Evangelist Ravi Zacharias Engaged in Sexual Misconduct, Report Says
By Michelle Boorstein
February 11, 2021
|Ravi Zacharias, leader of Ravi Zacharias International Ministries, in 2009. (Ravi Zacharias International Ministries)|
Ravi Zacharias, a towering Indian American evangelist who helped legions worldwide believe in Christianity through a ministry focused on open questioning and truth-seeking, led a double life, pressuring multiple massage therapists for sexual attention — including women who accused him of sexual aggression and one who accused him of rape, according to an independent report released Thursday.
The report, commissioned by the global Ravi Zacharias International Ministries, is a shameful coda to the career of the late minister, whose books and radio programs have been a staple of evangelical Christian media for decades. Zacharias died in May of cancer at age 74, after aggressively denying sexual misconduct allegations made in 2017 by Lori Anne Thompson, a former follower, and her husband and portraying the couple as extortionists. The report referred to the Thompsons’ case but said investigators did not have enough data to fully assess it.
The RZIM board, which is accountable for a ministry operating in 15 countries and with nearly 300 staffers, issued a four-page response to the report that was dramatically contrite. The board apologized to staff who had questioned Zacharias and were rebuffed or punished, and to the Thompsons for the years that “they were slandered … and their suffering was greatly prolonged and intensified.” As recently as the fall, the board had issued statements minimizing new allegations that Zacharias sexually harassed spa workers.
While the report by Atlanta law firm Miller & Martin said it “did not find evidence that anyone within RZIM or on its Board knew that Mr. Zacharias had engaged in sexual misconduct,” details in the document showed multiple red flags. It said several staffers were punished after raising questions about Zacharias traveling with a masseuse or spending weeks alone in Asia. It said RZIM didn’t investigate the 2017 allegations — despite the case making worldwide news.
“I appreciate the vocabulary of their apology, but it must be backed by action,” Lori Anne Thompson told The Washington Post on Thursday. “When I ask my child to say sorry, it must be what specifically they’re sorry for. I’d like to know how each member of the executive leadership feels they themselves have failed. Don’t hide behind the institution. We almost didn’t make it out of this. … We almost lost our marriage. We’re not looking to be litigious, but we’re looking for them to be accountable. They tried to actively crush our family.”
The ministry, which has employed Zacharias’s wife and his three children and is now led by his daughter, said through the board statement that it has hired prominent victim advocate Rachael Denhollander and an independent firm to help it completely investigate its structures, look for other possible victims and consider how to make restitution. Denhollander is a lawyer who was the first to publicly come forward against former sports physician Larry Nassar and has talked about her experience of sexual abuse at her church as a child.
“We confess that there has been pride and arrogance in our hearts, and we are committed to the ongoing process of repentance. Both for what Ravi did and for all of the ways that we have fallen short, we are so sorry. As an organization, we understand that we have no right to forgiveness and that even if forgiveness is possible, it may take time,” the statement said.
The report was commissioned after media reports last fall quoted three anonymous massage therapists as saying that Zacharias — a best-selling author whose memorial service in the spring was attended and addressed by Vice President Mike Pence, former National Football League star Tim Tebow and rapper Lecrae and watched by more than a million people — sexually harassed and grabbed them at spas with which he was affiliated, located not far from RZIM headquarters near Atlanta. The Miller & Martin investigators were told they could investigate other misconduct, and they referenced the 2017 allegations by the Thompsons.
The report said investigators interviewed more than a dozen massage therapists. It said that with more than 200 massage therapists in Zacharias’s phone, including many in Southeast Asia, they focused primarily on a small group and did not research in Asia. Two said they saw his behavior — being nude and aroused during a massage — as cultural and not otherwise offensive, but the rest interviewed complained of unwelcome touching, requests and exposure.
Some spa employees said Zacharias would grab their breasts or crotches. One said Zacharias raped her, the report said. His phones had 200 photos of young women, including some who were naked.
After Zacharias settled with the Thompsons in 2017, he issued a statement saying his only error was engaging in an “ongoing communication” with a woman who was not his wife. He said he had not in 45 years of marriage “engaged in any inappropriate behavior of any kind” and reiterated that he had long “made it my practice not to be alone with a woman other than Margie and our daughters — not in a car, a restaurant, or anywhere else.”
The report said that in the year after suing the Thompsons for alleged extortion, Zacharias received more than 50 photos from another woman, including nudes. One came the day after he made his statement, the report said.
Multiple witnesses in the report, none of whom were named, described Zacharias as using a familiar pattern of asking about their family history, financial and spiritual situations, and then initiating sexual contact.
The woman who accused Zacharias of rape “reported that he made her pray with him to thank God for the ‘opportunity’ they both received,” the report said. “She said 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. She said he 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.”
Zacharias’s private lawyers in his court case against the Thompsons compiled data for his case, the report said, and Zacharias told people at RZIM that the lawyers had seen all his devices and agreed he’d done nothing wrong. The Miller & Martin investigators wanted to see the data and devices, but Zacharias and the Thompsons signed a nondisclosure agreement. The Thompsons have asked to be released from it, but Zacharias’s widow, Margie, declined to give the investigators access to the case.