Among the many shades of scandal, the kind that involves religion and the people who practice it very publicly tends to attract a lot of attention. And opinions. And judgment.
The downfall of pastor Carl Lentz, who was unceremoniously fired from his lofty perch as the youthful, charismatic face of Hillsong NYC after he was caught cheating on his wife, was no exception.
But as you might glean from the fact that an FX docuseries called The Secrets of Hillsong premiered May 19, the celebrity-favorite megachurch's issues didn't start or stop with Lentz's ouster. Allegations of other "moral failures"—as Lentz's indiscretions were referred to by church leadership—and abuses of power within the organization soon followed.
And Lentz, in his first interview since his firing in November 2020, alleges that, while he admittedly screwed up in many ways, Hillsong founder Brian Houston threw him under the bus.
Citing ongoing legal matters, Houston declined to be interviewed for the series but said in an email to the production that "the reasons for Lentz's dismissal went beyond moral issues." He denied planting negative stories about his former star employee in the media or worrying that congregants would follow Lentz out the door if the pastor left his church.
The Hillsong organization did not reply to multiple interview requests, the series notes.
Houston, 69, resigned from Hillsong in March 2022 after an investigation by an integrity unit assembled by the Hillsong Global Board determined he acted inappropriately toward two women. The first incident took place roughly a decade prior and concerned the sending of inappropriate texts to a staff member while under the influence of sleeping pills, according to the board's statement. The other complaint was from 2019 and involved Houston knocking at a hotel room door while the Hillsong Conference was taking place in Sydney and spending "time with the female occupant" inside. The board said the investigation found Houston had been disoriented from anti-anxiety medication taken beyond the prescribed dose mixed with alcohol.
Houston said in a video posted on social media in November that it was untrue to say he resigned after breaching the church's code of conduct. "I didn't resign because of my mistakes," he said. "I resigned because of the announcements and statements that had been made." He maintained that the church's description of what took place allowed "people's imaginations to run wild."
"There was enough detail to pour ultimate shame and humiliation on me," he said, "but enough ambiguity to leave people to draw their own conclusions about what did and didn't happen."
His official departure—almost 40 years after he and wife Bobbie Houston started Hillsong in their native Australia—came two months after he announced he'd be stepping away from his duties as senior global pastor to prepare for trial in Sydney, where he's pleaded not guilty to covering up alleged child sex abuse committed by his late father, Frank Houston. Brian testified at trial in December, per Christianity Today, that he found out about his father's crimes in 1999 but didn't go to authorities because a by-then adult survivor of Frank's asked him not to.
After 13 days of witness testimony, the proceedings were suspended until June 15.
"The delay is frustrating but it is what it is," Houston wrote Dec. 21 on Instagram, "and Bobbie and I will be using the time committed to building for the future."
But The Secrets of Hillsong has delved deep into the church's history and the alleged toxic side of the atmosphere that seemingly lifted up so many. Here are the biggest revelations from the FX series:
Five Hillsong members warned New York leadership in 2017 about misconduct at the church
Former New York parishioner Ajanet Rountree identifies herself in the series as one of five church volunteers who composed an email to Hillsong New York leaders detailing alleged abuses. Abby Ross, another member of the group who signed the email as "The Five," recalls there had been talk among their friends of "widespread issues" within the church that "weren't being dealt with at all." The series toggles between Ajanet and Abby reading the letter.
"There are verified and widely circulated stories of inappropriate sexual behavior amongst staff and interns," they read, "sweeping of messy situations and problems under the rug and lack of accountability...Hillsong NYC should not joint the list of other churches and institutions that ignored repeated outcries of victims till some horrifying scandal takes them down...We are disappointed beyond measure and fearful of what is ahead if these issues remain unchecked."
Abby says they had a meeting with pastor Carl and other leaders after sending the email, "and even though they were saying all the right things related to how things would be different and we'd look into all of this, I just wasn't convinced at all. I remember distinctly leaving the office thinking, it's not going to have the impact we hoped for."
Ajanet adds that "within the year, I don't believe that there were any of the five left at Hillsong NYC."
E! News has reached out to Hillsong for comment but has not heard back. The series notes the church did not respond to multiple interview and comment requests.
Carl Lentz says he got addicted to prescription medication
In his first interview since being fired from Hillsong, Carl describes becoming increasingly overwhelmed by the pressure that came with his job as hype priest and his growing fame outside of the church as a pastor to the stars.
"One of my addictive patterns," he says, "was something that just started as a regular prescription drug."
After being diagnosed with ADHD "super early" in life, he says he'd been taking the same prescription since graduating from college, but to battle his stress he "started just to take more."
"I didn't tell my doctor I was doing that—I didn't tell anybody," he continues. "It enables you to continue to do your job."
Laura Lentz recalls the day husband Carl Lentz admitted to cheating
Carl says he felt like he was "in an alternate universe" the day he was confronted by church leadership after a Hillsong staffer found texts on his computer that suggested an affair between him and jewelry designer Ranin Karim and reported him. (Carl has never mentioned her by name while talking about his infidelity, but Ranin told her story a number of times.)
On Oct. 25, 2020, "Carl's like, 'Hey, can I talk to you for a second," Laura, his wife since 2003, recalls in the series, her first interview since both she and Carl were fired from Hillsong. "As soon as he shut the door and I saw his face, my heart just dropped and I was like, I could tell it was something big. I didn't know what he was going to say, but…when he did, my whole world crashed."
