Hillsong Abuse Settlement Rejected Over NDA…… | News & Reporting

Hillsong Church Australia’s legal settlement with a former student who was groped by a worship leader fell apart on Thursday when the survivor refused to sign a non-disclosure agreement.

“I will not give up my voice,” Anna Crenshaw, daughter of Pennsylvania megachurch pastor Ed Crenshaw, told Australian reporters. “This has never been about money for me but about justice and accountability.”

According to lawyers, one condition of the agreement was a joint statement saying the church reported the assault immediately. Crenshaw claims Hillsong—embroiled at the time in a scandal over founder Brian Houston’s failure to report his father Frank’s sexual abuse of a young boy—actually waited four or five months to contact police.

Crenshaw was studying at Hillsong College in 2016 when Jason Mays, an administrative staff member and volunteer worship leader, put his hand on her inner thigh. The young woman—18 at the time—got up to leave, but Mays, 24, grabbed her, wrapped his arms around her waist, and touched her legs, butt, and crotch, according to a statement Crenshaw wrote several years later.

“He lifted up my shirt and was kissing my stomach,” Crenshaw, now 26, said in a TV news interview. “So I’m just, like, stuck there with this guy groping me.”

Crenshaw did not immediately report the incident because, she said, she was ashamed.

She also didn’t believe she could report Mays to human resources, because the department was run by Mays’s father. Two years later, a counselor pushed her to report to someone, and Crenshaw went to the head of pastoral care, who said, “I’m sure he’s really sorry,” according to Crenshaw.

The church then assigned Crenshaw to work on a team with Mays’s wife. After several months and pressure from Crenshaw’s father, Hillsong reported the incident to local police.

Mays pleaded guilty to indecent assault in 2020. He was sentenced to two years’ probation and mandatory counseling, but no criminal conviction will go on his record.

Mays told Eternity that he accepted he “crossed a boundary” after getting very drunk. But he claimed the media blew the details out of proportion and made him out to be a monster because of its anti-Christian agenda.

“I wish my apologies had been enough,” he said. “There needs to be reconciliation. Instead, this story of ours has evolved into a weapon that’s been used against the Church.”

Mays later returned to work at Hillsong. The church told Crenshaw’s father that there were “no additional concerns” about Mays, and that “we also have an obligation to care for Jason, his wife, and family.”

Hillsong’s founder also downplayed the incident to the congregation—saying it was really just an attempt at a hug—and told them “the Lord has forgiven Jason, and we felt he deserved another chance.”

Crenshaw sued the church. She claimed negligence and breach of duty.

According to her lawsuit, the church “had no proper or adequate policy or procedure in place for the proper or adequate handling of complaints of sexual assault” and had failed to take any precautions to protect students, interns, or volunteers “from the general risk of sexual assault by its members.”

The church denied the allegations. It also claimed not to be legally liable, since Mays was not “acting in any capacity relating to his paid employment or volunteer duties with Hillsong” when he touched the student inappropriately.

The litigation was set to go to trial on Monday in New South Wales. Hillsong, however, offered to settle the case for an undisclosed sum of money, and the trial was taken off the court calendar. When the attorneys returned the following day to work out the details, though, they came to an impasse.

Hillsong required a non-disclosure agreement. Crenshaw refused.

She would not agree to “get their money and walk away without my voice,” she told reporters. She wanted “accountability and real sense of justice and hope that they would really change moving forward.”

Christian abuse victims and victims’ advocates have increasingly opposed the use of non-disclosure and non-disparagement agreements, claiming the common legal tools called NDAs are widely misused to protect powerful institutions from accountability.

NDAs were originally designed to protect tech industry “trade secrets.” They are now used by many industries and are often written so broadly that they include anything an employee learns in the course of employment.

Many evangelical churches and ministries require staff to sign them, though it is not clear what trade secrets the organizations could have. One agreement reviewed by CT included the prohibition of the disclosure of any “information regarding ministries,” as well as the names of anyone the staff member had ever worked with, even though their names, photos, and bios were listed on the parachurch’s website. Many of the Christian NDAs seen by CT also include prohibitions against disclosing the non-disclosure agreement, cloaking even the secrecy in secrecy.

It is not clear whether these agreements would hold up in court. To date, they have not been tested.

There have been a number of recent efforts to limit the scope of NDAs. In the US, President Joe Biden signed a law saying these legal agreements cannot cover sexual assault or harassment if they are signed before the incident as part of the conditions of employment.

The UK is currently considering legislation that would say NDAs cannot prevent someone from reporting information to police, lawyers, government regulators, counselors, or close family members. The head of the justice department said, “We are bringing an end to the murky world of non-disclosure agreements, which are too often used to sweep criminality under the carpet.”

Not everyone agrees that goes far enough, though.

“We need a complete ban of NDAs in cases of sexual misconduct, harassment and bullying,” a center-left member of the UK parliament said, “to ensure that no victim is silenced.”

A group called #NDAfree was organized in 2021 to push Christian organizations to stop using NDAs and to encourage people not to sign them.

“I’m not against settlement as a process,” one of the organizers told CT. “But using payment and NDAs as a way to not investigate something, that’s totally unacceptable.”

Crenshaw, for her part, said she had been hopeful that Hillsong’s approach to accountability had changed with the departure of founder Brian Houston. The condition of an NDA as part of the settlement convinced her she was wrong.

“It’s very disheartening and devastating,” Crenshaw said. “I think this is just evidence that despite their new leadership, they have the same tactics.”

The Hillsong trial has been rescheduled on the New South Wales court calendar for May 13.

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