December 24, 2020 rzim ravi zacharias church abuse

The Ravi Zacharias Case Takes a Turn

Yesterday, RZIM released a statement regarding an interim report from their investigative firm. In a dramatic reversal of their earlier statement saying they did not believe the allegations against Zacharias, this one admitted that the investigation had found significant evidence to corroborate the allegations already made in the news, as well as evidence of additional, more serious, misconduct.

This feels like the culmination of weeks of statements from RZIM speakers saying they have concerns with RZIM’s handling of the allegations. The one that seems to have set the ball rolling was a letter, dated Dec 9, from Max Baker-Hytch to RZIM leadership. It was leaked and published on Dec 12; the next day, two Australian RZIM affiliates spoke on the record criticizing the organization’s response; a week later, starting Dec 20, a series of public statements were made by additional RZIM speakers Daniel Gilman, Sam Alberry, and Carson Weitnauer, saying they agreed with Baker-Hytch’s concerns and believed the women making allegations.

I think it is easy to take the cynical position that this is simply rats fleeing a sinking ship—“too little, too late.” It is frustrating, and Weitnauer for example admits it frankly: “It is a poor reflection on me, as an apologist, that I was unable or unwilling to notice that his explanations did not make sense of the available evidence nor together into a coherent narrative.” If only you had applied your big brain in 2017!

But we can’t change the past, and I think the fact that some people are now trying to correct previous mistakes is a good thing. In a September 2020 statement, RZIM’s executive leadership stood by their previous findings and supported the Zacharias estate’s decision not to lift the NDA on the Thompsons. RZIM has chosen to exclude the Thompson case (and their response to it) from their current investigation—a choice that is rightly being criticized. Their statement yesterday made no mention of the Thompson case at all; perhaps if enough pressure is raised, they will have to change course. Time will tell.

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The timing here is fortunate for RZIM—most people are too busy with the holidays to pay too much attention. However, these letters are important and I hope they get more attention next week. They have shed light on some of the internal narratives that were being spread when allegations of sexual misconduct first emerged in 2017.

Zacharias is gone now, but the leaders who mishandled things then are still in charge. It seems clear at this point that RZIM senior leadership for years actively supported a narrative that painted the Thompsons’ allegations of sexual misconduct by Zacharias as both false and malicious.

Baker-Hytch’s first letter references a meeting in August 2017 where the narrative claiming the Thompsons were lying extortionists was being spread:

We were told at that meeting that the Thompsons were experienced extortionists with a proven track record of such behaviour, and that Ravi had a strong case against them and had the backing of the RZIM board to pursue the Thompsons to the fullest extent through legal channels.

When I read Ravi’s RICO lawsuit for myself shortly after this meeting there were aspects of the lawsuit that I found strange even then, such as the claim that Ravi had feared that Lori Anne may have been unstable and yet that he considered her a close friend with whom he wished to communicate via the highly secure medium of BlackBerry Messenger. When the settlement was announced to us in early November 2017 I was perplexed as to why Ravi would take this route if he was innocent. Ravi’s explanation that a jury in a #MeToo era would be biased against him struck me as odd, given that his lawyers must have been aware of the #MeToo movement when they originally filed the RICO lawsuit

In a December 2017 meeting, according to Baker-Hytch, RZIM president Michael Ramsden made multiple statements that later turned out to be false: first, claiming that all of Ravi’s correspondence had been reviewed personally, and second, that no money had been exchanged. However, later, Zacharias himself admitted that his correspondence had been deleted and was therefore unavailable for review, and we now know that a $250,000 settlement was paid by Zacharias to the Thompsons.

