Where’s Justice For Bill Gothard and IBLP’s Victims?

Two Iron Ladies React to the Withdrawal of the Lawsuit.

Foreground: Bill Gothard. Background: A “ Basic Life Principles” Seminar

On Monday, a lawsuit involving multiple plaintiffs alleging sexual abuse and sexual abuse cover-up against Bill Gothard and the Institute of Basic Life Principles (IBLP) was withdrawn. The suit could not go forward due to “ . . . the unique complexities of this case, including the statutes of limitation,” according to a joint statement from the plaintiffs.

The charges include varying degrees of sexual harassment and molestation, as well as failure to report instances of sexual and physical abuse that were disclosed in the course of counseling, or reported to staff. Most of the plaintiffs were in their teens (some were minors) and the abuse from Gothard occurred while they were working as his personally-selected private secretaries. A synopsis of the charges can be found here:

Rebecca Lemke:

Eight years years ago, after a tumultuous several years of spiritual abuse as a child and young preteen, I walked away from everything I had ever known. I was effectively alone, naive, and vulnerable as I began my journey towards health, in body and spirit. When I walked away, I thought things would get better.

What I didn’t know was that as I was walking away from wolves in sheep’s clothing, but toward a den of lions. The communities that wanted me, that recruited me and took me in, were vile. They had an agenda for me. They wanted to convert me and use me as a cultural soldier, just as so many in my childhood had wanted and tried to do. Except this time, I was on the other side.

But there was a problem. Instead of renouncing my faith, as most thought was reasonable given what I had gone through, I refused. I was ostracized. I found myself spiritually adrift and alone, yet again, as I struggled with how to process the proof-texting, spiritual abuse, and neglect of my young years. Anyone I could find with my same story seemed to believe there was only one approach to dealing with abuse: Live how you want, without any reference to God or His commandments or purpose for you. I never bought this. There was always something that made me feel this nihilistic approach wasn’t appropriate, but I seemed to be alone in this.

At least, I felt that way. Enter: Recovering Grace.

Editor’s note: Recovering Grace is a website that was originally created as a space where people who had come out of the cult-like atmosphere of IBLP could heal and sort out their faith from the deeply damaging spiritual teachings of Bill Gothard. In 2012, RG was approached by multiple women with troubling stories of workplace sexual harassment from Gothard. The publication of these stories — which at the very least exposed an incomprehensible level of hypocrisy- resulted in more stories, finally revealing an ugly picture of elaborate, deliberate, and methodical sexual grooming and exploitation.

I can’t recall how I stumbled upon Recovering Grace, nor do I remember the names of the wonderful people there who ministered to me. But I do remember the way they made me feel. Like I was being looked after and mentored by people who truly cared about doing the right thing in the right way in the face of the abuse they endured.

As I heard their stories of sexual and spiritual abuse, I was amazed at how maturely they handled themselves. They weren’t acting out of bitterness or hatred; they wanted to help other victims. They wanted to settle things through the appropriate legal channels. They worked diligently towards that goal. I watched them strive to be professional, to be Biblically correct in their words and actions. All the while, they were facing down their painful pasts and uncertain futures.

During Larry Nassar’s court case I watched Rachael Denhollander’s victim statement and was reminded of these brave women who came forward at Recovering Grace. They have displayed respect and restraint that I find rare when confronting abuse in our culture. While I don’t think this is something that should be demanded of victims, I do think is something that should draw our respect. It is their example that led me on the recovery journey that I went down. Last night, upon discovering that their court case against Gothard was at an end, I wept. I know many of them have been working towards that goal for years, with husbands and children to tend to in addition to that. I cannot imagine how they must feel, especially as public reaction pours in.

I spent some time in mourning and prayer, and it led me to contemplate how their ministry had shaped my own life. Perhaps it is by divine design then, that today, in my Facebook “On This Day,” I was shown an article at Recovering Grace that I shared many years ago. In that article, I see the foundation being laid for what I stand for and who I became after the abuse I endured.

