Bill Gothard is back. A little over a year ago, amid allegations of sexual abuse, he resigned from the ministry he founded in 1961. Last weekend he re-launched his website. Gothard continues to assert that the more than 60 women who accused him of harassment and abuse are “not telling the truth.”
The most inflammatory of those accusations came from Virginia resident Gretchen Wilkinson. A teenager in the late 1980s and early 1990s, she said the attention Gothard gave her was initially flattering. He was, after all, one of the country’s best-known evangelical leaders. Millions of people came to his seminars. Thousands—including Wilkinson’s family, to whom Gothard was a hero—volunteered at the Institute in Basic Life Principles’ expansive Illinois headquarters or at one of nearly a dozen IBLP training centers scattered across the country.
But Wilkinson said Gothard’s attention quickly became physical. A handshake became a hug. The hugs became longer and more intimate. She said Gothard started touching her hair, her legs, her feet. Then she said the touching became sexual, though she added that no sexual intercourse occurred. The relationship lasted several years. When she finally told her family, a blow-up ensued. Gothard denied the allegations. Her family sided with him. Wilkinson became estranged from her family and tried several times to commit suicide, her faith all but destroyed.
Wilkinson, under the pseudonym “Charlotte,” posted her story more than a year ago on the Recovering Grace website, a site created to chronicle abuse allegations related to Gothard’s ministry. Seven other women, all using pseudonyms, also wrote lengthy accounts of their contact with Gothard. But now Wilkinson is talking openly to WORLD because she said “tremendous healing” has left her no longer ashamed for what happened and she “wants the world to know what kind of man Bill Gothard is.”
Though the IBLP board did force Gothard’s resignation, many alleged victims believe board members turned a blind eye to Gothard’s behavior for years, if not decades.
Rachel Lees said she was a victim of “emotional, physical, sexual, and psychological” abuse in 1992 and 1993, when she “was 20 and 21 and Gothard was approaching 60.” She said the sexual contact was limited to “intimate caresses in secret.” Lees, who now lives in New Zealand, told me in an email that the board “has chosen to protect Bill and themselves. They have been self-serving and have not shown love, mercy, or justice.”
In an interview with WORLD and in several subsequent emails he sent to me, Gothard, who turned 80 last November, showed no repentance related to the allegations.
“Charlotte [Gretchen Wilkinson] claimed I touched her in inappropriate areas,” he said. “Those allegations are false.”
Gothard also claimed to have reached out to some of his accusers, seeking reconciliation. Wilkinson, now married with two children, acknowledged Gothard tried to contact her through family members, but she refused to meet with him.
“Bill is a master manipulator,” Wilkinson said. “I said I would meet with him only after receiving a written apology from him. If he wants reconciliation, it must begin with an admission of wrongdoing.”
Gothard blamed the anonymity of his accusers for his inability to seek reconciliation.
“Of all the ones claiming that I offended them, only a few have revealed their names,” he said. “All the others are still anonymous, so I have no idea who they are or how to contact them, or if they really exist. I have tried to contact those I know but have been rebuffed each time.”
Gothard’s relaunched website includes stories of his own from women who claim they have had long associations with him and have never been sexually harassed.
Bev Burrell, who helps run the Recovering Grace website and is the wife of a Presbyterian Church in America pastor, said she and her colleagues at Recovering Grace went to great pains to ensure all the women had credible stories. Several of the stories also have testimonies from corroborating witnesses.
Burrell is not surprised Gothard can find a few women to vouch for him.
“God draws straight lines with crooked sticks,” she said. “That’s the only hope for any of us. We’re grateful there are people who can point to ways God used Bill’s ministry in positive ways. But a few good stories do not negate a lifetime of immoral patterns, and we’re aware of more than 60 women who have experienced sexual harassment and worse.”
Neither Gretchen Wilkinson nor any of the other women who have now gone public with their allegations have ever filed criminal charges against Gothard, but their stories apparently were credible enough that the IBLP board asked him to resign in March 2014. A subsequent internal investigation conducted on behalf of the board by attorney David Gibbs Jr. stopped short of acknowledging any criminal activity took place but admitted Gothard showed a “lack of discretion and failure to follow Christ’s example of being blameless and above reproach.”
The alleged victims claimed the Gibbs report was a whitewash. The IBLP board claimed Gibbs interviewed Gothard’s accusers, but Wilkinson said he never contacted her and Burrell knows of only a few who were interviewed.
“Of the 60 girls whose stories we’re aware of, to our knowledge only a couple of those girls were contacted by David Gibbs Jr.’s investigation,” Burrell said. “And of the eight girls who shared their stories on our site, none of those girls were interviewed. Because of this, we don’t consider Gibbs’ investigation to be valid, and have repeatedly called for the board to bring in a truly independent investigation.”
Gothard is not only defending himself but also going on the offensive against the IBLP board. He said he is “concerned” the ministry is selling some of the ministry’s assets, mostly real estate valued between $80 million and $200 million. To prevent the sale of those assets, donors to the ministry have engaged attorney David Gibbs III (the son of the David Gibbs Jr. who led the internal investigation into Gothard’s behavior) to request mediation.
Gibbs III sent a letter to the IBLP board requesting dozens of documents, including financial records and minutes to board meetings. His letter said compliance with his request for mediation “would allow this matter to be handled outside the supervision of a court.” The letter also requested that “no assets will be sold or dissipated during this time.” But the June 12 deadline for compliance with the Gibbs III letter has passed.
“Donors wanted motions filed,” Gibbs III said, “but IBLP has been responding … so we have been giving them additional time to do the right thing. We now need to decide how best to initiate litigation to protect and preserve assets consistent with donor intent.”
One reason the liquidation of ministry assets may be necessary is IBLP’s dramatic decline in recent years. According to its most recent Form 990s, the ministry is about half the size it was just five years ago. Its 2013 Form 990 states annual income of about $5.4 million but expenditures of nearly $9 million, leaving a loss for the year of about $3.5 million. Over the past five years, the ministry appears to have lost at least $10 million.
IBLP President Tim Levendusky confirmed the ministry’s financial difficulties.
“Since attorney Gibbs III threatens litigation, I am not free to comment further, except to say that the Institute’s board is fully aware of its duty to be wise stewards of the Institute’s resources,” he told me in an email. “Even after stringent efforts to reduce expenses, the costs of operations and the maintenance of properties has been greater than income for about 13 years. The difference has been supplied by the sale of assets no longer being used for ministry purposes.”
One reason Gibbs III and his clients want to see assets preserved is to leave open the possibility of a future financial settlement with Gothard’s alleged victims. But Gretchen Wilkinson said she doesn’t care about any financial settlement.
“It’s never been about the money,” she said. “All I think any of us want is for Bill Gothard to say, ‘I did this, and I was wrong.’”
— by Warren Cole Smith