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Fallout from Ravi Zacharias’ abuse begins

Apologetics ministry considers next steps while affiliates break away

Fallout from Ravi Zacharias’ abuse begins

(Illustration by Michael Morris)

During a Zoom Christmas party last year, no one at Ravi Zacharias International Ministries (RZIM) talked about recent sexual abuse accusations from spa employees who had treated the organization’s founder, who died in May 2020. Among a list of things employees were thankful for, one named “Ravi’s vision and legacy” in a recording of the party WORLD obtained.

Zacharias’ widow, Margie, at that time a senior staffer at RZIM, told colleagues that higher-than-expected donations on Giving Tuesday showed donors were “letting us know loudly and clearly that they are standing with us.”

Near Christmas, RZIM Canada speaker Daniel Gilman recalled the organization pushing staff to suggest ministries and churches across Canada to receive free copies of Zacharias’ most recent book. Gilman couldn’t bring himself to name one.

“I couldn’t understand for the life of me, if we’re taking the allegations so seriously that we have launched an investigation into whether Ravi might be a sexual predator, how we can give away his books?” he said.

In February, Atlanta law firm Miller & Martin released the shattering results from its independent investigation, commissioned by RZIM, into accusations of misconduct by Zacharias. Based on interviews with a dozen massage therapists and data from Zacharias’ phones and laptop, the report included evidence of sexting, sexual assault, and, according to one therapist, rape.

Now it appears possible the global ministry’s headquarters in the United States will shut down entirely, according to several employees. In late February, Vince Vitale, RZIM’s director of the Americas and the Zacharias Institute, released a statement with wife and RZIM apologist Jo Vitale confessing their personal culpability in how the organization handled the accusations, and the possibility of shutting RZIM down.

“So much is uncertain about the future, but what we do know is that we serve a God who is infinitely more concerned about the cries of victims than about our reputations, and far more interested in repentant hearts than rebranded ministries,” the Vitales said. “In light of the severity of what has occurred, it may be right for this organization, at least in its current form, to come to an end. We are at peace with that. We have absolutely no interest in getting back to business as usual.”

The week after it released the Miller & Martin report, RZIM temporarily stopped accepting donations. RZIM United Kingdom split from the U.S. organization and will change its name. RZIM Africa shut down its website except for a statement saying it would consider how to continue its work in light of the abuse reports. RZIM Canada announced it will close its organization with no signs of further investigation into possible abuses in Canada. Lori Anne Thompson, who in 2017 was the first publicly to accuse Zacharias of sexting, lived in Canada at the time.

“If the Canadian board would have just picked up the phone and asked some tough questions … it’s possible it would have been the best thing that happened to Ravi Zacharias, including the opportunity to come clean and seek help,” said Gilman, whom RZIM Canada laid off in January. “And to all the women around the world that would have been safeguarded, and instead of being safeguarded are survivors of abuse.”

The U.S. RZIM board and senior staff members are wrestling with the next steps, according to staffers: Some seek to continue the organization’s ministry as before. Others argue it has permanently lost credibility. Until Miller & Martin’s preliminary report in December, RZIM had denied the accusations against Zacharias. He sued Thompson in 2017.

Other staffers describe a culture protecting Zacharias to the point of impunity. The full Miller & Martin report said Zacharias ostracized staffers who questioned his travel arrangements. In Canada, Gilman said he recalled “beautiful” staff meetings encouraging RZIM speakers to talk about their struggles with their faith and doubting God.

“I believe at RZIM we were safe to doubt Jesus Christ, but unwelcome to question Ravi Zacharias,” he said.

In a letter to the RZIM board, RZIM spokesperson Ruth Malhotra said in seven years of working with Zacharias, she “never once witnessed him demonstrating a posture of repentance.”

She said when RZIM officials debated in September whether to investigate claims of abuse, Senior Vice President Abdu Murray talked about hiring a “rough” ex-cop to explore the criminal backgrounds of Zacharias’ accusers.

Murray told me he did ask Brian Kelly, Zacharias’ former attorney in the Thompson lawsuit and a formal federal prosecutor who tried gangster Whitey Bulger, “if he knew a reputable investigator in the Atlanta area.” Kelly only knew a “rough Atlanta ex-cop,” Murray told me. Public relations consultant Mark DeMoss, who was present for the discussion, confirmed Murray argued they should not use that investigator.

But RZIM did “background checks” on five people “we thought were associated with the spa and might know something,” including the former owners, Murray said: “When it comes to handling claims of abuse, I’m learning a lot … I regret that background checks were done at all.”

Miller & Martin discovered financial misconduct as well: Zacharias put some of his abuse victims on RZIM’s payroll and financed their housing and schooling with ministry funds. The Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability terminated RZIM’s membership in mid-February after the report became public.

