Influential evangelist Ravi Zacharias accused of sexual abuse in scathing report

Washington: Influential evangelist Ravi Zacharias, who died last spring, engaged in “sexting, unwanted touching, spiritual abuse, and rape,” according to a report released Thursday by the global evangelical organisation he founded.

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After initially denying accounts of his misconduct, Ravi Zacharias International Ministries announced that an investigation had found credible evidence of sexual misconduct spanning many years and multiple continents.

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The announcement was the result of an investigation by a Southeastern law firm, Miller & Martin, which RZIM hired in October to investigate accounts of sexual misconduct by Zacharias.

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“We believe not only the women who made their allegations public but also additional women who had not previously made public allegations against Ravi but whose identities and stories were uncovered during the investigation,” the ministry’s board of directors said in a statement accompanying the report. “We are devastated by what the investigation has shown and are filled with sorrow for the women who were hurt by this terrible abuse.”

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When Zacharias died of cancer in May at age 74, he was one of the most revered evangelists in the United States. Former Vice-President Mike Pence spoke at his memorial service in Atlanta, calling him “a man of faith who could rightly handle the word of truth like few others in our time” and comparing him to Billy Graham and C.S. Lewis.

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Though the report adds shocking new details, accounts of Zacharias’ sexual misconduct had arisen in recent years. In 2017, he settled a lawsuit with a Canadian couple whom he had accused of attempting to extort him over intimate text messages he had exchanged with the wife.

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Then last fall, several months after Zacharias’ death, the magazine Christianity Today reported on allegations that Zacharias had groped several women who worked at two day spas he co-owned near his ministry’s headquarters in Alpharetta, Georgia. After initially denying those claims, RZIM acknowledged in December that an interim report from Miller & Martin confirmed that he had engaged in “sexual misconduct.”

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The full report paints a stark portrait of that misconduct. The law firm interviewed more than a dozen massage therapists who treated Zacharias.

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Zacharias said in 2017 that in 45 years of marriage, “I have never engaged in any inappropriate behaviour of any kind.”

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The report is a devastating blow for the reputation of a man who was for decades a widely admired evangelical leader. Born in Chennai, India, and boasting impressive academic credentials, he had a reputation among many evangelicals as a worldly and winsome intellectual. His ministry’s motto is “Helping the thinker believe. Helping the believer think.”

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Academic reputation

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As it turned out, Zacharias’ academic reputation was built in part on exaggerations. Though he often called himself a “professor” or “research fellow” at the University of Oxford, for example, he had only a loose honorary affiliation with a Christian college there. He had similarly inflated his relationship with the University of Cambridge. And though he used the title “Dr Zacharias” in many contexts, including in his 2006 memoir, “Walking From East to West,” his only doctorates were honorary, as RZIM conceded in 2017.

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The first accusations about Zacharias’ sexual misconduct emerged around the same time as his resume started to crumble.

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In 2014, Zacharias met a Canadian couple, Brad and Lori Anne Thompson, at a fundraising luncheon in Ontario. They stayed in touch, and eventually Zacharias invited Lori Anne Thompson to correspond privately on BlackBerry Messenger. The evangelist was 30 years older than Lori Anne Thompson, and she saw him as a “spiritual father,” she has said. After she confided in him about her history of abuse and trauma, she has said, Zacharias began soliciting sexually explicit messages.

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When Lori Anne Thompson told Zacharias that she needed to tell her husband about their relationship, Zacharias threatened suicide, according to leaked emails first published by blogger Julie Anne Smith.

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After a lawyer for the Thompsons approached Zacharias privately in 2017, he sued the couple, portraying them publicly as serial extortionists and saying that Lori Anne Thompson had sent him the explicit messages against his will. The suit ended in private mediation, and all parties signed a nondisclosure agreement.

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RZIM’s board expressed regret Thursday for its response to Lori Anne Thompson’s allegations. “It is with profound grief that we recognise that because we did not believe the Thompsons and both privately and publicly perpetuated a false narrative, they were slandered for years and their suffering was greatly prolonged and intensified,” it said in the statement accompanying the report.

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