This week, Ravi Zacharias International Ministries (RZIM) published the investigators’ report into allegations of sexual misconduct and abuse perpetrated by Ravi Zacharias, the late founder of RZIM. The investigators found ample evidence confirming the allegations. Alongside this report, RZIM also issued a statement taking responsibility and apologizing for their actions, which included publicly minimizing victims’ claims, “failure to commission an independent investigation” when the first victim’s allegations surfaced in 2017, and spreading “a false narrative” about this victim. I commend RZIM for acknowledging these failures.
Unfortunately, stories of poor institutional responses to sexual misconduct are just as common as stories of the perpetrators these institutions protect and enable. Clergy abuses and scandals are rife across denominational lines and have been for decades. The combination of power, reputation, and access to vulnerable persons means that Christian leaders are even more readily positioned to abuse others than the average person. And yet, even in a time of #metoo and #churchtoo, bringing the truth to light is still an uphill battle for survivors of sexual violence, as was the case for the victims of Ravi Zacharias. (In another recent example, survivors of sexual violence who came forward to Moody Bible Institute were not even contacted by the investigative team and had to rely on information passed to them secretly by current students).
Over the past year, I have been advocating for survivors of sexual violence within a church denomination and a Christian educational institution, and I have seen firsthand the obstacles that are placed in the way of survivors who come forward and the indifference with which leaders treat their allegations. Instead of recognizing the gift of immense courage and vulnerability that is being offered to them, institutional leaders respond with intimidation and dismissal. Instead of seeking the truth, churches hire legal teams to silence and shut down survivors.
Fear of lawsuits and bad press is one of the primary reasons that churches and organizations turn to silencing tactics. Perhaps some try to justify this to themselves as “protecting the ministry,” as if covering up evil is an acceptable price to pay for the advancement of their mission. “We can’t afford a lawsuit” becomes license to turn away from those who have been hurt and to ignore or silence their claims.
Interestingly, Jesus suggests a better away to avoid lawsuits:
And why do you not judge for yourselves what is right? Thus, when you go with your accuser before a magistrate, on the way make an effort to settle the case, or you may be dragged before the judge… I tell you, you will never get out until you have paid the very last penny (Luke 12:57-59, NRSV).
Churches and institutions: why do you not judge rightly yourselves? Survivors should not have to resort to legal action just to be heard (but they should be fully supported if they choose to do so).
Why do you not apologize for the wrong that has been done within your walls?
Why do you not meet the accusers on the way, listen to their experiences of abuse and assault, and tell them, “We believe you”?
Why do you not initiate independent, third-party investigations into allegations?
For every church, denomination, or organization that has chosen to silence or ignore accusers rather than listen, believe, investigate, repent, apologize, and make amends: listen to the words of Jesus. Judge rightly.