Hillsong Staffer Accuses Ex-Pastor Carl Lentz of Sexual Abuse as He 'Vehemently' Denies Claims
Leona Kimes made the accusations — which Lentz, 42, has denied — in an essay she published on Medium Monday, titled "Writing My Voice Back."
Though she did not identify her abuser by name in the piece, Kimes, who did not immediately respond to PEOPLE's request for comment, confirmed it was Lentz in a statement to Religion News Service (RNS).
"I felt trapped and silenced. I also felt so ashamed and I had been told not to say anything or tell anyone," she told the outlet of Lentz's alleged indiscretions.
An attorney for Lentz and his wife Laura tells PEOPLE in a statement that the couple "vehemently deny" Kimes' allegations.
"Laura and Carl Lentz vehemently deny the allegations and, in addition to that, have irrefutable proof the events did not happen as Leona Kimes has described," the statement reads. "Further, due to the high degree of the ongoing reckless and slanderous misstatements by Leona Kimes, Laura and Carl Lentz are exploring all legal actions available to them."
In the candid piece, Kimes said she and her husband Josh moved from Australia to the U.S. 10 years ago to help build Hillsong NYC, which Lentz reportedly launched with Joel Houston, the son of Hillsong founder Brian Houston.
Kimes was hired as the nanny for the lead pastors — a job she said included cleaning their house, running their errands and caring for their children.
However, Kimes wrote that the "boundaries between personal and professional blurred early on, and an unhealthy bond and attachment was formed" as she began working in the family home.
"During the years I spent serving them, I was subjected to manipulation, control, bullying, abuse of power, and sexual abuse," she wrote. "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."
The alleged incidents involving Lentz began with inappropriate comments, Kimes said, recalling a time when Lentz allegedly told her, "Gurl, you're looking good. You've been in the gym?" and "After you have kids, we'll buy you a boob job."
She also claimed he would ask her to rub his feet and muscles, and noted there was a time when she was in her bathing suit preparing to swim with his kids and Lentz allegedly stared at her body, in front of his wife, "in a way that felt predatory to me."
"After the intense glance that day, he started crossing more boundaries," Kimes wrote. "Like, when I was sitting in the hot tub with the kids, he would get in, positioning himself close to me so his hands could graze my legs."
"Then the physical encounters escalated," she wrote. "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. I froze. Every time, I froze."
Eventually, Kimes said, the "inappropriate touching and suggestive text messages were addressed by both lead pastors on two occasions."
However, in both instances, Kimes claimed she was "blamed and silenced" and made to feel like she "was the problem." She later attempted to get a new job outside of the church but said Lentz allegedly told her she wouldn't be able to get a job in New York City without a college degree.
"I won't forget how that made me feel, so alone, so worth absolutely nothing, so fearful of my future, so fearful for my husband's future," Kimes wrote.
Kimes said she was ultimately fired from her nanny role in summer 2017 after conversations with Lentz and his wife in which they allegedly told her "if his reputation was ruined, my reputation would be, too."
Looking back, Kimes said she never spoke up because she didn't have "any sort of 'safe place' to share concerns."
"I can't forget how he took away my confidence. I can't forget how he took away my voice," she wrote. "I can't forget about the days I laid in bed that year 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."
Kimes' decision to finally tell her story comes more than six months after Lentz was fired from the church in November and admitted to being unfaithful to his wife, with whom he shares three children.
"Even though I can't forget it, I believe I can use it to become stronger," she wrote. "Through intense therapy, I now recognize that it wasn't my fault. I didn't fail. Church didn't fail me. God didn't fail me. Man did... I'm breaking my silence and starting an important conversation."
She also said she opted to stay with Hillsong despite her past and is now employed as a pastor at Hillsong's Boston location, "working toward a stronger future."
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In a note on their website, Brian Houston and Bobbie, his wife and Hillsong co-founder, addressed Kimes' essay, calling her experience "very disturbing" and commending her "for her courage.
"[We] have assured her of our utmost compassion in their journey forward," the Houstons wrote.
They also confirmed that they "initiated an independent and lengthy investigation into the culture of all four Hillsong East Coast locations" following Lentz's firing last fall, and that ""Leona's experience will be central in our processes" as they rebuild.
"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."
A spokesperson for Hillsong did not immediately respond to PEOPLE's request for comment.
If you or someone you know has been a victim of sexual abuse, text "STRENGTH" to the Crisis Text Line at 741-741 to be connected to a certified crisis counselor.