'You Are One Step Away from Complete and Total Insanity'
The inside story of how Ravi Zacharias’s ministry concealed and enabled his abuse.
|David French||Feb 14||426||549|
In May 2018, the senior leadership of Ravi Zacharias International Ministries (RZIM) gathered together with two more junior employees—RZIM’s public relations manager and spokeswoman, my longtime friend Ruth Malhotra, and global media director Nancy Gifford—at an offsite conference room for a three day “conciliation” meeting. The group had spent months together serving as an impromptu task force designed to deal with the fallout from claims by a Canadian woman named Lori Anne Thompson that Zacharias, one of the Evangelical world’s most-respected apologists, had engaged in an inappropriate relationship with her. She claimed he’d “groomed” her over a period of months and persuaded her to send him inappropriate pictures, including nudes.
The story had unfolded slowly within RZIM. One task force member wasn’t even aware of Thompson’s claims until months after they were made. But the story they heard from Zacharias had a certain brutal simplicity. Ravi—a person who’d lived an apparently exemplary public and private life—was the victim of a woman who’d preyed on his naivete and kindness, sent him unsolicited nude messages, and then demanded millions of dollars to maintain her silence.
In other words, there was a predator, and there was victim. The predator was Thompson. The victim was Zacharias.
Zacharias stuck to that narrative so ferociously that he sued Thompson and her husband, Bradley, claiming they violated the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organization Act when she made her monetary demand. Zacharias claimed: “Defendants labored relentlessly to foster a relationship with Plaintiff in hopes of manipulating him into a compromising position.” When the alleged scheme to create a relationship failed, Zacharias claimed: “Defendants resorted to simply plying Plaintiff with electronic messages containing unwanted, offensive, sexually explicit language and photographs.”
In November 2017, Zacharias settled his suit. Within RZIM, employees were told a reassuring narrative. The RZIM board of directors (oddly enough, its members are anonymous, allegedly out of a desire to protect them from cultural or economic reprisals for their association with a Christian ministry) had “looked into everything.” Ravi’s denomination, the Christian and Missionary Alliance, had conducted a thorough and complete investigation and had cleared Zacharias of wrongdoing. No money had exchanged hands between Zacharias and the Thompsons.
None of this was true. The board of directors had not “looked into everything.” In fact, Zacharias had flatly refused to hand over his personal electronic devices for examination. His denomination had not conducted a complete investigation. And Zacharias had agreed to pay the Thompsons $250,000 to settle his own lawsuit against them, and all parties were bound by a nondisclosure agreement.
Even worse, emails that later leaked into the public square not only strongly implied that there was far more to the relationship between Thompson and Zacharias than Zacharias had disclosed, they also contained what appeared to be an explicit suicide threat. After Thompson told Zacharias she was going to tell her husband about their relationship, Ravi responded, “You promised you wouldn't Lori Anne. If [sic]. You betray me here I will have no option but to bid this world goodbye I promise.”
As these details became known within RZIM, discontent grew. Malhotra and Gifford consistently fielded questions for which they had no good responses. Compounding the challenge, Zacharias had been caught exaggerating his academic credentials. The public-facing members of the team were facing a credibility crisis, and they wanted answers. Yet as Malhotra and others probed for more information, they faced withering internal resistance.
In a 26-page letter Malhotra wrote and delivered to the chairman of RZIM early last week, she reflected back at her long ordeal at RZIM and described feeling “systematically marginalized, maligned, and misrepresented to others by key members of senior leadership” during her time on the Thompson task force.
According to Malhotra and at least one other person present at the task force meetings, RZIM president Michael Ramsden objected to her notetaking. RZIM general counsel Abdu Murray said her lingering questions meant that she had moved from being “skeptical to being cynical.”
When Malhotra continued to ask questions as she learned more about the gaping holes in the original story, Ramsden allegedly called her “tired and emotional” and suggested to the group that “she can’t handle” the stress and pressure of responding to the allegations.
Senior leaders would tell Malhotra and others that they should believe Zacharias because the senior leaders believed Zacharias. As one senior leader allegedly told the task force, “You just don’t know Ravi as well as I know him. If you had spent as much time with him as I have, you wouldn’t have these concerns.”
