Organisational apologies, charismatic leaders and the challenges in responding to allegations of abuse

Ravi Zacharias was an Indian-born Canadian-American Christian apologist who founded the Ravi Zacharias International Ministry (RZIM). He was involved in Christian apologetics for a period spanning more than 40 years. He died on the 19 May 2020 aged 74.

Zacharias met Lori Anne Thompson and her husband in October 2014 at a businessman’s lunch in Kingston, Ontario. Over the following 14 months Lori Anne has described how Zacharias groomed her and how their relationship changed and under the pretext of “love” she and Zacharias began communicating in a sexually explicit manner, which culminated in Lori Anne sending Zacharias intimate photos.

Between April and July 2017 Lori Anne and her husband approached Zacharias privately through lawyers sending Zacharias a demand letter and asking that he pay Lori Anne CAN$5 million in exchange for her not bringing a claim against him that would have accused him of impropriety involving the exchange of texts, which had taken place between them to include the nude photos of Lori Anne that she had sent to Zacharias. Lori Anne has said that she did not see any point in approaching the Board of Directors at RZIM as it comprised of several of Zacharias’ family members (the inference being that the allegations would not have been received or dealt with in an objective manner). Zacharias filed a public federal lawsuit against Lori Anne and her husband and accused them of trying to frame him and extort money from him on foot of these allegations. The claim was settled on November 2017 and a Non-Disclosure Agreement was signed by the parties.

In December 2017 Zacharias issued a statement saying that he had never met Lori Anne alone privately or publicly and that he had been “absolutely faithful” to his wife Margie throughout his marriage.

In 2017 RZIM did not carry out any independent investigations into the allegations made by Lori Anne against Zacharias, the only action that they took according to Lori Anne and her husband was that RZIM retained the services of a well-known public relations professional.

In May, 2020 four months after his death three women who worked in day-spas owned by Zacharias came forward and alleged that Zacharias had sexually harassed multiple massage therapists over the course of a period of about five years. It was alleged that when he was at the spa Zacharias would expose and touch himself. One of the women said that he had masturbated in front of her more than 50 times, he justified the behaviour by saying that his ministry was very demanding and he needed this “therapy” as he described it. The woman also said that Zacharias had asked her to have sex with him twice and had requested explicit photographs of her.

In September, 2020 RZIM made a statement which initially denied the claims saying that the allegations of sexual misconduct “do not in any way comport with the man they knew for many decades” however, some time later RZIM engaged Miller & Martin PLLC, a law firm with experience in corporate and sex crimes investigations to conduct an independent investigation.

In December, 2020, RZIM confirmed that the allegations were true and released a preliminary report from the investigation RZIM said that “The interim investigation update indicates this assessment of Ravi’s behavior to be true—that he did indeed engage in sexual misconduct. This misconduct is deeply troubling and wholly inconsistent with the man Ravi Zacharias presented both publicly and privately to so many over more than four decades of public ministry. We are heartbroken at learning this but feel it necessary to be transparent and to inform our staff, donors, and supporters at this time, even while the investigation continues.”

In February, 2021 RZIM released the results of its investigations, concluding that there was reliable evidence that Zacharias had engaged in sexual misconduct, specifically that he had solicited and received sexually explicit photos from more than 200 women who were in their early twenties and that this behaviour had continued until a few months before his death in May, 2020.He had also used ministry funds which had been designated to “humanitarian effort” to pay off some of these therapists and provide them with housing, schooling and monthly supports. One woman told how after Zacharias arranged for RZIM to provide her with financial support he required her to have sex with him, he made her pray with him to thank God for the opportunity that had been visited on them and called her his “reward” for a life spent in the service of God. He also warned this woman that if she told what was taking place between them that she would be responsible for the millions of souls that would be lost when his reputation was damaged. In addition to the money paid to some of these therapists it appears that Zacharias travelled alone and spent a lot of time in Bangkok and other parts of Southeast Asia. He owned his own flat in Bangkok and when he travelled there he stayed in his own flat and sought financial reimbursement from RZIM for doing do.

