong Church staffers] were not just shocked because an article came out, they are shocked because they have been working with this guy for years and no one informed them what was happening … considering Hillsong’s written policies on sexual assault.”

She further argued that even though Houston said he is not defending Mays or minimizing her assault, the way the church has handled her case belies its claims.

“I think that it’s only going to perpetuate a culture of abuse and allowing abuse when people see the way that they’ve handled this,” she said.

And while Houston might not see things from her perspective, she said more people at Hillsong Church are beginning to open their eyes.

“Since it’s come out and since people have heard about it, I have received a ton of support. I actually haven’t received anything but support from people. I think people are ready to acknowledge the wrongs that are happening and have happened, and I think they are not willing to [turn] a blind eye to it anymore — most people,” she said.

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