When Malhotra continued to press for answers she was told to “do the Matthew 18 thing” (referring to a scripture that admonishes believers to first confront a fellow believer personally before addressing their sin with others). At one point RZIM senior vice president Sanj Kalra pressed Ruth with a question, “Whose side are you on?” He allegedly accused her of “plotting to bring the ministry down.”
It’s against this backdrop that RZIM conducted its May 2018 “conciliation.” They brought in a Christian “conciliator” named Judy Dabler to facilitate dialogue. Almost immediately, however, it became clear to Malhotra that the gathering wasn’t intended to bring reconciliation. Instead, it was designed in part to allow the senior leaders to vent at Malhotra. As the tension escalated—and as Malhotra fought back tears in the face of attacks from her more-senior colleagues—Dabler allegedly turned to her and uttered crushing words. Malhotra, she said, was “one step away from complete and total insanity.”
Ultimately, senior leadership forced Malhotra to take a sabbatical in November 2018. Before she left for her leave, RZIM took from her all company technology and secured all relevant passwords (other employees were allowed to keep devices when they were on sabbatical). Zacharias, recall, had been permitted to keep his own phones safe from investigation. He never turned them over during his lifetime.
The account above is based on the review of multiple internal RZIM communications, and interviews with current and former RZIM employees. I also reached out to Ramsden, Murray, former RZIM senior vice president Sanj Kalra, and current RZIM CEO Sarah Davis for their accounts. Ramsden and Kalra did not respond, and Davis declined to be interviewed, but I did speak to Murray, RZIM’s general counsel, at some length. The account above—and the words below—are designed to help answer a single question: how could a Christian ministry fail to discover serial sexual misconduct and dreadful abuse by their founder and leader until months after his death?
On Thursday afternoon, an outside law firm retained by RZIM to investigate claims that Zacharias had sexually abused employees at Atlanta spas that he co-owned released a 12-page report detailing its findings. The results were horrifying. They detailed abuse—including rape allegations by a longtime massage therapist—that were far beyond his defenders’ worst fears. A Christianity Today story describes the report well:
A four-month investigation found the late Ravi Zacharias leveraged his reputation as a world-famous Christian apologist to abuse massage therapists in the United States and abroad over more than a decade while the ministry led by his family members and loyal allies failed to hold him accountable.
He used his need for massage and frequent overseas travel to hide his abusive behavior, luring victims by building trust through spiritual conversations and offering funds straight from his ministry.
Even a limited review of Zacharias’s old devices revealed contacts for more than 200 massage therapists in the US and Asia and hundreds of images of young women, including some that showed the women naked. Zacharias solicited and received photos until a few months before his death in May 2020 at age 74.
Using his back pain as pretext, Zacharias was able to completely circumvent normal precautions that many ministry leaders take to avoid situations where they’re alone with women in personal settings. The rules held for everyone but his massage therapists, but his therapists were the prime targets for his manipulative sexual overtures. The report details how he questioned women about their economic conditions and preyed upon those most in need of financial assistance.
The woman who accused him of rape said that “he made her pray with him to thank God for the ‘opportunity’ they both received.” She also said that “he called her his ‘reward’ for living a life of service to God, and he referenced the ‘godly men’ in the Bible with more than one wife.”
Moreover, Zacharias spent extended time in Bangkok, where—according to the report—he would spend his days writing and his evenings receiving massages. For a time he maintained two apartments in the city. He stayed in one, and his massage therapist stayed in the other. The investigators said they had “little insight into whether Mr. Zacharias engaged in inappropriate massage behavior when in Asia.”
Investigators were able to obtain an immense amount of incriminating information from Zacharias’s old phones—including phones that he allegedly refused to turn over to RZIM when the Thompson allegations surfaced in 2016. In other words, had the ministry conducted even the most minimally competent investigation, they could have discovered (and potentially stopped) almost four years of additional misconduct and abuse.
(Zacharias allegedly shunned the use of company technology and rejected the use of company email, but RZIM could have insisted on access to Zacharias’s equipment when the Thompson allegations first surfaced.)
