Skip to main content

Features

Zacharias ministry acknowledges founder’s sexual misconduct

New RZIM report details extensive abuse; ministry apologizes to victims

Zacharias ministry acknowledges founder’s sexual misconduct

Ravi Zacharias (Alamy)

Warning: This report contains graphic accusations about sexual activity.

The board of Ravi Zacharias International Ministries (RZIM) released a report from what it called a “devastating” independent investigation into sexual misconduct accusations against founder Ravi Zacharias, a famed global apologist who died in May after a cancer diagnosis.

The report, based on testimonies from more than a dozen massage therapists, and data from four phones and a laptop, found extensive evidence of sexual misconduct—including sexting, sexual assault, and according to one massage therapist, rape. The report also showed the use of ministry funds to continue that misconduct, coming out of a discretionary fund called “Touch of Hope.” 

RZIM commissioned Atlanta law firm Miller & Martin to investigate after Christianity Today and WORLD reported last fall on women’s accusations of Zacharias’ sexual mistreatment of them at two Atlanta-area spas he partially owned. 

RZIM’s board in a statement apologized for ignoring initial evidence of the abuse, especially regarding Lori Anne Thompson, who had accused Zacharias of starting a sexting relationship in 2017. On Dec. 3, 2017, Zacharias issued a statement condemning Thompson as an extortionist and declaring his innocence: “In my 45 years of marriage to Margie, I have never engaged in any inappropriate behavior of any kind.” But data show the next day he received a photo from a Malaysian woman with whom he had a relationship.

Investigators found Zacharias had 200 massage therapist contacts in the phones he used between 2014 and 2020. Their report says Zacharias owned two apartments in Bangkok: He stayed in one, and a massage therapist stayed in the other on a separate floor. Zacharias’ phones contained more than 200 photos of young women, including nude photos, as well as notes with amorous phrases in Thai and Mandarin. He had multiple phones and private email addresses, remaining off RZIM’s communications platforms for what he said were “security reasons.” 

“The end result was that no one at RZIM would have had administrative access to his devices or email communications,” the report said. 

Though Zacharias spent significant time overseas and alone in hotels where he had massage therapist visits, investigators only interviewed therapists in the United States. Several therapists reported that he would touch his genitals or ask them to touch them during massage sessions. Five reported that he touched or rubbed them inappropriately, including on their breasts and genitals. One therapist said she would sometimes bind his arms with sheets to keep him from touching her. 

One therapist told investigators that Zacharias offered to pay for her school and living expenses out of a ministry discretionary fund, Touch of Hope. She “felt obligated” to do what he wanted as a result. Investigators found RZIM had little oversight of the Touch of Hope fund. Records showed significant wire transfers from the fund to four women who served as his massage therapists. 

The therapist who reported that Zacharias raped her said he arranged for the ministry to give her financial support, then “required sex from her.” She said “many encounters over a period of years” constituted rape. The firm’s investigators said they’re withholding details of her account to protect her identity. 

“According to this witness, Mr. Zacharias used religious expressions to gain compliance, as she was raised to be a person of faith. She reported that he made her pray with him to thank God for the ‘opportunity’ they both received. She said he called her his ‘reward’ for living a life of service to God,” the report said.

The report acknowledges investigators don’t know how Zacharias would defend himself. But he previously insisted on his sexual integrity and claimed he was never alone with a woman other than his wife, Margie. 

“To be victimized by unwanted sexual contact, advances, and behavior is horrendous,” RZIM’s board said in its statement. “It is diametrically opposed to everything we believe about the value and dignity of every single person. … Both for what Ravi did and for all of the ways that we have fallen short, we are so sorry.” 

The investigators said their goal was to determine whether Zacharias had engaged in sexual misconduct, not to interview all possible victims. They didn’t conduct investigations on the ground in Asia, where 2016 text messages showed Zacharias received massage treatments at night while alone. 

“We have little insight into whether Mr. Zacharias engaged in inappropriate massage behavior while in Asia,” the report said. 

The Christian & Missionary Alliance, the denomination in which Zacharias was an ordained minister, is awaiting a report for its own recently completed independent investigation.

 RZIM had initially called the media reports of abuse “false.” On Thursday the ministry apologized. 

Carson Weitnauer, a senior staffer in Atlanta, resigned from the organization in January over the organization’s handling of the accusations. He had written publicly about the “catastrophic betrayal” of Zacharias’ actions and of RZIM’s “secretive board” that he believed allowed the organization to ignore accusations. 

Zacharias’ daughter, Sarah Davis, currently heads RZIM, and the members of its board are not public. Son Nathan Zacharias and Margie Zacharias resigned recently from their staff positions, according to The Washington Post. Another daughter, Naomi Zacharias, still heads RZIM’s humanitarian arm, Wellspring. 

In 2017 Ravi Zacharias had sued Thompson, a married Canadian woman 30 years his junior, for allegedly trying to extort him, and he demanded compensation for his emotional distress. Thompson had said that Zacharias solicited nude photos from her and engaged in other sexual misconduct over the phone. Despite the extortion lawsuit, the Thompsons received a settlement from Zacharias and signed a nondisclosure agreement (NDA). She has repeatedly asked to be released from the agreement to discuss her experience openly. 

