It was the summer of 2018. Willow Creek had just imploded with the Chicago Tribume breaking the story of sexual harassment allegations against senior pastor Bill Hybels in March and the New York Times following up with a bombshell interview with Hybels’ former assistant Pat Baranowski in August. That very weekend co-lead pastor Steve Carter stepped down. Soon afterward, the other co-lead pastor, Heather Larson, and the entire Elder Board, stepped down.
I was vaguely aware of all this as it hit the news because my own church had been involved indirectly. Our then-senior pastor, John Ortberg, had been one of the former staff who had approached the Willow Board of Elders. His wife Nancy was one of the women who had noticed something off about Hybels’ behavior; she had resigned from her position on the Willow Creek Association Board over the initial handling circa 2014. John wrote an eloquent essay on why the Board’s decision to hire a law firm to “investigate” was wrong, and why he and the others had ended up escalating their concerns. Nancy wrote an essay about how truth must necessarily precede reconciliation.
I was visiting a new church that summer, despite being quite impressed with John and Nancy’s integrity in the Willow Creek situation. But my child would not stay in the church childcare, and another church down the street had a mother-baby room where I would at least be able to attend the service. I don’t believe Christians should feel obligated to limit their spiritual life to one closed circle—we’re all part of the same Body of Christ, right? Then, miracle of miracles, my child took to the nursery there! I was so thankful for those volunteers.
One October weekend, I was recovering from a cold, but I was so thankful to be able to go to church at all I went anyway. I figured I would sit in the back and not touch anything. These were pre-COVID times. As I entered, an acquaintance told me, “You’re in for a treat!”
It was the annual missions weekend. The guest speaker was Tom Randall, an American who had been a missionary in the Philippines for many years. He, Chip Ingram, and a pastor from this church had been missionaries together there many years ago; as promised, it was an engaging sermon. He told plenty of exciting missionary stories… close calls, miracles, angelic guards. He mentioned his “kids” in the Philippines and I made a note in my program: “31 kids in the Philippines!?” The service ended with a plug for the missions event that evening, where Tom would be speaking at again. I was sorry I couldn’t go.
I came away with a positive impression. I told a friend to check out the recording if she had time. I was curious about the basketball missions they had referenced; I had never heard of such a thing before. I went to look it up after getting home.
And then it all fell apart.
Those 31 kids in the Philippines? Children at an orphanage he funded and visited once a year—children who had been abused and reached out to Tom for help, only to have him cover it up.
JusticeForSankey.com didn’t exist then, but Michael Newnham at The Phoenix Preacher had been blogging about it for years already. The first post I found printed a letter from Tom Randall, with this added commentary from Newnham:
There could not possibly be a letter written that shows how those in positions of power can position themselves against accusations and scrutiny.
His accusers have all allegedly either recanted or been found to lack credibility.
He has bravely withstood his enemies and they have allegedly apologized.
He walks in the power of God, has been vindicated, and is unafraid.
The only thing he left out is a mention of the devil.
There is no proof offered for any of this, just bold and pious statements.
It works…for now.
For the record, I have interviewed many of the people in this situation many times and they do not lack credibility at all.
I have spoken with the alleged victims and they do not lack credibility at all.
I have spoken with the whistleblowers and found them both credible and godly people.
Whether there will ever be a real investigation into all of the issues surrounding Tom Randall is an open question…but then, there are a lot of those.
Tom Randall’s letter triggered alarm bells for me, too. Tom had written:
Even the girl who accused our staff member of a kiss has asked forgiveness from him and Karen and me. The missionary who inserted himself into our business and escalated the gossip and slander which resulted in our arrest and the detention of our kids is no longer credible or relevant and poses no threat.
This attack-the-whistleblower response was exactly what Bill Hybels and Willow Creek had done to the Ortbergs and others who brought the allegations against him.
I read further, including the full account from the whistleblowers, and became convinced that at the very least there were indeed serious open questions. How could Tom have been endorsed and invited as a guest speaker when a Google search turned up so many unanswered questions? I wrote an email to the pastor:
I saw your blog post about this week’s speaker and found the message this morning quite inspiring. You can imagine how dismayed I was to read about the allegations of mishandling abuse at his ministry. Of course anyone would want to believe a personal friend’s side of the story. But a number of young people were willing to testify and I would hesitate to call them all liars, even on the word of a friend. I am uncomfortable with what seems like siding with power and influence over vulnerable youth. It is not the message I want the church to send to young people who may be experiencing abuse. I’m afraid I can’t attend tonight or I would have preferred to talk to someone in person - this note will have to do.
He wrote back right away saying he would look at them. The next day, the pastor wrote back more fully. He said that Tom had been advised to sue but wouldn’t because it wasn’t Biblical. He said not one shred of evidence had ever come forward in court. The news just didn’t want to write about it, he said, because it would nullify their other stories. He said that he had been on the phone with Tom, who was in tears that someone had been misled by old news. He said the whistleblower’s family had threatened Tom and made threats of violence against pastors at his church. “That doesn’t sound like someone who loves Jesus,” he wrote.
The pastor concluded that he had known Tom for 30 years and Tom had suffered greatly from this one man trying to make him look bad. He trusted the full truth would come out some day.
Maybe it was because of the recency of Willow Creek in my mind, but it seemed clear to me this pastor was not able to see his own bias. He had apparently spoken only to his friend Tom and had accepted his narrative without checking it. I was naive then. How could this be happening (again) in church? Aren’t pastors and elders supposed to be wise and discerning? Shouldn’t they be concerned and want to hear the victims’ side of the story before deciding?
I read what was available online. I got in touch with the missionaries who had heard about the abuse and brought it to Tom initially. I heard back from a victim, saying she did indeed stand by her statements. I got in touch with other concerned churchgoers at Tom’s church in Ohio, who had already been trying to reach out to the church. The Internet puts everything at your fingertips if you are willing to look and listen. There was so much written evidence, but no one at the church or local parachurch organizations would listen, or if they would listen, they would not act. I wondered if the problem was that the information was too scattered across the internet. There were news articles, and blog posts, and comment threads, and sermons… perhaps it was too difficult to put together for folks who didn’t have the time or inclination for it? Long story short, I started writing…
Many months later, an investigative reporting expose came out, followed closely by the results of the church’s internal investigation. Tom Randall, it turned out, had already been let go quietly a few months before. He went on to reinvent himself in another state. The usual.
The real story, I think, is in the ordinary churchgoers who tried, for years, to reach out to the churches supporting Tom and have them do something. Maybe someday we will be able to publish that more fully. These Christians were dismissed, sometimes politely, and sometimes not-so-politely. The church’s response was uniformly: “We are sorry you feel worried/upset/concerned about this, but we’ve talked to Tom and there’s nothing to worry about.” They were so entrenched in their bubble they were not willing or able to listen, and they treated those church members badly as a result.
I’m not naive enough to believe any more that information is what churches lack. I now know that the response of all of those pastors and churches is typical—well-intentioned, perhaps, but it serves to protect abusers. I think the problem here is much deeper. The solution…? That is going to have to be deeper, too.
If you haven’t yet, you can read more about this case at justiceforsankey.com.