Employment lawyer Ed Sullivan, who reviewed the documents surrounding the investigation, said RZIM still faces trouble: “If lawyers think they can collect, they will sue,” he said.

Miller & Martin did not investigate possible abuse overseas, so more victims may exist. Zacharias spent significant portions of his year in Mandarin Oriental hotels in Singapore and Jakarta, Indonesia, and in an apartment in Bangkok. Guidepost Solutions, a crisis management firm RZIM has hired, and victim advocate Rachael Denhollander will continue to gather information from other victims.

The spiritual fallout will continue too. Sullivan noted how crushing it is to learn your spiritual leader has fallen into sexual scandal: “I wish people were not more skeptical of God, but of other humans.”

—A version of this story appears in the March 13, 2021, issue under the headline “Fallout from Zacharias’ abuse begins.”

 

Emily Belz

Emily Belz

Emily is a senior reporter for WORLD Magazine. She is a World Journalism Institute graduate and previously reported for the The New York Daily News, The Indianapolis Star, and Philanthropy magazine. Emily resides in New York City. Follow her on Twitter @emlybelz.

Comments

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  • AlanE
    Posted: Wed, 02/24/2021 04:56 pm

    “I believe at RZIM we were safe to doubt Jesus Christ, but unwelcome to question Ravi Zacharias.”

    Replace the name Ravi Zacharias with other names and you have the key, unfortunately, to a large number of problems in our world today.

    And yet, at one time or another, nearly every one of us has coveted celebrity status. We should count it a gift that it has not been granted to most of us. We would do well to confer it on others much more cautiously than is our habit. It may be an act of mercy to pull our friend and neighbor back from the edge of acclaim.

  • Steve Shive
    Posted: Thu, 02/25/2021 05:42 am

    Your comment is spot on Alan. I wonder how many of us would stand firm in the limelight. 

  • SAWGUNNER
    Posted: Fri, 02/26/2021 03:34 pm

    Mega dittos here!

  • mjr59
    Posted: Fri, 02/26/2021 05:13 pm

    Said so well!

  • Steve Shive
    Posted: Thu, 02/25/2021 05:50 am

    Thank you Ms Belz. This is excellent; a very thorough and detailed update. The revelations are sobering, staggering and catastrophic on a couple of levels. My only critical comment is that in my mind your last paragraph could have led off your article, though with a little different wording. Ultimately the spiritual implications of this scandal are the issue. The Enemy of our souls seeks whom he might destroy but with the purpose of slandering the name of Jesus. This was a successful and strategic battle in the overall war and those in ministry or seeking to go into ministry must think beyond themselves and their ministries. As must RZIM. 

  •  Deb O's picture
    Deb O
    Posted: Thu, 02/25/2021 10:39 am

    If this had been my husband or father or leader, instead of circling the wagons around preserving his name and reputation, I would put on sackcloth and ashes and repay these victims for what has been stolen from them. If you are true Christians, why wait to be sued? Why put up corporate and legal firewalls? I'm thinking of Zacchaeus here ... four times as much to anyone who has been cheated.

    Perhaps many in this family and organization have nothing to repent of. Perhaps they were victimized by this man as well. They know and God knows who supported this man to continue in his spiritual and civil criminality. But recompense will go a long way to making things right. 

  • mjr59
    Posted: Fri, 02/26/2021 05:16 pm

    So good too.  I'm just not sure of how far recompense will go, but it is still very right!

  • RC
    Posted: Fri, 02/26/2021 05:29 pm

    While I appreciate the rational of your argument, I don’t get how you repay for what was stolen?

    I can only assume you mean cash payments.  Four times of what exactly? I assume you mean for the money to come out of the ministry assets?  I agree that waiting to get sued is not best, because the attorneys will walk away with most of the cash. But then who exactly who are the victims?  Anybody can claim to be a victim and plenty of opportunist will come forward to see what they can get.       

    Ravie is now gone. How is the accountability, of those who remain behind determined?

    Should those who have donated to the ministry have any voice in this?

  • DW
    Posted: Thu, 02/25/2021 11:06 am

    My heart breaks every time I read another article about the failings of a man that I held in such high regard. I watched his memorial service over and over again prior to becoming aware of the scandals. The voices that have been sqelched now is the biggest hurt. I think of his daughter and her kids, Abdu and his ministry, the rap artist who spoke and sang at the end of the service. What a tradgedy! I look at his many books in my library, knowing what I read of his could only have been inspired by God. In retrospect his many travels seem now to have been his opportunity to facilitate his double life. I pray for the good work that WAS accomplished by the dedicated apologists that will hopefully be moving on from RZIM, that they are able to use their experience with Ravi as an example of just how depraved the human heart really is and our constant need for the redemption offered by Christ, and the chastening that the Holy Spirit provides

  • Ann Marshall
    Posted: Sun, 02/28/2021 11:53 am

    I am so grateful the Lord protected me from being a follower of RZIM. I really can't account for my having overlooked Zacharias and his teachings (many of my friends followed him assiduously) in any other way. 

