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Bill Gothard defends himself on new website

Former ministry leader denies allegations of sexual abuse, but women who say he abused them stick by their stories, as donors try to prevent the sale of ministry assets


Bill Gothard Handout photo

Bill Gothard defends himself on new website

Bill Gothard is back. A little over a year ago, amid allegations of sexual abuse, he resigned from the ministry he founded in 1961. Last weekend he re-launched his website. Gothard continues to assert that the more than 60 women who accused him of harassment and abuse are “not telling the truth.”

The most inflammatory of those accusations came from Virginia resident Gretchen Wilkinson. A teenager in the late 1980s and early 1990s, she said the attention Gothard gave her was initially flattering. He was, after all, one of the country’s best-known evangelical leaders. Millions of people came to his seminars. Thousands—including Wilkinson’s family, to whom Gothard was a hero—volunteered at the Institute in Basic Life Principles’ expansive Illinois headquarters or at one of nearly a dozen IBLP training centers scattered across the country.

But Wilkinson said Gothard’s attention quickly became physical. A handshake became a hug. The hugs became longer and more intimate. She said Gothard started touching her hair, her legs, her feet. Then she said the touching became sexual, though she added that no sexual intercourse occurred. The relationship lasted several years. When she finally told her family, a blow-up ensued. Gothard denied the allegations. Her family sided with him. Wilkinson became estranged from her family and tried several times to commit suicide, her faith all but destroyed.

Wilkinson, under the pseudonym “Charlotte,” posted her story more than a year ago on the Recovering Grace website, a site created to chronicle abuse allegations related to Gothard’s ministry. Seven other women, all using pseudonyms, also wrote lengthy accounts of their contact with Gothard. But now Wilkinson is talking openly to WORLD because she said “tremendous healing” has left her no longer ashamed for what happened and she “wants the world to know what kind of man Bill Gothard is.”

Though the IBLP board did force Gothard’s resignation, many alleged victims believe board members turned a blind eye to Gothard’s behavior for years, if not decades.

Rachel Lees said she was a victim of “emotional, physical, sexual, and psychological” abuse in 1992 and 1993, when she “was 20 and 21 and Gothard was approaching 60.” She said the sexual contact was limited to “intimate caresses in secret.” Lees, who now lives in New Zealand, told me in an email that the board “has chosen to protect Bill and themselves. They have been self-serving and have not shown love, mercy, or justice.”

In an interview with WORLD and in several subsequent emails he sent to me, Gothard, who turned 80 last November, showed no repentance related to the allegations.

“Charlotte [Gretchen Wilkinson] claimed I touched her in inappropriate areas,” he said. “Those allegations are false.”

Gothard also claimed to have reached out to some of his accusers, seeking reconciliation. Wilkinson, now married with two children, acknowledged Gothard tried to contact her through family members, but she refused to meet with him.

“Bill is a master manipulator,” Wilkinson said. “I said I would meet with him only after receiving a written apology from him. If he wants reconciliation, it must begin with an admission of wrongdoing.”

Gothard blamed the anonymity of his accusers for his inability to seek reconciliation.

“Of all the ones claiming that I offended them, only a few have revealed their names,” he said. “All the others are still anonymous, so I have no idea who they are or how to contact them, or if they really exist. I have tried to contact those I know but have been rebuffed each time.”

Gothard’s relaunched website includes stories of his own from women who claim they have had long associations with him and have never been sexually harassed.

Bev Burrell, who helps run the Recovering Grace website and is the wife of a Presbyterian Church in America pastor, said she and her colleagues at Recovering Grace went to great pains to ensure all the women had credible stories. Several of the stories also have testimonies from corroborating witnesses.

Burrell is not surprised Gothard can find a few women to vouch for him.

“God draws straight lines with crooked sticks,” she said. “That’s the only hope for any of us. We’re grateful there are people who can point to ways God used Bill’s ministry in positive ways. But a few good stories do not negate a lifetime of immoral patterns, and we’re aware of more than 60 women who have experienced sexual harassment and worse.”

