Hillsong Church founders Brian and Bobbie Houston say they’re working to improve the organization as one of its former pastors, Carl Lentz, faces sexual abuse allegations.
In a statement on Hillsong’s website Monday, the couple, who founded the self-described “contemporary Christian church” in Australia in 1983, gave their “pastoral support” to Leona Kimes, the woman who accused Lentz of abusing her when she worked for his family as a nanny.
“We initiated an independent and lengthy investigation into the culture of all four Hillsong East Coast locations,” they wrote. “We know that Leona may face criticism for her story and her choice to share it. In that light, we commend her for her courage and have assured her of our utmost compassion in their journey forward.”
A legal representative for Lentz “vehemently” denied the accusations in a statement to NBC News, adding that the ex-pastor and his wife “have irrefutable proof the events did not happen as they are being described.”
USA TODAY has reached out to the Lentzes for further comment.
Lentz was one of Hillsong’s most famous pastors before his firing in November over “breaches of trust” and “moral failures.” Shortly after his termination was announced, Lentz confessed on Instagram to being “unfaithful in my marriage.”
“Abuse of any kind, in any circumstance, is always deplorable,” the Houstons continued. “As a church, we are committed to learning more about how to identify such trauma and bring meaningful support to anyone who has experienced it.”
The Houstons released their statement the same day Kimes alleged in a Medium essay that Lentz subjected her “to manipulation, control, bullying, abuse of power, and sexual abuse” throughout the seven years she worked for his family.
“I can’t forget how he took away my confidence,” she wrote. “I can’t forget how he took away my voice. I can’t forget about the days I laid in bed… believing that I didn’t deserve to be on this earth and entertaining ideas of how to end it all. Unfortunately, I can’t forget any of it.”
In her essay, Kimes described instances where Lentz made inappropriate comments about her body.
“I had been around long enough to know that’s just how he was with women,” she wrote. “But after a while, the comments started to escalate. I remember being told, ‘after you have kids, we’ll buy you a boob job.'”
According to Kimes, Lentz continued to cross boundaries, asking her to rub his feet and body. She said he eventually started violating her physically, with “unwanted and repeated sexual touching of intimate areas,” including while she was driving and in a crowded movie theater.
“I froze. Every time, I froze,” she wrote. “His elevated status made me feel like he had all the power, and I had no voice.”
Celebrity pastor Carl Lentz fired from Hillsong church: ‘I was unfaithful in my marriage’
According to Kimes, Lentz and his wife Laura addressed the harassment and abuse on two occasions: First in 2016, when they “blamed and silenced” her, and in 2017, when Lentz “took full responsibility for taking advantage of me.”
“He said he’d thought about confessing to leadership, but after talking it through with his wife, they decided they didn’t have to because it wasn’t necessary, and we could just move on,” Kimes wrote. “I was told that if his reputation was ruined, my reputation would be, too. He said his wife would come and talk to me about the boundaries we would have moving forward.”
When Laura came to speak with her, Kimes said she was dismissed from all household duties but kept on staff.
“I couldn’t even imagine reporting my experiences,” Kimes wrote. “We were growing so quickly that we didn’t really have the things that are supposed to protect against situations like this… or any sort of ‘safe place’ to share concerns.”
When Kimes learned Lentz was leaving Hillsong, she said she confided in her husband about her treatment from the couple. She thanked the Houstons for treating her with compassion and urged readers to stay faithful to God without becoming “blindly loyal to an individual.”
“I still have the same heart toward church that I’ve always had,” she wrote. “Even with all I’ve been through, I still love it. Hillsong is my church, and I will remain on staff, working toward a stronger future.”
Lentz and his wife met as students at Hillsong’s training college in Sydney and arrived in New York in 2010 to spread the church’s style of mass gatherings, slick online reach and Grammy-winning Christian rock music throughout the U.S.
The church is known for its young, tattooed leaders such as Lentz, whom GQ magazine once dubbed “hypepriests,” with designer clothes and celebrity ties. Hillsong is popular among celebrities and athletes, including Kylie and Kendall Jenner, Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving.
Megachurch founder says ex-pastor Carl Lentz had ‘leadership issues’ in interview
Justin Bieber spent a month and a half living with Lentz and his family in 2014 during a tumultuous time in his life. Lentz has told the story of how he baptized the pop star in the New York bathtub of NBA veteran Tyson Chandler in the middle of the night.
Chris Pratt and Katherine Schwarzenegger are known to attend Los Angeles’ Zoe church, part of the Hillsong community. In 2019, Pratt defended the church after Elliot Page called it “infamously anti-LGBTQ.”
“It has recently been suggested that I belong to a church which ‘hates a certain group of people’ and is ‘infamously anti –LGBTQ.’ Nothing could be further from the truth,” the “Guardians of the Galaxy” star wrote on his Instagram Story. “I go to a church that opens their doors to absolutely everyone.”
Vanessa Hudgens and her former partner Austin Butler have also attended Hillsong church services.
Contributing: Rasha Ali, USA TODAY; Associated Press