I was deeply reassured, however, when we were told by Michael in an EMEA all-staff update on the 4th December 2017 that both Mark DeMoss and the head of the governance committee of the U.S. board Bill Payne had read all of the correspondence between Ravi and Lori Anne, specifically including every BlackBerry message, and had declared Ravi to be totally innocent (“true blue” was the exact phrase Michael attributed to DeMoss). However, in the subsequent global Skype update on the 8th January 2018 it was made clear by Ravi himself that in fact the BBM correspondence — which according to Ravi’s own RICO lawsuit was the medium via which the nude photos of Lori Anne were transmitted to Ravi — had been deleted in 2016 and could not be recovered. Michael also stated in the 4th December 2017 meeting that no money had changed hands between Ravi and the Tompsons. This too turned out to be incorrect.

(Note: DeMoss later told the Roys Report the statements attributed to him were false: “Michael Ramsden’s representation of me as recorded in this letter is incorrect on both counts.")

Carson Weitnauer, another RZIM associate, also described these early meetings that set the narrative in his statement:

In August 2017, the ministry team at RZIM was informed that a greedy couple in Canada had identified Ravi as a target for extortion – and felt no scruples in falsely accusing Ravi. Taking advantage of his friendly, even naïve, approach to people, they had conspired together to defraud him of millions of dollars. Through prayer meetings and regular updates on these “Satanic attacks,” we managed to get through this trial with renewed unity and commitment to our mission.

As we sometimes heard troubling details that suggested Ravi was guilty of what he had been accused of, it was a relief to hear that his incriminating emails were taken out of context, that exculpatory material had been reviewed by the board, and that his courageous RICO lawsuit had put an end to their falsehoods with a non-disclosure agreement. We gave thanks that Ravi’s bold leadership had freed us to focus once more on the ministry God had called us to.

Weitnauer wrote that he begin to see the holes in this narrative in September 2020, when new evidence surfaced (this is likely referring to reporting that published primary source materials the Thompsons had given to Lori Anne’s sister before they had signed the non-disclosure agreement with Zacharias).

More than that, it seems clear that RZIM leadership deliberately withheld information and miscommunicated other information over the years, with the end result that ministry team members felt deceived. Some areas where Baker-Hytch felt that important information was being distorted or hidden by RZIM leadership:

Weitnauer in his statement also described receiving pushback from senior leadership when questioning the official narrative at RZIM. He said he received an email from a senior leader saying, “While I agree that we should remain transparent with the truth, I don’t think repeating potential lies or passing on judgment are qualities we want to embody at Ravi Zacharias International Ministries.” Weitnauer wrote that he asked Sarah Davis, Zacharias’s daughter and part of the executive leadership, about the non-disclosure agreement covering Zacharias’s involvement with Lori Anne Thompson, and he was challenged by leaders for asking. He wrote, “While I believe most of my colleagues are not only talented but earnestly committed to serving God, we have been badly misled by our secretive board and senior leaders.”

Human nature loves a villain. Who is the scumbag we can blame for this? Who are the heroes we can rally around? When enough evidence mounts that a leader has disqualified himself, the tendency is for organizations to distance themselves from him and bravely carry on. The organization positions itself as the victim of deception. He was the villain; we are the heroes, time to move along.

But the truth is always more complex. Was there deception? Yes, undoubtedly. But was there also complicitness, willful blindness, or worse? Too often the answer there is yes, too. Often each of the people making these decisions sincerely believed they were the right thing to do. Yet their impact was great harm. Who will take responsibility for it? No one wants to. Can’t we just do ministry?

One of the ways organizations skirt around this kind of reckoning is by limiting the scope of their investigation to the direct bad actions of the leader (i.e. the sexual abuse) and omitting the indirect actions of those who enabled the leader (failure to investigate, failure to call in an expert, failure to admit bias, etc). I hold out hope that the RZIM case will be different. It is unusual to get so many public statements from those with insider knowledge. In most cases the “circle the wagons” response is very tight, but between the public statements made already, I think there is enough smoke to suggest serious mishandling and/or complicit enabling by the inner circle at RZIM. If the investigation fails to include these issues in scope, I do not think they will simply go away.

Updated Dec 25 to include the Dec 13 news reporting.