The report was critical of the response of the members of the RZIM US leadership when the allegations made by Lori Anne broke in 2017. The report found that the leadership failed to hold Zacharias accountable or to try and get to the truth of the matter. Zacharias was able to deceive the leadership team and he threatened to resign if anyone pressed him to hand over the evidence in his possession. The report states:

“Mr. Zacharias told certain members of his staff that the phone records and full, complete emails would exonerate him, but he did not give them access to these documents. Two high-level staff approached him directly asking for the phone records, since he claimed they would prove exculpatory. Both of these staff members told us Mr. Zacharias responded to this request with rage and threatened to resign from the organization.”

The report also noted that that Zacharias made sure his communications were inaccessible to members of his organization, he had multiple phones and email addresses, he had at least two phones at any given time and as a result no one at RZIM had administrative access to his devices or email communications. He also used encrypted communications platforms including BlackBerry Messenger and WhatsApp, from which messages are not retrievable once deleted.  

In a statement made in February, 2021 the International Board of RZIM noted the following:-

  • That they were wrong in how they dealt with the allegations made by Lori Anne in 2017;
  • RZIM should have commissioned an independent investigation into these allegations in 2017 and their failure to do so severely damaged the lives of Lori Anne and her husband by prolonging and intensifying their suffering;
  • While Zacharias proved expert in concealing his behaviour from everyone over many years, he was only able to do so because there were significant structural, policy and cultural failings in RZIM as an organisation:
  • RZIM apologised for the statement made in September, 2020, which they now accept created the impression that all of the RZIM’s staff shared the opinion that the allegations were false and did not communicate that RZIM as an organisation would take the allegations seriously.

Their response to the report is twofold, RZIM have:-

  • Engaged a victim-advocate to act in two roles. As a consultant, who will educate the Board and senior leadership of RZIM in understanding trauma and abuse as well as best-standards practices. The victim-advocate will also serve as a confidential liaison with survivors and to help guide the process of care, justice, and restitution for those who have been victimized. Survivors or their legal counsel, advocate, or representative may reach out to confidentially to the victim-advocate.
  • They have engaged Guidepost Solutions, a management/compliance consulting firm, and are providing full disclosure to them to conduct a thorough evaluation of RZIM, including its structures, culture, policies, processes, finances, and practices. Guidepost was chosen for its independence, depth of skill and expertise, and emphasis on top-down and grassroots cultural reform. This assessment will also address survivor care.

The facts set out above surrounding Zacharias and RZIM are neither unusual nor unique, we see similar scenario’s unfold time and time again. Charismatic leaders build a power base for themselves within an organisation, that position somehow becomes vital to the organisation and its development and growth. As a result the organisation becomes more flexible about how it applies its own structure and policies to that person. The culture of the organisation changes and makes allowances for that person and his/her behaviour, there is a sense that the person is too big to fail, too vital to the organisation to challenge. Warning signs are missed and/or ignored as was the case here when Lori Anne’s allegations were disclosed to RZMI in 2017. At that stage RZMI should have commissioned an independent investigation into the allegations made by Lori Anne but it seems that Zacharias threat to resign put an end to that.

Despite this lessons were not learned and even after Zacharias death, when further allegations were made in May, 2020 RZMI initially sought to believe in the man they thought they knew and protect the organisation rather than show empathy and compassion for the victims and take the relevant steps to fully and properly investigate the allegations.

While the allegations have now finally been responded to and properly independently investigated and accepted, apologies have been made and steps have been taken to address survivor care and cultural reform within RZIM, it appears that it may be a case of too little too late.

The UK arm of RZIM has announced that it has split from RZIM in the US, RZIM Canada has begun winding down operations and RZIM Africa had suspended its operations, RZIM itself has scaled back its website and its future if far from clear or certain. The question for RZIM is how different things might be for them as an organisation if they had acted differently in 2017.

Written by Amanda Munro at BLM

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