     

    It is telling that the widow of the apologist took financial support as a sure sign of blessing. Whether or not riches correlate to the blessing of God is a question that was addressed in the book of Job. 

  • RC
    Posted: Sat, 02/27/2021 08:52 am

    I have seen him respond to harden atheist, as well as students broken by circumstances with love and compassion backed by solid biblical truth. I bet they are thankful they were not over looked by the Lord like you were. My heart goes out to his family. They are just as victimized as anyone. They have gone from being part of an honored ministry to being totally dishonored. They have lost their jobs in the ministry and now get to live this shame down.  While his sin has been heinous, how is it any worse than your sin or my sin, in God’s eyes?  In Jesus words, Those without sin can throw the first stone.

  • Ann Marshall
    Posted: Thu, 03/04/2021 02:28 pm

    Do the standards for an elder not apply to men with enormous platforms that generate vast sums of money? How will those atheists and students you mentioned feel about Mr. Zacharias's truth claims now that his status as a predator is beyond a reasonable doubt? What does his behavior suggest to unbelievers regarding the power of Christ to deliver us from our sin? Why did the ECFA not enforce their own policies on RZIM, which would have prevented his wife and daughter from sitting on the board? Their presence made it more difficult to hold Mr. Zacharias to account for his secret devices and unorthodox travel arrangements. The best thing for Mr. Zacharias would have been to have been confronted firmly in this life by men who knew him well in order that he might have repented. And that is also the best thing for me (except for the "men" part since I'm a woman) and you and anyone who claims to follow Christ.

     

     

     

     

  • SAWGUNNER
    Posted: Fri, 02/26/2021 03:32 pm

    I was told this long ago. Billy Graham did a speaking tour and held many rallies in India and yet despite excited respectful audiences at one gathering he had only one young man come forward to publicly profess faith in Jesus. That man? Ravi Zacharias

    Long before this big dustup got notoriety to the full warp factor I had heard mumblings about Ravi not having any type of doctoral degree yet being billed as Dr Zacharias. It's unfortunate this man didn't adhere to the Mike Pence rule which of course he adopted from Billy Graham. Bangkok has long had a reputation for sex trafficking and child molestation. The RZIM leadership are rightly termed enablers and the legal phrase "knew or should have known" comes to mind. The real miracle here is that never once while this man was alive did anyone bother to "follow him around" in the words of Gary Hart. Exposure would have surely been low hanging fruit.

  • Ann Marshall
    Posted: Sun, 02/28/2021 11:52 am

    Thank you for this comment. I strongly agree that the best thing for Mr. Zacharias would have been to have been held to account. It is sad that no one loved him enough to do so.

  • MV
    Posted: Fri, 02/26/2021 04:20 pm

    Employment lawyer Ed Sullivan "noted how crushing it is to learn your spiritual leader has fallen into sexual scandal" -- Emily Belz's words, then this direct quote from Sullivan: “I wish people were not more skeptical of God, but of other humans.”  Sullivan's point IS the point here. The part I question is the assumtion that leaders like Zacharias  (or any human beings, for that matter) "fall into" sexual scandal. That makes it sound like it just sort of happened; that, like gravity, it's a force exerted from the outside that just wasn't resistable, and "made us" fall. That takes away (in large part, I think) Zacharias' own personal agency in this sin, in DECIDING to act as he did, for his own self-gratification. That is also proven by the fact that he, as far as anybody knows, never either admitted his sexual sins, nor repented of them. It can be hoped, for the sake of his eternal soul, that before his last moment on this earth he did repent. 

  • mjr59
    Posted: Fri, 02/26/2021 05:12 pm

    Ravi was an intellectual giant; he was clearly a gifted communicator.  I remember watching a video of one of the Q&A's on a big campus in awe; he fielded an impossible question from a young lady with a friend who had been raped and questioned God's goodness.  His answer was so good.  First empathy to the victim, second an explanation of the sanctity of God's holy intention of sex, and then the gospel. 

    What a betrayal!  I can't image RZIM surviving with that level of abuse and hypocrisy.  All credibility is lost.  The staff left over must be reeling from the sucker punch.  An intellectual monster played them. 

    I don't have the intellect or gifts God gave Ravi.  But I was easy prey as a distant pedestrian sycophant and recalled hearing something of the accusations long ago and dismissing them outright in my heart and mind.  How hard it must have been for family and staff, knowing in their hearts something was amiss.  I pray for a rival of deep sorrow and repentance for sin, no matter the cost.  Given the severity of the crimes from the platform Ravi abused, only God could make something good out of this mess. That's my prayer for his family and staff.