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Student Blog Series: In Sheep’s Clothing: The Spiritual Influence and Scarce Accountability of Ravi Zacharias

Posted: February 20, 2023

In recent years, the Christian community in America has seen the rise of megachurches the size of arenas, non-profit ministries larger than some major corporations, and massive followings of celebrity pastors. Many of these pastors are seen as a guiding light to a life of meaning and often obtain a God-like authority over followers that is built on their media presence, financial resources, and charismatic personalities. Such was the case with world-renowned Christian apologist Ravi Zacharias, who for decades used his reputation and spiritual authority to sexually abuse women while his colleagues failed to hold him accountable.

Soon after his death in May 2020, Christianity Today published a magazine article detailing dozens of allegations against Zacharias of sexual harassment and misconduct from four anonymous sources. Unable to ignore the story from such a prominent publication, his organization, Ravi Zacharias International Ministries (RZIM), hired the law firm of Miller & Martin PLLC to investigate any sexual misconduct by Zacharias. The conclusions found in the firm’s final report were more shocking than anyone anticipated.

The firm’s investigation found several instances of sexual exploitation, harassment, and one instance of rape. Dozens of women reported Zacharias solicited sexual photos from them, and several massage therapists reported Zacharias groped them or coerced them into giving into his sexual demands. Zacharias often used his spiritual influence to gain the trust of these women, many of whom came from poor and abusive backgrounds, and offered to use ministry funds to provide them with financial support. Once he had financial leverage over these women and had gained their trust, he used it to exploit them sexually. This report, which RZIM made available publicly, was devastating to the ministry and the legacy of Zacharias. However, a larger question remained: Why was this years-long operation of fraud and sexual exploitation never exposed while Zacharias was still alive?

The report by Miller & Martin detailed Zacharias’s scarce accountability, especially by the staff and board of RZIM. Many RZIM staff members told the investigators that Zacharias had created an environment within the ministry that marginalized members for raising questions about his conduct. Many staff members became increasingly concerned by Zacharias’s behavior. Zacharias owned two apartments in Bangkok and constantly traveled with a personal masseuse. He used a public wireless access network rather than RZIM’s virtual private network so that no one at RZIM had administrative access to his communications. Even though he always had an RZIM traveling companion on his frequent “writing trips” to Southeast Asia, he would spend large chunks of time alone. His staff trusted that he was not acting inappropriately, but when they mentioned to him that these things could have the appearance of impropriety, Zacharias accused them of disloyalty and responded with rage.

In 2017 a follower of the ministry, Lori Anne Thompson, publicly accused Zacharias of soliciting nude photos from her. Thompson claimed that Zacharias groomed her by engaging in spiritual conversations and encouraging her to confide in him about her history of abuse and trauma. According to the investigation, this was a common tactic Zacharias used to gain his victim’s compliance. When the ministry asked him to provide phone records to a few high-level staff to prove his innocence, Zacharias threatened to resign from the ministry altogether. The ministry thought it best to trust Zacharias and focus on discrediting his accuser. After seeing the “vicious” way that Thompson was treated, other victims of Zacharias were discouraged from coming forward with their stories. RZIM pedaled the false narrative that women who accuse celebrities are never to be trusted rather than conducting any investigation of Zacharias that would have likely brought his constant sexual misconduct to light.

This exploitation of vulnerable people by religious figures and institutions is unfortunately common today. Other reports of sexual abuse within Christian institutions have recently been published, including a 2018 Grand-Jury investigation into six Pennsylvania dioceses, and a 2019 investigation into sexual abuse within the Southern Baptist Convention. Reports such as these detail the way in which structures and hierarchies in religious institutions play a large role in their ability to easily cover up sexual abuse. The hypocrisy is disheartening, but the physical, mental, and spiritual damage done to survivors of this abuse is devastating. As the Christian community in America continues to embrace the celebrity culture of pastors and churches that provide individuals with extreme influence and opportunities for exploitation, there should be no greater priority for these organizations than fostering a culture of truth-seeking and accountability for their spiritual leaders.

This piece is part of our first-year law student blog series. Congratulations to author Ryan Roe on being chosen!

All views expressed herein are personal to the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Villanova University Charles Widger School of Law or of Villanova University. 

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