Excerpt:

. . . it is also normal for us to look back over our lives with the grief question, “Who am I now?” Now that this has been revealed, who am I? Am I a phony? Is so much of my life a waste? Am I a fool? Do I have to abandon everything I learned, disavow everything that came during those years? What of my identity is left? The wonderful truth is that our identity is safe in our relationship with Jesus. The very life within us is His. We are in Him and He is in us. He is our hope, our joy, our righteousness, our strength, and our peace. We are inseparable from Him. We are who we are because He is who He is. That means we are not identified by what we do, or what groups we belong to, or where we live, or what we have. Nor are we identified by the things of our past — what we used to believe, or what we did, or who we followed. Today we belong to Jesus and our identity is in Him.
It is a difficult thing for me to comprehend that justice in this life has evaded these women. It angers and saddens me, more than words can say. But their efforts have not been for nothing.

They have helped so many others to be brave, to speak out, and to keep their faith. In this time where many of us are mourning with and for the hurting, wondering: “Where we go from here?” — let all of us look to Christ. Let us look to our identity in Him and to His mercy . . . but also His justice. He suffered the ultimate injustice, dying a perfect, sinless man. Let us take comfort in the fact that He, of all people, understands what is in our hearts and minds in the wake of this news.

He knows the truth. We are not alone. We are in Him.

Rachel Darnall

Bill Gothard was a name that I knew very early on in life. Even though our family got out of IBLP when I was still a child, his name, his teachings, and his influence were somehow always on the periphery of my upbringing.

He was presented to me as an imperfect teacher — eccentric perhaps, tending to the extreme, maybe — but one who was willing to say a lot of things that no one else “had the guts” to say. Things about authority and obedience. Things about modesty and purity. Things about the family and the blessings of children. He brought a message of discipline to a world drowning in excess. He brought clarity to a world of chaos.

Part of the appeal of his teachings was its simplicity. The concept of authority, for example, was distilled down to a quaint, black-and-white illustration: the umbrella of protection.

“As long as you are under God-given authority, nothing can happen to you that God does not design for your ultimate good.” — Bill Gothard, Advanced Seminar Textbook, page 297

Earthly trouble, then, should be understood as either a trial sent directly by God for one’s good, or an indication that you had “stepped out from under the umbrella” — exposing yourself to the evil of the world, and to God’s punishment rather than his protection.

Coming on the heels of second-wave feminism and the sexual revolution, this was obviously a controversial message — but that was part of the appeal. Who else was willing to say this? He was a lone prophet in a wilderness of religious compromise.

I think I was 4 when my sister was asked — at Bill’s special request — to go work at the IBLP headquarters in Oak Brook, Illinois. I remember that she once took me there for a special “sister trip” and I got to meet all the girls that she lived with in the dormitories (IBLP staff lived on campus and rarely had reason to leave). When, not long after, she left her job at Headquarters and came back home, she explained that she was “needed in the family right now.” She never went back. Soon after, she met her future husband and got married. Anytime she talked about her experiences at Headquarters, she dwelt mostly on the treasured friendships that she had made there. I never heard her speak resentfully about Bill . . . in fact I don’t recall that she talked much about him at all.

But my family began to have less and less to do with IBLP, although much of the literature, like the Wisdom Booklets, Character Study books and homeschool curricula continued to be used in our education. My parents sought to keep what they felt was good while rejecting some of the more extreme elements of Gothard’s teaching. There was never a complete break . . . but there was a gradual drifting away without outright rejection.

Unlike many homeschool families who ostracized themselves in rural communities and “home churches,” my family lived in the suburbs and attended a fairly mainstream — even liberal — church. As my other siblings and I got older we began to find the whole “ATI thing” (ATI, or “Advanced Training Institute” was an arm of IBLP) a bit silly. When my parents weren’t around we poked fun at the ridiculous rules about dress and “courtship” standards and the curriculum’s convoluted attempts to combine grammar rules with “Biblical principles.” Bless our innocent hearts, we were removed enough from the dark realities of Gothard’s “umbrella” that we could laugh about it. But in the back of my teenage mind I was always afraid that maybe Gothard’s god was the real one after all — and if he was, I knew I was not offering to him the sacrifices that he demanded. Deep down, I feared that my revulsion at his view of God was only because of my rebellious heart.