RZIM has no involvement in the NDA, according to Thursday’s report. Thompson said last month that Margie Zacharias refused to release her from the NDA. The Miller & Martin report said the executor of Zacharias’ estate refused to cooperate with investigators as they sought missing notebooks and mobile devices. The executor also refused to release the Thompsons from their confidentiality agreement, according to the investigators.

Despite the NDA, Thompson recently issued a statement saying Zacharias and RZIM used a past lawsuit to “publicly and falsely crucify us” in 2017. Due to the public humiliation, the Thompsons moved to another city. 

“The betrayal trauma that we incurred because of [Zacharias] and RZIM crushed our relationship to each other, to God, and severed our connection to the wider faith community,” Thompson wrote. 

RZIM said in Thursday’s statement about the Thompson accusations: “We were wrong. … We believe Lori Anne Thompson has told the truth about the nature of her relationship with Ravi Zacharias. It is with profound grief that we recognize that because we did not believe the Thompsons and both privately and publicly perpetuated a false narrative, they were slandered for years and their suffering was greatly prolonged and intensified.” The report says data showed that Zacharias received photos from women on 200 other occasions “during and after the Thompson matter.” 

RZIM has commissioned Rachael Denhollander, an expert on abuse victims as well as a victim herself, to help the organization review “best practices” and to serve as a go-between for victims. It also has hired Guidepost Solutions to handle reports from other victims and to examine the organization’s structure, culture, and policies. 

“In light of the findings of the investigation and the ongoing evaluation, we are seeking the Lord’s will regarding the future of this ministry,” RZIM’s board said. “Jesus is the only person who is exactly who He says He is and the only savior worthy of our ultimate trust and worship. Jesus is fully committed to truth and to justice, and He unqualifiedly stands with victims.”

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

You must be a WORLD Member and logged in to the website to comment.
  • Ann Marshall
    Posted: Fri, 02/12/2021 02:09 pm

    "...we recognize that because we did not believe the Thompsons and both privately and publicly perpetuated a false narrative, they were slandered for years and their suffering was greatly prolonged and intensified.” 

    Yes, prolonged and intensified suffering for the Thompsons resulted from the adversarial stance adopted by Ravi Zacharias and RZIM. It is time to release the Thompsons from the NDA. This report is absolutely sickening.

    And yes, only Jesus lived on this earth both embodied and sinless. But that does not mean all or most or even many shepherds of the sheep are wolves in disguise.

  •  Deb O's picture
    Deb O
    Posted: Fri, 02/12/2021 11:12 am

    Agreed. Release them from the NDA. The fact that Christian ministries even need to use NDAs should be reason for stopping contributions, let alone these fact-finding reports.

  • JACKIE PARFET
    Posted: Fri, 02/12/2021 11:14 am

    So incredibly sad that such a gifted communicator of gospel truth lived the sins he spoke so clearly against. His examples of gracious, truthful answers to hard questions are worth emulating, though scarred by his hypocracy...

  • BF
    Posted: Fri, 02/12/2021 10:04 pm

    We don't know now if they were truthful answers. He was apparently a very bold liar. Everything he has ever said is now tainted and should be thrown out. 

  • CM
    Posted: Tue, 02/16/2021 03:15 pm

    Yes -- and with this sad conclusion to the man's life, he will ironically become the prime example (and least within Chistendom) of the ad hominem logical error.  (As, indeed, we already see in one reply.)

    "ad hominem" -- "Ravi Zacharias said that X.  Ravi Zacharias was a lying adulterer.  Therefore X is false."

    How many times will we all suffer from that illogic, in the years to come?

  • BF
    Posted: Wed, 02/24/2021 06:43 pm

    You're right CM, I overstated what I meant and stand corrected. Ravi would often use stories to make a point. These should be disregarded, not the truth that he spoke. 

  • Laura W
    Posted: Fri, 02/12/2021 02:55 pm

    As terrible as it is that any of this happened in the first place, I'm glad that the truth has finally come out, and that the evidence is as clear as it is. I pray that all who have been wronged by him and by those defending him will be able to find healing.

  • BM
    Posted: Fri, 02/12/2021 03:59 pm

    I totally agree. Margie Zacharias, Ravi's widow, owns the NDA, and should release the Thompsons from it.  That is the only right thing to do.

    Bob Meredith

    Golden Valley, MN

  • Big Jim
    Posted: Sat, 02/13/2021 02:57 am

    I wonder what happened to the eternal soul of Mr. Zacharias? On the one hand, he professed Christ for many decades. On the other hand, apparently, he lived a life of adultery, lies and abuse.

    "For the time is come that judgment must begin at the house of God: and if it first begin at us, what shall the end be of them that obey not the gospel of God? And if the righteous scarcely be saved, where shall the ungodly and the sinner appear?"  1 Pet 4:17-18  KJV

  • TIM MILLER
    Posted: Tue, 02/16/2021 09:49 am

    Thank you, World, for carefully, thoughtfully, and accurately reporting this story from the beginning, when much less information was known.

  • Ann Marshall
    Posted: Thu, 02/18/2021 08:02 pm

    I hope in the future evangelicals will refrain from slandering women and men who report abuse at the hands of someone with a Big Name.