Hillsong is red meat for media: what 60 Minutes is serving up this week

Trigger warning added 22/9/21: This story contains graphic details of assault with an indecent act and is likely to cause distress to people who have been victims of such abuse and may have been silenced from speaking about it.

It’s the story of a drunken encounter and an unpleasant touch. What gives it a place in the media is probably the name of the church involved, Hillsong.

It is March 2016, and Anna Crenshaw, the daughter of a Philadelphia pastor Ed Crenshaw, has come to Sydney to attend Hillsong College. Jason Mays is working in a Hillsong admin job.

At a social function, a drunk Mays assaults Crenshaw. At the Penrith Local Court in 2020, Mays pleads guilty to “assault with an act of indecency”. Magistrate Hiatt gives Mays a two-year good behaviour bond.

“Five and a half years ago, when I was 24 years old, I unknowingly made a mistake that would have far greater ramifications than I could ever possibly imagine,” Mays tells Eternity.

“For the first time in my life, I let myself get drunk at a friend’s house to the point where I lost all sense of myself. I wasn’t aware of this for the next 3 years, but in my zombie-like state I crossed a boundary with Anna Crenshaw.”

Mays is still employed at Hillsong but he is currently on leave on workers’ compensation for psychological injury. As a Hillsong College statement notes, Ed Crenshaw believes “that if Hillsong really cared about victims, his daughter’s attacker Jason Mays should have been fired by Hillsong.”

Ed Crenshaw claimed that he had to push to get the police involved. He believes Hillsong had to be prodded into action – which may be what 60 Minutes will explore. “I don’t expect Hillsong would have been able to keep anything bad from happening. That could happen in any organisation. But what I would expect of Hillsong is proper care and follow-up. And that’s what was missing,” Pastor Crenshaw told the Christian Post.

Hillsong College says, “On May 14, 2019, Hillsong staff telephoned Ms Crenshaw’s father, Ed Crenshaw, to alert him that Hillsong would be notifying the police of the incident. In an effort to ensure that Ms Crenshaw would feel supported, we notified Mr Crenshaw so that he could inform his daughter. The incident was reported to the police the next day, and Hillsong staff continued to follow up with Ms Crenshaw and her father to extend care during this time.”

In an Instagram statement seen by Eternity, Mays says: “I pled guilty because I accepted that I was guilty of the facts I was charged with, despite having no memory of the action myself. I did not wish to put Anna through a lengthy court process.

“The legal process had already cost our family [Mays is married to Ashley] more money than we had. We had to move out of our home and in with family.

“I was not charged with nor ever accused of sexual assault. The fact that media has construed and twisted to suggest this is ridiculous and heartbreaking.”

Eternity asked Mays what he would say to the Crenshaw family. “I wish with everything inside of me that we could have resolved this differently. I wish my apologies had been enough. I wish I could have championed the cause of justice alongside you as someone who made a mistake. I would still like to despite everything. But for that to be possible  … there needs to be reconciliation. Instead, this story of ours has evolved into a weapon that’s been used against the Church. It’s become something that creates division and anger. I have to believe that neither of us wanted that and I for one want to change it if it’s not too late.”

Readers will be able to make up their own minds about what happened because the details of the encounter are in the court transcript.

Magistrate Hiatt sums up the situation: “I note those particular actions are outlined in the agreed facts as you putting your right hand on the complainant’s left leg midway up her thigh, and then a circumstance at a point where a person by the name of Salmon has moved back slightly in a chair that was being seated in that particular point to see what you were doing. On seeing this the person Salmon stood up and said, ‘I think it’s time to take the girls home’.

“I note the facts disclose that the complainant Crenshaw stood up straight away. At this point, you were still seated. You’ve leaned towards Crenshaw, putting your arms and hands around her upper legs, crotch and bottom on the outside of her clothing. I note they are the particular facts of the matter in relation to the allegation of assault with an act of indecency.

“I accept the submissions made by Mr ElChoufani [May’s lawyer] that when one looks at those particular circumstances, certainly insofar as the placement of your right hand on the left leg of the complainant, that in and of itself, perhaps is not sufficient to amount to an act of indecency. But what then follows in relation to your particular actions by putting your arms around the upper legs and crotch and bottom area on the outside of the complainant’s clothing does.”

Witness Gerald Salmon (referred to in the magistrate’s summary) said in a witness statement, “After several hours of jovial conversation Anna and Jason were seated at the table. With a clear line of sight, I observed that Jason had his hand on the end of Anna’s knee only. Jason was very intoxicated at the time and seemed unaware of himself and his surroundings…

“Shortly after this, I announced that the night was over and I would take Anna and her friend home. When Anna stood up from the table, Jason who was still sitting drunkenly hugged Anna around the waist and did not touch her crotch. Neither did he touch her inner thigh or kiss her stomach.”

In that second paragraph, Salmon is denying some of what Anna Crenshaw has said. But we have the weighing up of the evidence by the magistrate to go on as well.

A drunken embrace by someone who should not have been drunk, and to have stayed out till 6 am is not what any church would want a church employee to do.

Here’s Hillsong’s account of how they decided to deal with Mays.

“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 behaviour bond, including stringent requirements that he followed diligently. Additionally, the Magistrate spoke to the significant punishment already received through his employer (Hillsong) with suspension relating to paid work and volunteering activities.”

Mays tells Eternity the media onslaught was devastating. “My family and I have been forced to watch in agony as the media and their anti-church agenda have painted me as a kind of monster. I was an easy target for this as my father is the head of Human Resources.

“I cannot express the pain I have felt being used by the media as a poster boy for ‘church abuse’ when the very words disgust me. I have dedicated my life to serving others and, regardless of how bullied I am, I know the rest of my life will be dedicated to this cause.

“I’m just a young guy with a social media account of 805 people trying to stand up to multi-million-dollar media empires.”

Editor’s Note: For those of us in other churches, we need to avoid schadenfreude, any sense of joy that any church should be the target of a media campaign. Because beginning with Vanity Fair in the US, the US Christian media, and the tabloid end of the Australian press, this story has had a big run. And it is not out of concern for the Crenshaw family, which we should have a great deal of sympathy for.

You might think that Mays deserves the media spotlight on him. Or maybe just a bit. But the story is not just about this young man.

It’s hunting season on Hillsong and other Pentecostal churches. Hillsong in the headline is what drives this story. “Is Hillsong church a brewery of abuse?” was the headline in Film Daily. Those of us in older denominations know that there have been places in our churches that deserve that title. Whole dioceses even.

There’s also the question of what sort of penalty a church should impose in a case like this. There will be a range of different responses from readers. Mays is not a pastor, a role he would have had to relinquish if he had been.

If this article has brought up traumatic memories for you, please contact 1800RESPECT.

If you are feeling desperate, please call Lifeline on 131114.