When Carl told her he'd been "unfaithful," Laura remembers asking him what that meant and if he was in love with this other woman. And in that "unbelievable" moment, she adds, "I thought about my kids. That was my first thought, then—it was so stupid—but I thought about our church and our staff.
Carl remembers Laura uttering a sound that "was like no other cry I'd ever heard." He says that "she wasn't mad, she was just so broken."
Carl Lentz says he had an "inappropriate relationship" with his family's nanny, denies abusing her in any way
On May 31, 2021, the Lentzes' former nanny Leona Kimes published an essay on Medium alleging that, though there "were some joyful moments," she was "subjected to manipulation, control, bullying, abuse of power, and sexual abuse" during the seven years she worked for the family.
Though Carl "never had intercourse with me and never kissed me," she wrote, "I was physically violated by his unwanted and repeated sexual touching of my intimate areas." Leona further alleged that when she confronted the couple on two occasions (she didn't name Carl and Laura by name in the essay but later confirmed they were the "lead pastors" she was referring to) she was "blamed and silenced" both times.
A legal rep for the Lentzes adamantly denied the allegations at the time and told Religion News Service there was "irrefutable proof the events did not happen as they are being described."
Carl says in The Secrets of Hillsong that he was responsible "for allowing an inappropriate relationship to develop in my house with someone that worked for us," but any allegation of abuse is "categorically false."
"There were mutual adult decisions made by two people who lied profusely, mainly to my wife," he continues. "It's an issue, because I was a boss, this person was an employee. I'm responsible for that power dynamic, and the management of it and the wisdom that goes with it, and I failed, absolutely miserably."
The series notes Leona declined to comment.
Laura Lentz admits to a "messy" situation with the family nanny
In the series, Laura recalls finding Carl and Leona "in a compromising position" one night and losing it. "I shoved Carl and hit him," she says, "and jumped on top of her and I punched her. I may have broken my pinky finger. Something came over me and I was angry and I definitely freaked out."
After that, Laura continues, Leona said she couldn't be around someone "'who thinks I did something that I did not do'" and left—and then none of them ever talked about it again.
The dynamics were "really messy," Laura says, noting how she and Carl were also Leona's pastors and she was staff. "I would just stuff it down and I would definitely be probably too harsh with her," she admits. "I was in a really tormented place mentally. I didn't know what's happening in my house anymore. I was pretty much gaslit by both of them for quite awhile."
Laura shares that her suspicions weren't officially confirmed until Hillsong founder Brian Houston asked Carl about Leona during a Zoom call with the couple.
"So my feelings about that situation for a long time were actually true," she says. "And I had to move off of the screen because I was devastated."
Carl Lentz says he had suicidal thoughts after leaked recording
Carl and Laura were fired on Nov. 4, 2020, with Brian citing "leadership issues and breaches of trust, plus a recent revelation of moral failures" for the decision. The following day, Carl admitted to his infidelity in an Instagram post, writing alongside a family photo that he would be beginning "a journey of rebuilding trust with my wife, Laura and my children and taking real time to work on and heal my own life and seek out the help that I need."
On Dec. 3, DailyMail.com published audio it had obtained of Brian telling church staffers and volunteers that Carl had multiple affairs but that the first he'd heard of any of it was when an employee found compromising texts between Carl and Ranim. During the meeting, per the recording, Brian said Carl had been "manipulating, mistreating people" and "constantly lying."
Describing how he felt when that leak came out, Carl says in the series that his "head began to lose the few screws it had left in it. Thought about just ways to get out of this to cause the least amount of damage, knowing there was no way out...and definitely thought about vacating the planet."
Brian Houston goes "scorched earth"
Carl points to Brian's May 2021 interview on TODAY as a moment when he sincerely wondered what his former mentor was playing at. "I remember going like, 'Why is he doing this? He doesn't need to do this.' I was trying to get my well-being back and out of the corner I'm like,' This guy's on TV saying, what?'"
Calling the disgraced pastor a "unique character," Brian told Savannah Guthrie, "There's a lot of things I miss about Carl. But having said that, there were leadership issues that I believe included lying, included what I would call narcissistic behavior."
Janice Lagata, a Hillsong NYC member from 2010 to 2017 who referred to Carl in the series as "an amazing actor," agrees with the conclusion that Brian was purposely trying to smear his former star.
"Brian went scorched earth," she says on the show. "Rumor was Carl was planning to leave anyway...If he wanted to start a new church, Carl would have taken a hefty chunk of Hillsong's congregations. People and money, mostly the money."
Carl says in the series that, before he was fired, "we were definitely at a place where I knew our time was up" but they "came to an agreement" in which he wouldn't leave.
"I think of Carl Lentz as Lucifer," Tanya Levin, a former Hillsong Sydney congregant, says on the show. "He was so beautiful and he was growing in power so much, that he almost thought he could be Brian—and he had to be thrown out of heaven."
The series notes that Brian said in an email he "never pursued placing stories about Lentz in the media, nor was he afraid of losing congregants if Lentz left." He wrote, per the show, "I loved Carl."
Episodes 1 and 2 of The Secrets of Hillsong are available on FX On Demand or streaming on Hulu. Episodes 3 and 4 air Friday, May 26, at 10 p.m. ET.
(E! and NBC are both members of the NBCUniversal family.)