Ravi Zacharias, Influential Evangelist, Is Accused of Sexual Abuse in Scathing Report

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

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.

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 Mr. Zacharias.

“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.”

When Mr. 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.

Though the report adds shocking new details, accounts of Mr. Zacharias’s 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.

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

The full report paints a stark portrait of that misconduct. The law firm interviewed more than a dozen massage therapists who treated Mr. Zacharias. Five of them reported that he had touched or rubbed them inappropriately, and four said he would touch his own genitals or ask them to touch him. Eight said he would either start the massage completely nude or remove the draping sheets during the treatment.

One massage therapist “reported details of many encounters over a period of years that she described as rape,” the report says. She said Mr. Zacharias talked with her about topics including her faith and her finances, and she came to think of him as a “father figure.” After he arranged for his ministry to provide her with financial support, however, he demanded sex, according to the report. Mr. Zacharias, it says, “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.”

The law firm also found a pattern of intimate text and email-based relationships with women. In reviewing his electronic devices, they found the phone numbers of more than 200 massage therapists and more than 200 selfies, some of them nudes, from much younger women. Mr. Zacharias also used the nonprofit ministry to financially support some of his long-term therapists. The report also reveals that he owned two apartments in Bangkok, where he spent 256 days between 2010 and 2014. One of his massage therapists stayed in the other apartment.

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

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.”

Mr. Zacharias specialized in apologetics, a tradition that focuses on making logical appeals for the truth of the Christian faith, and equipping evangelicals to engage non-believers in conversations about faith.

“People in the pews in evangelical churches, when they think of a Christian intellectual, they would have thought of Ravi Zacharias,” said John Fea, a historian at evangelical Messiah College. “He had an immense influence on the way rank-and-file American evangelicals thought about how to defend their faith.”

He also built RZIM, which by the time of his death employed more than 100 full-time speakers around the world. The ministry appealed to Christian donors who saw Mr. Zacharias as the rare evangelist who could reach atheists and intellectuals in the academy, corporate boardrooms and other elite spaces. As his health failed last spring, public tributes poured in from high-profile fans including the football and baseball player Tim Tebow and the Christian rap artist Lecrae.

As it turned out, Mr. Zacharias’s 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.

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

In 2014, Mr. Zacharias met a Canadian couple, Brad and Lori Anne Thompson, at a fund-raising luncheon in Ontario. They stayed in touch, and eventually Mr. Zacharias invited Ms. Thompson to correspond privately on BlackBerry Messenger. The evangelist was 30 years older than Ms. 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, Mr. Zacharias began soliciting sexually explicit messages.

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

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

RZIM’s board expressed regret on Thursday for its response to Ms. Thompson’s allegations. “It is with profound grief that we recognize 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.

Several months after Mr. Zacharias’s death last year, Christianity Today published new reporting about his behavior at the spas he co-owned, which he frequently visited for massages.

Those allegations left Mr. Zacharias’s global ministry in chaos. Initially, the organization denied the women’s accounts. Sarah Davis, its chief executive and Mr. Zacharias’s daughter, sent an email to the staff that said she was “confident” the accusations were not true, according to internal emails acquired by The New York Times. The organization told Christianity Today that the claims “do not in any way comport with the man we knew for decades.”

Leading up to the report’s release on Thursday, current and former employees described feeling disillusioned by the organization’s past denials, and by what they described as attempts to discourage them from even researching the accusations against Mr. Zacharias.

For some, the disillusionment was compounded because it involved a ministry that invited tough questions, and prided itself on pursuing the truth. “RZIM welcomed doubts about Jesus Christ but refused questions about Ravi Zacharias,” said Daniel Gilman, a former speaker in the organization’s Canadian office.

In its statement on Thursday, RZIM’s board said it was “seeking the Lord’s will regarding the future of this ministry.”

Though the report adds shocking new details, accounts of Mr. Zacharias’s 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.

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

The full report paints a stark portrait of that misconduct. The law firm interviewed more than a dozen massage therapists who treated Mr. Zacharias. Five of them reported that he had touched or rubbed them inappropriately, and four said he would touch his own genitals or ask them to touch him. Eight said he would either start the massage completely nude or remove the draping sheets during the treatment.

One massage therapist “reported details of many encounters over a period of years that she described as rape,” the report says. She said Mr. Zacharias talked with her about topics including her faith and her finances, and she came to think of him as a “father figure.” After he arranged for his ministry to provide her with financial support, however, he demanded sex, according to the report. Mr. Zacharias, it says, “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.”

He also built RZIM, which by the time of his death employed more than 100 full-time speakers around the world. The ministry appealed to Christian donors who saw Mr. Zacharias as the rare evangelist who could reach atheists and intellectuals in the academy, corporate boardrooms and other elite spaces. As his health failed last spring, public tributes poured in from high-profile fans including the football and baseball player Tim Tebow and the Christian rap artist Lecrae.

As it turned out, Mr. Zacharias’s 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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