Neither Gretchen Wilkinson nor any of the other women who have now gone public with their allegations have ever filed criminal charges against Gothard, but their stories apparently were credible enough that the IBLP board asked him to resign in March 2014. A subsequent internal investigation conducted on behalf of the board by attorney David Gibbs Jr. stopped short of acknowledging any criminal activity took place but admitted Gothard showed a “lack of discretion and failure to follow Christ’s example of being blameless and above reproach.”

The alleged victims claimed the Gibbs report was a whitewash. The IBLP board claimed Gibbs interviewed Gothard’s accusers, but Wilkinson said he never contacted her and Burrell knows of only a few who were interviewed.

“Of the 60 girls whose stories we’re aware of, to our knowledge only a couple of those girls were contacted by David Gibbs Jr.’s investigation,” Burrell said. “And of the eight girls who shared their stories on our site, none of those girls were interviewed. Because of this, we don’t consider Gibbs’ investigation to be valid, and have repeatedly called for the board to bring in a truly independent investigation.”

Gothard is not only defending himself but also going on the offensive against the IBLP board. He said he is “concerned” the ministry is selling some of the ministry’s assets, mostly real estate valued between $80 million and $200 million. To prevent the sale of those assets, donors to the ministry have engaged attorney David Gibbs III (the son of the David Gibbs Jr. who led the internal investigation into Gothard’s behavior) to request mediation.

Gibbs III sent a letter to the IBLP board requesting dozens of documents, including financial records and minutes to board meetings. His letter said compliance with his request for mediation “would allow this matter to be handled outside the supervision of a court.” The letter also requested that “no assets will be sold or dissipated during this time.” But the June 12 deadline for compliance with the Gibbs III letter has passed.

“Donors wanted motions filed,” Gibbs III said, “but IBLP has been responding … so we have been giving them additional time to do the right thing. We now need to decide how best to initiate litigation to protect and preserve assets consistent with donor intent.”

One reason the liquidation of ministry assets may be necessary is IBLP’s dramatic decline in recent years. According to its most recent Form 990s, the ministry is about half the size it was just five years ago. Its 2013 Form 990 states annual income of about $5.4 million but expenditures of nearly $9 million, leaving a loss for the year of about $3.5 million. Over the past five years, the ministry appears to have lost at least $10 million.

IBLP President Tim Levendusky confirmed the ministry’s financial difficulties.

“Since attorney Gibbs III threatens litigation, I am not free to comment further, except to say that the Institute’s board is fully aware of its duty to be wise stewards of the Institute’s resources,” he told me in an email. “Even after stringent efforts to reduce expenses, the costs of operations and the maintenance of properties has been greater than income for about 13 years. The difference has been supplied by the sale of assets no longer being used for ministry purposes.”

One reason Gibbs III and his clients want to see assets preserved is to leave open the possibility of a future financial settlement with Gothard’s alleged victims. But Gretchen Wilkinson said she doesn’t care about any financial settlement.

“It’s never been about the money,” she said. “All I think any of us want is for Bill Gothard to say, ‘I did this, and I was wrong.’”


Warren Cole Smith

Warren is the host of WORLD Radio’s Listening In. He previously served as WORLD’s vice president and associate publisher. He currently serves as president of MinistryWatch and has written or co-written several books, including Restoring All Things: God's Audacious Plan To Change the World Through Everyday People. Warren resides in Charlotte, N.C.

