Fallout from Ravi Zacharias’ abuse begins
Apologetics ministry considers next steps while affiliates break away
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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.”