The report was not focused on how Zacharias was able to get away with such shocking misconduct, but this paragraph stands out:
Rather than fostering an environment of truth-seeking and transparency, Mr. Zacharias was strident and inflammatory. He described his critics as “nasty people” and “lunatics” who were engaging in “‘satanic-type’ slander and falsehood.” Some RZIM staff told us that he expressed frustration with having to issue an apology at all. He was able to convince many that not only was he innocent, he was the victim of malicious “evil.” At an all-staff virtual meeting in January 2018, after significant details of the Thompson communications had been made public, Mr. Zacharias offered explanations that many staff members found nonsensical. But some staff members reported to us that when they expressed doubts about Mr. Zacharias’s story, they were ignored, marginalized, and accused of disloyalty.
The last sentence is consistent with my own reporting and consistent with written internal communications I’ve reviewed. Murray, however, said that it was “not my experience there was a concerted effort to make people feel marginalized or disloyal.”
As disturbing news about the Thompson matter kept emerging, staffers seeking the truth were like the proverbial blind men feeling out the elephant—except imagine that as they tried to get a full understanding of the creature before them, someone was yelling in their ear, “There is no elephant. There is no elephant.”
Malhotra and others report that Zacharias and key senior leaders were relentless in their mockery and scorn of Thompson. In conversations they’d take bets on how long the Thompsons’ marriage would last. A senior leader, Kalra, reportedly mocked younger married staffers who questioned the propriety of Zacharias’s leaked emails with Thompson. “Oh yeah? Who are they to doubt Ravi?” Kalra said. “I’d like to see their marriages 40 or 50 years from now, we’ll see how well their guardrails hold up then.”
Collectively, the messages were absolutely clear. Trust Ravi. Ambiguity in his communications reflects his naivete and even “innocence.” The Thompsons are contemptible people.
For a time, the relentless messaging worked. As noted above, Malhotra was sent on a forced sabbatical, and the ministry plowed forward after her return, achieving remarkable success. As one RZIM insider told me, the years between the Thompson allegations and Zacharias’s death represented a period of “spectacular” achievements. The ministry expanded, It spoke to new audiences, and its hundreds of employees reached millions with a clear Gospel apologetic.
When Ravi died in 2020, after a short battle with an aggressive cancer, there was a worldwide explosion of gratitude for his life and ministry. As current and former Zacharias employees told me, the Twitter hashtag #ThankYouRavi ultimately reached 2.3 billion impressions. Vice President Mike Pence attended Zacharias’s memorial service. White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany broke down describing Ravi’s impact on her life.
Shortly after he died, I paid tribute to him in the pages of this newsletter. I briefly acknowledged the Thompson scandal and the credentialing controversy, but I said these words, and I meant them:
By taking on the hardest questions—and doing so with particular clarity—Ravi filled the void left by, for example, a youth pastor who couldn’t engage with the problem of pain. He wrestled honestly and thoughtfully with questions about death, hell, and eternal life. It’s not that he answered so clearly that he resolved all debate (no person can do that), but he made countless Christians understand that their faith did indeed have a firm intellectual and philosophical foundation.
In fact, years ago I’d played a tiny role in the expansion of Zacharias’s public voice. In 1992 I was part of a Christian fellowship at Harvard Law School that brought him to campus for the first ever “Veritas forum”—a forum on truth—and he was magnificent. The cassette tapes of his appearance spread across the nation (an early ‘90s version of going viral), and those two nights helped launch an organization, called the Veritas Forum (it is not part of RZIM), that continues to host events on college campuses from coast to coast and across the world. I spoke at a Veritas event just last week.
At the time of his death, Zacharias’s public legacy seemed secure. He left behind a thriving ministry. He left behind a body of work that had blessed millions. His scandals were largely unknown. They were in the past. Until they weren’t.
As Christianity Today put it in Daniel Silliman and Kate Shellnutt’s comprehensive story on the Zacharias report, “The secret of Zacharias’s abuse started to unravel the day of his funeral in May 2020.” One of Zacharias’s victims watched his funeral and, aghast, took action:
The woman googled “Ravi Zacharias sex scandal” and found the blog RaviWatch, run by Steve Baughman, an atheist who had been tracking and reporting on Zacharias’s “fishy claims” since 2015. Baughman blogged on Zacharias’s false statements about academic credentials, the sexting allegations, and the subsequent lawsuit. When the woman read about what happened to Lori Anne Thompson, she recognized what had happened to that woman was what had happened to her.
