Content Warning: This post discusses abuse and tactics used by abusers to maintain their power. While it does not go into details about the types of abuse or abusive acts, it is a challenging topic.
If you have experienced abuse personally and choose to read it, please, care for yourself well. If you have not experienced abuse first hand, please bravely face the discomfort and know that ignoring this topic because of our discomfort will allow abusers to prosper.
While the Ravi Zacharias scandal shocked many, there are hundreds of abuse victims and advocates saying
“We told you so”
They’re 100% right and now, church, it’s time for some tough love. They’ve been telling us for years that our faith based organizations have deeply rotten abusive cores. In addition to their insistence that we need to do a better job of preventing this, I’d also like to say it is nearly impossible we don’t have another scandal like this is already brewing inside our walls.
Because we allow it.
We refuse to root out abuse.
Instead, we choose to excuse it away or blame the victim when it comes to light.
Ravi Zacharias is not an anomaly, he’s the very common fruit of the toxic religious tree we have been watering for centuries.
If I was a betting person, I’d wager that it’s happening right now and there are probably people scrambling to stay under the radar in their own organizations. We have cultivated Christian organizations so jam packed with sexism, bias, denial, and greed that it’s easy for powerful men to abuse women.
This is not OK.
It’s time to decide if we are going to be the church that creates safety or the church that protects the power and ‘legacy’ of abusers.
Church, we have to get naked in front of the mirror and take a really good look at every square inch of ourselves if we want this to stop. It’s long past time we figure out what we can do differently to prevent our ministries from allowing, funding, and even enabling abuse.
We have to have an honest conversation about why Ravi Zacharias’ abuse was allowed to flourish because this wasn’t just the moral failure of one person.
It wasn’t an affair that snuck up on a good man (because it wasn’t an affair, it was abuse).
It was a system of abuse created by one person (with lots of power) to harm others (who had less power) for his own twisted reasons.
This toxic system where the abuse flourished was embedded within a ministry that had fiscal, legal, and moral oversight of the abuser but they chose to look the other way.
The coverup hid human trafficking, used non-disclosure agreements to silence victims, and showed gross negligence on behalf of those who were supposed to be stewarding donations received by Ravi Zacharias International Ministries (RZIM).
The abuse occurred within the walls of RZIM.
The abuse was funded by RZIM funds.
Reports of the abuse were dismissed by the RZIM team.
Further abuse happened because the RZIM team chose not to stop this multiple times.
Ravi Zacharias’ inner circle and the RZIM board looked the other way and they need to be included in the reckoning. Apologizing in a press release isn’t enough to make up for years of negligence and enabling.
The RZIM ministry team dismissed and pushed aside SIGNIFICANT red flags for years. All because people inside the ministry leadership assumed their experience with Ravi was the only possible experience anyone could have. Lori Ann Thompson’s accusations should have set off a series of investigations that uncovered everything that the current investigation uncovered. The majority of the evidence in the current report came from reviewing Zacharias’ own phone after his death.
Zacharias, like most abusers of this magnitude, was so confident in his ability to get away with it, that he didn’t even delete his incriminating texts and pics from his phone.
Chew on that for a minute.
They were on his blackberry when he hugged his children or told people God loved them.
It’s hard to think about that level of confidence that you can get away with what you know is wrong, isn’t it?
But we must think about it if we want this to get any better.
We also have to reconcile the public view of the popular pastor with the fact that it’s highly unlikely his abusive tendencies suddenly appeared in the last few years of his life. Abusers usually start small and then the power they gain over people emboldens them. It can take decades of abuse to reach this level. It’s likely that there are many that have not yet, or will not come forward to tell their story.
Abusers, like Zacharias, always count on their victims staying quiet and their enablers running interference.
Church leaders need to stop saying they don’t know how this happened, because Ravi Zacharias used the exact same playbook abusers always use.
Look at any high profile case you’d like and you’ll see the same acquisition of power, grooming of potential victims, misuse of funds to facilitate the environments where abuse happened, and a team of cowards who are so invested in the abuser’s success that they are unwilling to honestly entertain any accusations even in the face of actual evidence.
If the abuser is accused of anything, enablers are conditioned to sputter things like:
- “He’s a good guy.”
- “If you knew him like I do.”
- “I never saw him treat anyone badly.”
- “He says none of that is true, why would we believe the accuser instead of him?”
- “The accuser is slanderous and wants money.”
- “He’s the victim here.”
It’s all enabling 101….Just look around and you’ll see it in every major case of abuse that’s hit the public.
And hundreds of more.
Abusers, like Zacharias, have powerful inner circles of enablers who can usually hold off any real investigation until the abuser’s power wanes.
It’s not a coincidence that more victims come forward when their abuser is dying or their death. How many adults do you know never talk about their abusive parents until after one or both parents have died?
Clearly…There is no place in ministries for this abuse or the gross lack of leadership on the part of the RZIM board.
If churches and parachurch ministries actually want to root out abuse, all they need to do is pick up a copy of the abuser’s playbook and put stop gaps in place.
I really hope you hear the exasperation in this post because these women never should have been hurt.
A step as simple as examining Zacharias’ phone would have blown this whole thing open several years ago and prevented further abuse. The RZIM board had that opportunity and chose not to be thorough in their ‘investigation’. Instead choosing to enable a serial abuser to continue to abuse and traffic women.
