File this memo under “be careful what you wish for.”
Those planning last May’s funeral for evangelical star Ravi Zacharias were pleased to obtain live-streamed tributes from celebrities like Vice President Mike Pence and athlete Tim Tebow. Those outside the oft-disdained evangelical subculture may not comprehend the esteem Zacharias won by turning “apologetics” (defense of the Christian faith) from defensive bombast to intelligent and personable persuasion through books, countless personal appearances worldwide and the global team of some 100 speakers he built.
Presidential Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany teared up as she told CBN News that Zacharias equipped multitudes so “you didn’t have to check your brain at the door when you became a Christian.” She concluded, “Rest assured, his legacy will always be here and he will continue to change lives.”
That encapsulates the drama of this harder-they-fall saga.
All the posthumous praise for Zacharias shocked one onlooker, a massage therapist who says he groped her, masturbated in her presence and asked her for sexualized photos. She searched his name online, contacted Steve Baughman of the hyper-hostile RaviWatch.com and then spoke with Daniel Silliman, news editor of the evangelical magazine Christianity Today.
Silliman’s resulting investigation found three victimized massage therapists and provoked fury among some staffers and beyond, eventually forcing Ravi Zacharias International Ministries (RZIM) to drop its kid-gloves response and commission a totally independent investigation by a major Atlanta law firm, Miller & Martin.
Media analysts should understand that it takes far more guts for an evangelical magazine that survives on donors and advertisers to expose such situations than a metropolitan newspaper. Upshot: Silliman and colleagues can take satisfaction in distinguished service to the Christian constituency — which echoes those utterly candid authors of the Bible. [Disclosure: The Guy was this magazine’s news editor early in his career.]
A four-month investigation found the late Ravi Zacharias leveraged his reputation as a world famous Christian apologist to abuse massage therapists in the United States and abroad over more than a decade, while the ministry led by his family members and loyal allies failed to hold him accountable. He used his need for massage and frequent overseas travel to hide his abusive behavior, hiring victims by building trust through spiritual conversations, and offering funds straight from his ministry. …
The magazine also noted, for instance, evidence about five new U.S. accusers, one of whom alleged rape; of abuse in Thailand, India and Malaysia; and of contacts with 200-plus massage therapists, some involving naked photos. Such activities persisted until months before his death.
Reporters should review media reports on the first such accusation leveled in 2017 by Lori Anne Thompson, and see her new video posted Feb. 9 by a site reporters need to be monitoring. The RZIM board, whose names are kept secret (!), expressed profuse grief and shame for spurning her. But, significantly, the Zacharias family estate refuses to release Thompson from a non-disclosure agreement that settled a lawsuit she filed, so reporters will want the full story.
That’s just the beginning of the reasons the scandal won’t be over until it’s over. Journalists will need to follow up the RZIM board statement’s promise of organizational cleanup as guided by evangelical attorney Rachael Denhollander, who broke the U.S. gymnastics scandal wide open, and crisis consultants at Guidepost Solutions. Also see MinistryWatch updates today, here and then here.
Change could be awkward if Zacharias’s daughter Sarah Davis remains CEO. There’s also evolving organizational chaos, including the breakaway by RZIM’s Britain team, regarding which see Christianity Today’s report.
Other next steps include obtaining new leads by debriefing Miller & Martin’s chief investigators, Lynsey Barron (email@example.com or 404-962-6413) and William Eiselstein (firstname.lastname@example.org or 404-462-6446). Don’t miss a newly revealed Feb. 6 letter to RZIM‘s board chairman from long-suffering public relations woman Ruth Malhotra (email@example.com or 770-449-6766). Also there’s the leaked December letter to top RZIM leaders from respected British speaker Max Baker-Hytch. Also, click over to The Dispatch to see the must-read essay that prominent evangelical attorney David French posted on Valentine’s Day. (Click here for tmatt’s GetReligion post — “Ravi Zacharias scandal shows why independent ministries are so difficult to investigate“ — about that essay and other essential news coverage.)
Switching subjects for other future contacts: Also on Valentine’s Day, President Joe Biden named the head of the Obama White House’s office on faith-based partnerships, Melissa Rogers, to resume that appointment with an expanded portfolio as “senior advisor on faith and public policy.” Her new assistant, Joshua Dickson, ran religious outreach for the Biden campaign. Another campaign aide, Trey Baker, will be Biden’s liaison to the Black community, including churches.
Rogers is a church-and-state attorney with long experience at the Baptist Joint Committee, Wake Forest divinity school, Pew Forum and Brookings Institution. She will face e.g. the demand from Rachel Laser, president of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, to overthrow what she calls President Trump’s misuse of “religious freedom” claims to “sanction discrimination, deny access to health care and require taxpayers to fund religion.”