As far as she could tell, this atheist blogger was the only one who cared that Zacharias had sexually abused people and gotten away with it. She reached out to Baughman and then eventually spoke to Christianity Today about Zacharias’s spas, the women who worked there, and the abuse that happened behind closed doors.
RZIM had an initial meeting to address the spa allegations on September 8, 2020. Malhotra joined Ramsden, Murray, Kalra, and Mark DeMoss, a well-known Christian public relations expert who’d counseled the RZIM team during the Thompson controversy.
Immediately there were echoes of the Thompson response playbook. According to Malhotra, Murray told the group he’d spoken to Brian Kelly, Zacharias’s attorney in the RICO lawsuit against Thompson, and Murray indicated that private investigators had been hired to look into the spa accusers and said “there are a lot of checkered things in their pasts.”
DeMoss, however, allegedly pushed back strongly against suggestions of an aggressive investigative approach. According to Malhotra, Murray then suggested an ominous escalation:
[Murray] said, “Brian Kelly knows an ex-cop in Atlanta who does his own investigations, and Brian told me he ‘doesn’t have a light touch.’ Abdu went on to describe that according to Kelly, this ex-cop was “rough around the edges” and that approach might be effective in going after the accusers and exonerating Ravi.
Murray, for his part, acknowledges that this investigator “was brought up,” but Murray said he told the group that “he did not want witness intimidation. He did not want roughness.”
Malhotra writes that the “prevailing theme” from the meeting was that the allegations were false. And so Davis, the RZIM CEO, made that declaration to staff, telling them “We are confident these accusations are not true” in a statement later that same day.
Murray said he regrets that statement in part “because it gave a false impression that we didn’t take the allegations seriously. Even though we took them very seriously.” He said that “all of us wanted the truth to come out. From everything I saw, Sarah [Ravi’s daughter] was an unswerving advocate for that.”
In speaking with Murray, it’s clear that the senior leadership team was in a state of shock at the spa allegations. In conversation, Murray searched for a word beyond “shock.” The allegations seemed so completely inconsistent with the person they’d known for so long. It was as if the presumption of innocence transformed into an assumption of innocence.
But by that time any sort of aggressive denial or defensive investigatory stance was simply untenable. On September 29, 2020, Christianity Today’s Silliman published a meticulously reported story detailing the claims of three spa employees who claimed that Zacharias, “touched them inappropriately, exposed himself, and masturbated during regular treatments over a period of about five years.”
The die was cast. After the questions that still clouded the Thompson controversy, numerous influential members of the RZIM staff simply would not tolerate anything less than an independent investigation that would yield transparent results.
Yet even as late as October, Ramsden, RZIM’s president, minimized the allegations, allegedly telling staff, “Everything we’re hearing at the moment isn’t simply hearsay, but what would be legally classified as double hearsay.” Former RZIM apologist Daniel Gilman described being “haunted by the fact that the apologists on our team are not simply apologists for Jesus but also for Ravi.”
But dissent continued to grow. RZIM speaker (and my friend) Sam Allberry declared during the October meeting, “Frankly, I believe these women and find their allegations to be credible.” Before the end of the month, RZIM retained the firm Miller & Martin to conduct its independent investigation.
Even while the investigation was underway, RZIM employees pressed for accountability. In statements to Christianity Today, RZIM speaker Max Baker-Hytch called for a “total apology and total transparency.” RZIM senior vice-president Amy Orr-Ewing said, “I believe the women who have come forward.”
In December Baker-Hytch wrote a five-page memorandum to RZIM senior leaders that promptly leaked to the public. The memo decried RZIM’s reputation for non-transparency and called for “meaningful reparations” for victims and a “cultural overhaul” for the organization. Allberry boosted Baker-Hytch’s memo on Twitter:
In response to Allberry’s tweet, Ravi’s daughter Naomi, vice president and director of Wellspring International, RZIM’s “humanitarian arm,” sent Allberry an anguished email, berating him for his “unbiblical” and “cruel” public statements. She said his actions and the actions of others who were publicly calling for accountability felt like a “personal betrayal.”