Here are just a few basic, common sense stop gaps that would have protected women from Ravi Zacharais:
- No one in the organization gets absolute, unchecked power.
- Financial reviews must be thorough, impartial, and regular. (Money from teh minsitry was regularly funneled to house, transport, and employ his vicitms.)
- All communication devices and accounts connected to the organization for oversight.
- Every accusation needs a thorough review by an independent, impartial source. (The legal firm retained by the abuser and the Board of Directors are incapable of being impartial.)
- Gender bias and making decisions based stereotypes has no place in a Christian organization. I could write volumes on this but will save that for another day. If you don’t understand how patriarchy and toxic beliefs about women plays into this case read this: ‘You Are One Step Away from Complete and Total Insanity’ The inside story of how Ravi Zacharias’s ministry concealed and enabled his abuse.
- What would you add? How else can we protect current and potential victims?
The bottom line is this…
Uncovering and stopping abuse is only hard if you are more invested in the the abuser, than you are protecting potential victims from abuse.
Here are some additional resources to help us understand how this happened and stop doing things that way:
Start here for a solid overview of the case if you’re not familiar with what happened:
- ‘You Are One Step Away from Complete and Total Insanity’ The inside story of how Ravi Zacharias’s ministry concealed and enabled his abuse. https://frenchpress.thedispatch.com/p/you-are-one-step-away-from-complete?
- Ravi Zacharias Apologises but Denies Inappropriate Behaviour with Ministry Supporter https://www.premierchristianity.com/content/view/full/895090
To better understand the magnitude of RZIM’s failure:
- Open Letter from the International Board of Directors of RZIM on the Investigation of Ravi Zacharias https://www.rzim.org/read/rzim-updates/board-statement
- Ravi Zacharias Hid Hundreds of Pictures of Women, Abuse During Massages, and a Rape Allegation https://www.christianitytoday.com/news/2021/february/ravi-zacharias-rzim-investigation-sexual-abuse-sexting-rape.html
- Report of Independent Investigation into Sexual Misconduct of Ravi Zacharias https://s3-us-west-2.amazonaws.com/rzimmedia.rzim.org/assets/downloads/Report-of-Investigation.pdf
Learning how to move forward:
- The Paradox of Power: 7 Leadership Strategies in the Age of #ChurchToo https://www.cbeinternational.org/resource/article/mutuality-blog-magazine/7-leadership-strategies-age-churchtoo
- #meTOO and #churchTOO#ChurchToo tweets are trending, because sexual abuse occurs in religious settingshttps://www.plantoprotect.com/blog/metoo-and-churchtoo/
- What Can Be Done to Prevent Sexual Abuse by Clergy?Eight specific recommendations for faith communities https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/overcoming-child-abuse/201903/what-can-be-done-prevent-sexual-abuse-clergy
Church and Ministry specific articles:
- Researchers reveal patterns of sexual abuse in religious settings: Sociologists expose how perpetrators use trust, faith and authority to groom victims and keep abuse secret.https://www.ualberta.ca/folio/2020/08/researchers-reveal-patterns-of-sexual-abuse-in-religious-settings.html
- #ChurchToo:The Toxicity of Christian Complementarianism https://www.bitchmedia.org/article/church-too-one-year-later
To educate yourself (and your children) on what to look for:
- What is Grooming? Signs to Look for With Sexual Predators https://www.bark.us/blog/grooming-signs-sexual-predators/
- How Victims are groomed by Abusive Predators https://psychcentral.com/pro/recovery-expert/2018/09/how-victims-are-groomed-by-abusive-predators#1
- How to Spot Sexual Abuse in Your Church: Understanding the dynamics of sexual abuse is the first step. https://www.christianitytoday.com/pastors/2015/january-online-only/how-to-spot-sexual-abuse-in-your-church.html
- 14 Signs of Emotional Abuse https://reddingchristiancounseling.com/14-signs-of-emotional-abuse/
To better understand how widespread the issue actually is:
- Post-Weinstein, These Are the Powerful Men Facing Sexual Harassment Allegations https://www.glamour.com/gallery/post-weinstein-these-are-the-powerful-men-facing-sexual-harassment-allegations
Angela is a Faith Deconstruction Coach and host of The Deconstructing Faith Summit who helps people break free from toxic religious culture & empowers them to recover from #churchhurt. She has led online ministries for a decade, enjoys working with clients 1:1, in groups, and is a dynamic conference speaker. She’s a Lark’s Song Certified Life Coach who reaches thousands of people in 40+ countries each month on Facebook, IG, Twitter, Pinterest, and her blog.
She’s a firstborn, Enneagram 8, Gen Xer who loves to question everything. She holds a BA from Indiana Wesleyan and a Masters in Leadership from Wesley Seminary. Her graduate research project focused on leadership development and opportunities for Gen X women in the US church.
Angela and her unique online ministry are featured in Lyz Lenz’s 2019 book God Land: Story of Faith, Loss, and Renewal in Middle America. She has published articles in Hope for Women and HOPE is Now magazines. She has been featured in The New Republic, Publisher’s Today, and Religion News Service.
Her first book, Deconstructing Your Faith Without Losing Yourself, Will be published by Eerdmans in February 2023.
Angela is also a wife, mom to 5, and a proud resident of Marion, Indiana with her family when they’re not traveling the US in their RV.