By Rosie Dawson
“It is with shattered hearts that we issue this statement about the allegations,” wrote board members of the Ravi Zacharias International Mission (RZIM) as an inquiry found that the mission’s founder had sexually abused women.
Ravi Zacharias — who died, aged 74, from cancer in May — headed a global ministry that employed more than a hundred speakers. Its UK branch, the Zacharias Trust, worked closely with RZIM, and ran the Oxford Centre for Christian Apologetics (OCCA). Professor Alister McGrath and Professor John Lennox, and evangelists Os Guinness and Amy Orr-Ewing were all closely involved with its work.
At an online memorial service last year, US Vice-President Mike Pence described Zacharias as a good and godly man and likened him to Billy Graham and C. S. Lewis. “In Ravi Zacharias God gave us the greatest Christian apologist of this century,” he said.
Fresh sexual abuse allegations against Zacharias surfaced in August. The RZIM chief executive Sarah Davis — Zacharias’s daughter — emailed staff saying she was “confident” that the allegations were not true. Eventually the ministry’s board launched an inquiry. The findings, released on Friday, found that he had sexually abused women at two spas he co-owned in Atlanta. Dozens of explicit images were found on his mobile devices.
“Tragically, witnesses described encounters including sexting, unwanted touching, spiritual abuse, and rape,” the board members added. “We are devastated by what the investigation has shown and are filled with sorrow for the women who were hurt by this terrible abuse.”
These were not the first allegations about abusive and deceptive behaviour against Zacharias. The RZIM board had had plenty of opportunity to investigate claims that its founder was not the upright moral man he sought to present himself as. (Zacharias claimed that he followed the “Billy Graham Rule” of never being alone with a woman other than his wife.)
In 2017 Zacharias reached a settlement with a Canadian, Lori Anne Thompson, over her claims that he had engaged in a sexting relationship with her. He threatened suicide when she said she needed to tell her husband about the relationship. Thompson and her husband eventually signed a non-disclosure agreement with Zacharias that his widow refuses to lift, although the RZIM board now says it was wrong to disbelieve Thompson, and hopes for forgiveness and “a redemptive way forward”.
But Zacharias’s deception went beyond his sex life. “It takes a sex scandal to get some Christians interested in how just deceptive this man was,” says Steve Baughman, a lawyer and philosophy student, who began investigating Zacharias in 2016 and is known on Twitter @RaviWatch. “Evangelicals have known for more than 20 years that Ravi was being deceptive about his credentials.”
Zacharias sought to make the most of his connections in Cambridge and Oxford to suggest a false academic pedigree. He misled an audience at the C. S. Lewis institute by telling it that he was an Oxford professor, and he adopted the designation “Dr” although he did not have a PhD. He was eventually forced to admit that his doctorates were honorary rather than earned.
Max Baker-Hytch, a senior tutor at the Oxford Centre for Christian Apologetics, began raising his concerns about Zacharias’s credentials in late 2016. “I was acutely sensitive about them because I am also a faculty member at Oxford University, and I knew that the university was concerned about Zacharias’s misleading claim to be an Oxford professor,” he told the Religion Media Centre.
He said many insiders were pushing for the senior leadership and US board to take the allegations against Zacharias seriously.
The UK Zacharias Trust has now taken the decision to sever itself from the global RZIM organisation. In a statement it says: “We have concluded that the response of the RZIM US Board does not go nearly far enough in terms of actions relating to leadership and governance. Very serious issues and systemic failings … demand accountability and urgent action beyond the measures outlined in the RZIM US statement.”
It added: “We are appalled by Ravi Zacharias’s abusive actions and their impact on the victims of his abuse. We also lament the effect this will have on many around the world who looked up to him as a role model for their own Christian faith. Ravi Zacharias’s conduct is against everything we stand for and believe as a Christian organisation.”
The Zacharias Trust will seek a new name, and Baker-Hytch says its budget will inevitably be smaller.
“Going forward, I am hopeful about the future for a reimagined and newly independent UK organisation. I imagine it will look quite different from what’s gone before — more nimble and grassroots in character and I very much hope it will be a deeply collaborative effort that builds strong partnerships with a range of other like-minded organisations and ministries in the UK.”