For all those with dropped jaws about the Ravi Zacharias investigation in the news, this is not “new”s. The allegations surfaced back in 2017. The predatory behavior began as far back as 2005. It takes a silent village to create a graveyard of victims from over 15 years of abuse and assault. That Silence was cultivated from the top down and enforced from the bottom up. And it is Silence that protects the predator.
The initial allegations by a single victim were first met by the perpetrator with panicked acknowledgement, then an appeal for secrecy and even a threat of suicide. Finally, in true predatory fashion, Zacharias cast himself as the victim by suing his victim. The details were hushed by a nondisclosure agreement. And the Silence began.
The NDA legalized the Silence from the victim. It protected the Silence of the perpetrator. It permitted convenient Silence by the RZIM organization. And it allowed for a sigh of relieved Silence by the church. Denial, manipulation, and false accusations were rewarded with Silence—for a time.
When Zacharias died last March, other victims began to come forward. These allegations were covered by The Roys Report in September of 2020 picked up by Christianity Today, investigated by an influential blog, and vehemently dismissed by the RZIM in a statement released September 15, 2020. So now, when the NYT covers it February 2021, yes, it is news. It just isn’t new. In fact, considering the scale of Mr. Zacharias’s abuse, it is clear that there was a journalistic reluctance to vigorously investigate him. Muted attempts at best, if not Silence.
This week RZIM released a repentant mea culpa in light of the massive compiled evidence from many victims over many years in many places (including a frequented apartment in Bangkok and his own spas—one brazenly called Touch of Eden—in Georgia). So while an apology and plan to address the damage is to be expected, it is not something to be applauded. It is in fact the least they can do. The repentant language in the released statement is in stark contrast with the same organization that wasn’t satisfied with just denying the first victim’s allegation, but sought to publicize the victim’s past to discredit her. And according to recent reports, mocked her and took bets on how long her marriage would last.
Zacharias is dead and will never have to acknowledge the pain of the victims, the shame of his family and friends, and the damage to the faith organization.
Clearly, we cannot expect victims to break the Silence. Nor can we trust the perpetrator or the organization that backs the perp to break the Silence. Nor can we trust the churches that relied on his erudite intellect to legitimize faith with reason to break the Silence.
On February 9, Lori Anne Thompson broke her NDA by releasing her own victim impact video statement. Even though RZIM has had the final investigation report of all the victims since December, and released its own statement of acknowledgement, it would not release her from the silencing NDA. So, LoriAnne Thompson released herself from it. She broke her Silence.
“RZ’s secret sins and public shame do not belong to me, and I verbally and publicly send them back to him and RZIM. I have repeatedly requested to be released from the NDA. To date, no release has come. So be it. My words belong to me, and I take them back today. To my fellow survivors: hold fast. There is hope. There is also help. All will not always be lost. What happened to you does not have the last word. You do.”
Her words remind us of the single most powerful tool perpetrators use: The Silence of their victims. And the use of Silence is most significant in the church, since it is used to protect the kind of power that depends on trust in its reputation: spiritual leadership. Most vile, in addition to physical, social, and vocational threats, the church leader has an additional threat: spiritual damnation for those who attempt to speak out. Zacharias specifically leveraged salvation against her voice when he told his victim she would be responsible for millions of lost souls if she spoke out and damaged his reputation.
The epidemic of clergy misconduct is not only the abuse itself, but the Silence that enables the abuse to continue to exponentially harm people. While perpetrators will always exist, the damage they do can be diminished and halted with a way to break through the Silence that protects power.
For some resources to disempower this kind of Silence, see below. And, in the words of Lori Anne Thompson—her words—Hold fast. There is hope. There is also help:
Texas recently passed one such way to break the Silence: a law that protects churches and nonprofits from retaliation when providing accurate, negative information on clergy abuse. Without legal protections, there is institutional reluctance to expose perpetrators. These data bases alert hiring boards and protect would-be victims. This is an astounding tool with potential to diminish the epidemic of clergy abuse by eradicating its facilitator: Silence.
Do you know these badly-behaving Baptists? Search BaptistAcountability.org
Search Credibly Accused for names of Catholic clergy predators.
Search AnglicanWatch.com for alleged predators in Anglican houses of worship.
Search the Mennonite Abuse Prevention list.
“Abuse of Faith:” ground-breaking six-part series from the Houston Chronicle and San Antonio Express-News on coverups in the Southern Baptist Convention.
The original voice for SBC clergy accountability: StopBaptistPredators.com.