In 2012 I was in my early twenties, and living on my own across the country from my family when I got a call from one of my brothers.

“Have you seen this Gothard stuff coming out?”

“What Gothard stuff?”

I went on to Recovering Grace’s website and for the next few days I watched story after story come out about Gothard’s repeated sexual abuse of his young, female staff. And the pit in my stomach grew harder, because the “Gothard type” — youthful, innocent-looking ingenues with long, soft curls — sounded exactly like my sister. It wasn’t long before I found out what I had never known growing up: my sister didn’t leave because Gothard thought she needed to be home with her family. She left because she had objected when he tried to grope her during a long plane flight. The Gothard grooming process — exacting, specific demands about her dress and hairstyle, tearing down her self-image with suggestions about how she could improve her appearance, over-familiar touching (prior to his groping attempt) and a god-like command of her time (there was no such thing as office hours at IBLP — all hours were office hours if Gothard said so) — was well underway, but he had over-played his hand. When she finally expressed discomfort, Gothard assured her that she “misinterpreted” his actions, and that his interest in her was mere fatherly affection. He tried to put it back on her, reminding her that men could adjust their conduct if women would just give them the right signals. She wanted to believe him, but couldn’t. She wasn’t that brainwashed — yet. She was one of the lucky ones.

Like so many other girls, my sister thought for years that she was the only one; that that brief touch on the plane was an isolated moment of weakness. She was reluctant to tell anyone about it because she didn’t want to harm him unnecessarily, and she was embarrassed by the whole experience too. Never did she imagine that a man who had made his entire life’s work telling people how — exactly how — to be righteous before God, could be capable of such diabolical, premeditated sin.

As for me, things began to fall into place: why Gothard was so very interested in authority, power, control. Why he talked endlessly about the responsibility of the least powerful to submit to authority, but failed to lift a finger to hold the most powerful accountable for the grossest of sins.

Gothard painted his “umbrella” as a place of security, a safe harbor for Christians adrift in a sea of worldliness and sin. But I began to see that his “umbrellas” were not about protecting the people under them; they were about making the least powerful, most vulnerable people in the system carry the weight of not only their own sin, but the sins of those above them as well. And the weight at the bottom was crushing indeed. If it was a haven, it was a haven for wolves, not sheep.

Mercifully, my siblings and I had loving parents who did truly want what was best for us, and were under no temptation to use the Gothard system to have all the pleasures of cruelty and perversion along with the pleasures of self-righteousness and outward respectability — but we were lucky where so many were not. And even though I myself never experienced the kind of abuse that routinely went unchecked in IBLP circles, what has touched me is the inevitable damage of poor doctrine that was laid by a depraved man for his own, depraved purposes, and the long process of sorting out my faith from his propaganda. I, like Rebecca spoke about, have also had to ask the question, “Who am I now?” — and even more frighteningly, “Who is God now?”

Jesus calls himself the Good Shepherd, but there is another type of shepherd that the Bible talks about — shepherds who come to plunder and destroy; wolves who use their position of power to glut themselves off of the weak. They build their empires on fear, but they themselves have no fear of God.

I am dismayed that the victims of Bill Gothard are having civic justice denied them, but this I know: there is another justice, and it is a perfect, righteous, terrible justice.

Jeremiah 23:1–2 warns:

“Woe to the shepherds who destroy and scatter the sheep of my pasture!” declares the LORD. Therefore thus says the LORD, the God of Israel, concerning the shepherds who care for my people: “You have scattered my flock and have driven them away, and you have not attended to them. Behold, I will attend to you for your evil deeds.” (emph mine)

Justice has not been thwarted. It is but delayed.

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