@WarrenColeSmith

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Paul 777

I first became aware of Bill Gothard when I was in high school around 1970, then later attended his seminars in Detroit for a number of years as a youth leader in the late 70s and early 80s.  I grew as a believer and in my understanding of Scriptural principles through his teaching, but stopped attending when he branched out from teaching just Scriptural principles to preaching his opinion on matters where Scripture is silent, but with equal authority.Nevertheless, in spite of the legalism, I always saw his as an honorable man, and so I found the the reports of the past year or so to be very painful personally.I can't say whether these accusations are true, but I question why the alleged victims would wait 20-25 years to come forward, and why it was done in this way.  Earlier reports indicated that Gothard's actions included holding the alleged victim's hand or running his fingers through her hair.  Inapproriate?  Maybe, but somewhat grandfatherly, especially if he was never asked to stop.    It seems to me that part of the problem is organizations like Recovering Grace; such ministries (and there are several) become the investigator, judge, jury, and executioner, and are not questioned in their motives.  But their very existence is a result of people not following Scriptural principles, and their continued existence is predicated on their finding wrongdoing, real or imagined.  (I'm not questioning their motives, but they make money by finding victims and then getting the alleged victims or offenders to pay them to investigate and render judgments.)  This is NOT Biblical.Scripture is clear - if your brother offends you, go and talk to him privately.  (Did the alleged victims do so?  Was anything said or done at the time it supposedly happened?  I have seen nothing to that effect  in any reporting on this.)  If the offender doesn't listen, take someone (a person, not an organization) with you.  (again, apparently not done.)   If he still doesn't listen, tell it to the church and let the church investigate and impose discipline and restoration as required.  Recovering Grace may be Christian, but they are NOT the church, as they have no power to discipline, excommunicate, restore, or deal with false accusations. Paul further instructed the Corinthians to find wise men from the church (not outside organizations or the courts) to hear both sides and render judgement with the goal of reconciliation.  Further, nowhere is there any hint that anyone should go around looking for more victims who hadn't reported that they were offended.  If Biblical principles had been followed, none of this would be necessary.Again, I have no knowledge of what actually happened, but failure to follow clear Scriptural principles has led to this mess; as a result the witness of the church is hurt.  Maybe it's time for the church to be the church, and insist that clear Biblical principles be followed.  That is the important lesson I learned from Bill Gothard 35 years ago, and it is still relevant today.  

OrthodoxJ

This and related issues are where we really need spiritual discernment.

TerryM

LutherMan, you made many good points about accountability. Many ministries that are not accountable to a church or churches  run up against disapproval from church leaders who do not want any ministry but their own prospering and may be jealous.. However, I sincerely believe that most churches do not exercise church discipline and are not ready to discipline even if they are presented circumstances that demand discipline. Fear of disapproval (fear of man) has kept many church leaders from courageous obedience to the Word of God.Big egos are the problem with so many fallen leaders and they think they are above correction. For some the threat to their financial stream keeps them ignoring problems. For many that get into a restoration process they want to get back to ministry way too soon before anything significant spiritually can take place

Kmj2746

I read Winston Smith's article on Bill Gothard with great concern. Mr. Smith wrote with a great deal of fair mindedness and reserve of judgment. Bill Gothard exerted great influence over Bible believing Christians and churches for several generations. This influence needs to be discerned for what it truly is. My family attended several of his seminars. I believe that Gothard did significant spiritual and doctrinal harm to the body of Christ long before the allegations of immorality. As a pastor, I have warned many that he is thoroughly confused on the subject of law and gospel, 1 Timothy 1:7ff. I would appreciate some further investigation by Mr. Smith into these matters especially since many of my own questions remain unanswered.First, is anyone pursuing a thorough investigative work with these 60 women who made these allegations of sexual impropriety? And secondly, where is Gothard's local church in all of this? Is he a man under authority? Is he accountable to elders for his ministry? The IBLP board does not replace the local church on these matters. Who ordained this man to the ministry? Have they held him accountable for his doctrine and his life? What body sent him out to do the work of the Lord? Is his local church pursuing an investigation to defend the honor of Christ and the testimony of His church? If there is no local church investigating these allegations, doesn't that tell the real story? If he claims to be a spiritual leader but has placed himself outside of the church, what should we conclude? If he is a member of a church that will not pursue the obligations of spiritual accountability and discipline, then what does that say about the authority of Christ over that congregation? Whatever church ordained Bill Gothard to the ministry or whatever churches he has since joined or whatever church he attends, are obligated to exercise their biblical authority to either clear this man's name or expel him for unrepentant sin. For the testimony of the gospel, the church needs to speak clearly with regard to Bill Gothard's life and doctrine.