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Hillsong staffer accuses ousted pastor Carl Lentz of sexual abuse, bullying

In a post on Medium, Leona Kimes wrote about the abuse she says she experienced when she worked as a nanny for the lead pastors of Hillsong NYC.
Image: Pastor Carl Lentz backstage at the Hillsong Conference in Sydney, Australia, on July 3, 2015.
Pastor Carl Lentz backstage at the Hillsong Conference in Sydney on July 3, 2015.Toby Zerna / Newspix via Getty Images

A Hillsong Church employee who said she spent years working as a nanny for ousted lead pastor Carl Lentz and his family accused him of sexual abuse, manipulation and bullying.

Leona Kimes, who is now a pastor at Hillsong Boston, detailed the allegations Monday in a post on Medium titled "Writing My Voice Back." Kimes did not name her abuser, but she confirmed to Religion News Service that she was writing about Lentz.

In November, Lentz was fired in part because of "moral failures." His legal representative denied Kimes' claims, saying in a statement sent to NBC News that Lentz and his wife "vehemently deny the allegations and, in addition to that, have irrefutable proof the events did not happen as they are being described."

IMAGE: Carl Lentz
Carl Lentz in October 2017.Bebeto Matthews / AP file

Kimes said the abuse happened while she worked as a nanny for the lead pastors. She said that she and her husband, Josh, moved from Australia about a decade ago to help build Hillsong NYC and that she worked for the Lentz family as a nanny for seven years.

She wrote that she was "subjected to manipulation, control, bullying, abuse of power, and sexual abuse."

"Having told almost no one before this, I am just now able to share what I experienced in their home as the result of intense therapy," she wrote.

Kimes said that soon after she began working for the family, the "boundaries between personal and professional blurred" and "an unhealthy bond and attachment was formed."

"I felt like they needed me to care for their family so they could focus on their hard life of being lead pastors, and I was determined not to fail them," she said.

"The abuse of power started small. Hours would increase beyond belief. Often I would work from 7 am to 11 pm. Schedules were switched last minute without even attempting to confirm my availability. Tasks kept getting added and added to my load," Kimes wrote. "They made fun of me constantly, even calling me Cinderella, which they said was their way of loving me. My husband was frequently criticized as a group sport. Gossip was constant. If I didn't join in or if I disagreed, I was the odd one out. Classic bullying."

She said the sexual abuse also "started small," with her boss commenting on her looks. Kimes described an incident when she was in a bathing suit getting ready to swim with her boss's children.

"I vividly remember the moment my pastor noticed my body in a way that felt predatory to me," she wrote. "I was outside in my bathing suit getting ready to swim with the kids. His wife was there. He looked me up and down, making comments about my body and how hard I'd worked to get in shape. His gaze was so intense that I wanted to say 'ok, enough please,' but I just covered my belly with my arms and sat down to feel safely covered by the chair."

After that day, her boss "started crossing more boundaries," she wrote, recalling a time when, she says, he got in the hot tub with her and the children and positioned himself so his hands grazed her legs. Kimes also described a time when, she says, he took her photo without her permission while she was lying out in the sun.

"He then cropped out his wife, edited it with a black and white filter, and texted it to me, saying 'sheesh girl looking good,'" she wrote.

During the summer of 2015, Kimes said, the abuse intensified.

"While he never had intercourse with me and never kissed me, I was physically violated by his unwanted and repeated sexual touching of my intimate areas," she said. "I froze. Every time, I froze."

Kimes said that meanwhile, her boss was becoming more successful, which made her feel as though "he had all the power, and I had no voice."

On two occasions, the pastors she worked for addressed the inappropriate behavior but "blamed and silenced" her and made her feel as though she "was the problem," she wrote.

Kimes said she was told that if the pastor's reputation were ruined, hers would be, too. She said she "tried to escape" by telling her boss that she could find another job outside the church, but she said her boss told her she wouldn't be able to find a job in New York City without a college degree.

She was dismissed from her household duties in the summer of 2017, although she was kept on the family's staff, she said.

Kimes wrote that she never spoke up because she felt she didn't have a "safe place" to voice her concerns. She said she told her husband what happened only after the pastor was removed from Hillsong.

Kimes did not immediately return a phone call seeking comment Wednesday.

Hillsong's founder, Brian Houston, and his wife, Bobbie, said in a letter the church posted Monday in response to Kimes' post that hearing about her experience was "very disturbing."

"We have respected Leona's privacy and her deeply personal story. She has now decided to share her experience so that she and her husband can continue moving forward as a family," they said. "It will be a long process and they have our full concern and pastoral support."

They said that after Lentz was fired, Hillsong launched an independent investigation into the culture of its East Coast locations.

"Abuse of any kind, in any circumstance, is always deplorable. 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," they said.

They also detailed steps forward.

"As we work to rebuild Hillsong East Coast, Leona's experience will be central in our processes," the letter said. "Earlier this year, we made this commitment to update our suite of infrastructure services including increased HR training and the requirement of our policies to be standardized across our network of churches and we hope to improve accountability and communication even further."