On December 22, 2020, Miller and Martin provided an interim report on its investigation to the RZIM board. It declared that it “found significant, credible evidence that Mr. Zacharias engaged in sexual misconduct over the course of many years.” It contained this cryptic and disturbing sentence. “Some of that misconduct is consistent with and corroborative of that which is reported in the news recently, and some of the conduct we have uncovered is more serious.”
At that point, American Christians — including the millions who long admired Ravi — knew the final report would be bad. The only question was how bad. Now they know.
On Thursday, RZIM’s anonymous board issued an open letter apologizing to Ravi’s victims—including Thompson—and pledging to take a number of steps, including retaining Rachael Denhollander, a lawyer, former gymnast, and victim-advocate who was the first woman to publicly blow the whistle on Larry Nassar, the notorious former USA Gymnastics doctor who serially abused the young gymnasts in his care. Denhollander will advise the board and serve as a “confidential liaison” to Ravi’s victims. It also engaged a firm, Guidepost Solutions, to conduct a “comprehensive evaluation” of RZIM.
As of the time I write this newsletter, I am not aware that any member of the American board or any member of the senior leadership team has resigned as a result of the roles they played in enabling Zacharias’s abuse.
This has been a difficult newsletter to write. I’ve had to confront my own negligence. I’m a Christian writer and journalist, and I paid insufficient attention to Thompson’s initial claims. I was only vaguely aware of her allegations at the time, and had I dug down into the story, it would have been obvious that Zacharias’s account had serious problems. It is no excuse to say that I can’t cover everything. I should have covered this. I’m terribly sorry I did not.
It’s also difficult because I’m friends with individuals involved. As I said, Ruth has been a longtime friend. She’s also a former client. When she was a college student I represented her in an incredibly contentious lawsuit against her university, Georgia Tech. She challenged a series of unconstitutional school policies and faced an avalanche of hatred for her stand, including death threats and rape threats. Confronting this crisis, she told me, has been far more difficult than anything she’s faced before.
Sam Allberry is also a friend. He’s a man of integrity and courage. In fact, RZIM is populated with people who love Jesus and live with all the integrity that Zacharias claimed to possess. Many members of the staff pressed for transparency even though they knew a negative report could well doom the ministry they loved. And now they all face an uncertain future. The UK branch of RZIM split from the organization late last week. Layoffs likely loom. A ministry founded by a sexual predator and still carries the predator’s name can hardly continue in its present form.
What are the lessons we can learn? Some are obvious. When family members of founders occupy the controlling heights of an organization, they are placed under immense strain and face an obvious conflict of interest when their father is accused of misconduct. Rigorous, independent investigations should be mandatory when accusers come forward. Compliance with reasonable investigatory requests (such as turning over phones and other communications equipment) must be required. Governing boards should be powerful, independent, and transparent.
I can go on. Nondisclosure agreements—especially in Christian ministries—are poisonous and enable additional abuse. Do not trust instincts over evidence. Never say, “I know this man, and he would never do anything like this.” The goal of any organization facing claims of abuse should be discerning truth, not discrediting accusers. All accusers should be treated immediately—publicly and privately—with dignity and respect.
But it goes even deeper. Christian ministries are populated by leadership teams who derive not just their paychecks but also their own public reputations from their affiliation with the famous founder. They’re admired in part because the founder is admired. They have influence in part because the founder has influence. When the founder fails, they lose more than a paycheck. There is powerful personal incentive to circle the wagons and to defend the ministry, even when that defense destroys lives.
The zeal to protect the leader and punish or discredit the accuser can also rest in a particular brand of arrogance. “My ministry is necessary.” “Souls are at stake.” “Look at all the good we’re doing.” In reality, God will accomplish His purposes, with or without any of us, regardless of our gifts or talents.
In the days since the report, I’m haunted by a particular scripture. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus tells the story of a man of mighty works, whose labor came to nothing:
Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name and in your name drive out demons and in your name perform many miracles?’ Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’
There is no degree of greatness that can overcome our lawlessness. But there is also another scripture that applies, one that provides a profound promise of God’s justice and God’s mercy, even in the worst of days. “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” The darkness has not prevailed. It will not prevail.
One last thing …
Let’s end this rather long and grim newsletter with a song of hope and resolve, featuring two of my favorite artists—here’s Shane and Shane covering Rich Mullins’s classic “Sometimes by Step.” Enjoy: