Ravi Zacharias, a well-known evangelical and self-styled scholar who died in the Spring of 2019, has been outed by his own organization, Ravi Zacharias International Ministries, for participating in “sexting, unwanted touching, spiritual abuse, and rape,” according to a report released by RZIM. The report comes as a result of an investigation into allegations against Zacharias, conducted by an outside firm at the behest of RZIM, which initially denied any misconduct by their leader. By the time Zacharias died, he had become such a figure among American evangelicals that former Vice President Mike Pence spoke at his memorial service, the New York Times reports.
Zacharias, who specialized in apologetics—a style of preaching that centers logical debate in order to win more souls over to Christianity—was accused of sexual misconduct several years before he died, but managed to go unscathed to his death bed. But as he likely preached to anyone that would listen, all that is done in the dark will someday be brought to the light, and that light now shines on Zacharias’s multiple assaults on several women who worked in two day spas that he co-owned. In September Christianity Today reported:
Three women who worked at the businesses, located in a strip mall in the Atlanta suburbs, told Christianity Today that Ravi Zacharias touched them inappropriately, exposed himself, and masturbated during regular treatments over a period of about five years. His business partner said he regrets not stopping Zacharias and sent an apology text to one of the victims this month.
The Times reports that the total number of women who had been assaulted or harassed by Zacharias at the day spas was actually 12. One massage therapist reported “many encounters over a period of years that she described as rape,” to investigators. The investigation also found that this particular massage therapist had a friendly relationship with Zacharias, whom she considered a “father figure,” a common approach used by male preachers to bring vulnerable congregants under their sway. Eventually, Zacharias arranged for the woman to get financial support from his church and began demanding sex shortly thereafter. According to the report, Zacharias “warned her not ever to speak out against him or she would be responsible for the ‘millions of souls’ whose salvation would be lost if his reputation was damaged.”
In Christian circles, particularly ones that cater to communities of color or otherwise vulnerable communities, the fatherly aura of a male church leader is of paramount importance. Smaller churches live and die by the reputations of their pastors who, through charisma and the wielding of the so-called word of God, can convince congregants to do just about anything. Donate more money than they have, ignore their spouses in service to the church, raise their children a certain way and, in extreme cases, create a shield of secrecy around a church leader. It is this secrecy, this need to keep a figurehead in holy standing, that allows predators like Zacharias to operate unchecked quite literally until the day they die.
Zacharias also used his skill at emotional manipulation to abuse a Canadian woman he’d met who, like the massage therapist, originally viewed him as a father figure. Lori Anne Thompson began a friendship with Zacharias after she and her husband had met him at an event in Ontario. Thompson privately confided in Zacharias about her past traumas and in due time, Zacharias began sending her sexually explicit messages. When Thomson said that she was going to tell her husband about the messages, Zacharias threatened to commit suicide. Zacharias eventually sued the Thompsons, claiming it was Lori Anne who had been explicit with him against his will and that the couple was trying to extort him. The case was settled, the Times reports, and all parties involved signed non-disclosure agreements. RZIM, in their statement preceding the investigation’s findings, apologized to Thomson, saying, “We were wrong. Our trust in Ravi’s denial of moral wrongdoing and in his deceptive explanations of emails and other records that became public was severely misplaced, and our failures in 2017, including our failure to commission an independent investigation at that time, allowed tremendous pain to continue to be caused in the Thompsons’ lives.”
Despite years of whispers, allegations, and funds from his non-profit going towards maintaining his massage parlors that employed his victims, Zacharias died a beloved preacher honored by other Christian figures for his work. His work, naturally, was also riddled with lies. Zacharias, the Times explains, referred to himself as a professor who’d worked at the University of Oxford as well as a doctor with a degree from the University of Cambridge. In reality, Zacharias has an honorary doctorate from Cambridge and only a small affiliation with a Christian college at Oxford.
In a section of their statement titled “Repentance,” RZIM acknowledged “significant structural, policy, and cultural problems” that allowed for Zacharias to abuse women for years without being called to account. This section is filled with adjectives and adverbs outlining just how sorry the organization is for protecting Zacharias and publishing statements meant to discredit victims who had come forward. The lengthy apology and statements of what will be done to change the organization conclude with all-too-familiar and unhelpful guidance: turn to Jesus.
I wonder, as a former Christian who was told the same thing by my pastor during my darkest hours, how Zacharias’s victims feel about being told to lean on Jesus after he “used religious expressions to gain compliance” from them and had at least one woman pray before he assaulted her—an act which Zacharias described to her as his “reward for living a life of service to God.”