Last week, I published a summary of the allegations included in an ongoing lawsuit against fundamentalist guru Bill Gothard and the Institute for Basic Life Principles, which he founded in the 1980s and spent three decades running. The lawsuit focuses on Bill Gothard and IBLP’s negligence in failing to report abuse and failing to train their employees to recognize and report abuse, and at its center are allegations that Bill Gothard spent decades grooming, sexually harassing, and molesting teenage girls he employed at his organization’s headquarters.
Having read through the lawsuit in full, I want to take a moment to mention ten things even I found surprising. Many of the allegations included in the lawsuit have been common knowledge since being posted in 2013 and 2014 by Recovering Grace, a website run by graduates of IBLP programs critical of Gothard and his teachings. However, the lawsuit also includes information I had not seen before. I want to focus on these points because of the questions they raise about why Gothard’s abuse was not recognized and addressed earlier.
As a quick note, I would appreciate it if you would keep down the snark in the comments section out of respect for the survivors who are bringing this suit. Their suit isn’t some sort of “gotcha” against Christians or against fundamentalists or even against Gothard himself, it’s an attempt to bring justice to Gothard and ensure that IBLP actually fixes the problems that allowed Gothard’s abuse to go unaddressed.
I want to throw into stark relief the extreme predatory nature of Gothard’s actions. I want us to look at these points and ask how this could have gone on for so long.
1. Gothard once gave his credit card to a girl he was grooming and told her to “fix” her clothes. When she expressed confusion, one of his assistants explained to her that Gothard was unhappy with her ankle length skirts and would like her to buy some that were calf length.
2. Gothard paid for a young woman he was grooming and sexually harassing to have cosmetic surgery to remove two skin blemishes which he called “a distraction.” The lawsuit positions this move as part of the increasing control Gothard was assuming over the young woman’s body.
3. Gothard told an 18-year-old girl who rebuffed his advances that if she had still been 17, he would have called social services and gotten her taken away from her parents.
4. Gothard tried to convince a woman to divorce her husband and take a job at headquarters because he wanted to groom and molest her daughter, who had told him she would not be without her mother. See also above.
5. Gothard once had a girl he was grooming placed in a bedroom opposite his office window “so he would know when she could come to his office, after everyone else had left.”
6. Gothard preyed on girls as young as 13, had parents send girls as young as 14 to his headquarters at his request, and assigned girls as young as 15 to be his personal assistants.
7. In the early 1990s, Gothard asked the IBLP Board of Directors for permission to marry Rachel Lees, a young woman he was grooming. At the time, he was nearly 60 and she was around 20. Gothard did not mention the subject to Rachel herself. It was not until Rachel learned two decades later that Gothard had asked the board’s permission to marry her that she recognized Gothard’s behavior as predatory.
8. Gothard told a victim of childhood abuse “that parents were to be believed over children and that children were to obey their parents no matter what, even if they were being sexually abused.” When Jane Doe II reported her father’s sexual abuse to Gothard, he immediately called her father on speakerphone and asked him if the allegations were true (not surprisingly, her father said they were not).
9. Gothard made a habit of having teenage girls come to his office alone late at night under the guise of “Bible study” or “mentoring.” This isn’t technically a new revelation, but it is striking how many of the plaintiffs refer to these late-night one-on-one sessions. For an organization that teaches that people of opposite genders should never be alone together, it is startling that this practice was allowed to continue for so many years without raising an eyebrow.
10. It was common knowledge at IBLP that Gothard took teenage girls as “pets.” It was also common knowledge that Gothard’s behavior with regard to these girls was not appropriate. At one point in the early 1990s, after Gothard asked the IBLP Board of Directors for permission to marry Rachel Lees, the board barred Gothard from having female personal assistants. This ban was never enforced, and Gothard continued his pattern.
I’m sitting here trying to come up with some explanation for how this went on for as long as it did. People knew this was going on. The IBLP Board of Directors knew, the personal assistant who told Jane Doe III to buy shorter skirts knew, the employee who arranged the room assignment for Jamie Deering knew. People knew something was off. We’re talking about an organization that sent teenage boys home for merely talking to girls, while its leader held late night one-on-one “mentoring” sessions in his office with teenage girls.
Well sure, you say, it was a cult. That’s how cults work. But I want to stress just how widespread IBLP’s influence was within the Christian homeschooling world throughout my entire childhood and beyond. There were hundreds and thousands of families involved who had no idea that anything untoward was happening. This wasn’t so much an insular group like we’re used to thinking about, with its members cut off from contact with the outside. Rather, it was one that faced outward and led wide swaths people across the country to trust it its leadership and its “godly” mission and methods.
I am filled with sudden respect for one of my younger brothers, who approached me five years ago at age 17, worried. He told me that our parents wanted to send him away to a program in Texas, but that he was worried that it was a cult and wanted my advice. (It was Gothard’s ban on rock music that worried him—he played the drums and loved Christian rock music, which my parents grudgingly allowed.) At this point, I hadn’t given Gothard’s name a second thought. I grew up learning about the “umbrella of authority” and I attended a COMMIT Bible study for teenage girls, but my family had never been an ATI family, and I’d paid little attention to his name.
I texted my brother this morning. I wanted to let him know about the lawsuit. I wanted to make sure he knew just how right he had been, five years ago. What made the difference, exactly? How could he see it while so many others—including my own parents—did not? My brother told me, actually, that he and my dad had visited Gothard’s ALERT program headquarters in Texas, in anticipation of sending him there. Apparently my dad was a bit worried there might be something “off” about Gothard’s ministry—my dad by nature is antiauthoritarian, except in his parenting, and I think the focus on a single leader threw him off—but the visit assured him that all was fine, and that the ministry was godly and sound, one he could get behind.
And perhaps that is the problem. For whatever reason, my 17-year-old brother was already starting to push back and ask questions, but to those predisposed to see anything with a “godly” image as de facto good—well, you can see how that might prime people to accept Gothard’s ministry without asking too many questions, especially when so many others were already supporting it—after all, could they really be all wrong? And yet they were. And perhaps that is the biggest lesson for anyone—don’t assume that a leader or organization is legit just because it has a lot of followers, or projects a certain image.
Also, don’t create authoritarian power structures focused on a single leader.
I keep coming back to the fact that there were people close to the situation who knew these things were going on and did nothing. I can better understand people following the ministry without any knowledge that something was “off,” but once you’re in the organization and you see what’s going on—it’s boggling. There are, of course, explanations. Someone who said something might not be believed, or might be kicked out or shunned. Some might have doubted what they were seeing, given Gothard’s godly extra-human reputation. And some, too, might have assumed that if something was actually wrong, someone would surely have spoken up, so it must not be. And then, too, there’s the fact that obedience was central to Gothard’s teachings.
And so, in the end, we have a cautionary tale. This isn’t simply about one more Christian organization beset with sexual scandal, it’s about power structures and beliefs that create a situation where numerous people let significant warning signs go by, either unrecognized or ignored, but unaddressed either way. No more.
Some of my readers may be wondering what came of my brother, and what I told him when he came to me for advice. To tell the story briefly, I googled Bill Gothard’s name to assess my brother’s concerns and quickly came upon blogs written by homeschool graduates raised in ATI voicing their concerns and processing their experiences. It was those blogs that inspired me to start this blog, and it was those blogs that informed the response I gave to my brother. Over the next year I helped him wade through his options and find ways to make his own choices. He never did go to ALERT, and for that I am thankful. And so perhaps, in some small way, the voices of survivors can serve as an antidote to Gothard’s abuses.