Hundreds of Pictures of Women, Abuse, and Rape Allegation
His ministry, preparing to downsize in the wake of a new investigation, expresses regret for “misplaced trust” in a leader who used his esteem to conceal his sexual misconduct.
DANIEL SILLIMAN AND KATE SHELLNUTT| Christianity Today
Image: Illustration by Mallory Rentsch / Source Image: Courtesy of RZIM
Afour-month investigation found the late Ravi Zacharias leveraged his reputation as a world-famous Christian apologist to abuse massage therapists in the United States and abroad over more than a decade while the ministry led by his family members and loyal allies failed to hold him accountable.
He used his need for massage and frequent overseas travel to hide his abusive behavior, luring victims by building trust through spiritual conversations and offering funds straight from his ministry.
A 12-page report released Thursday by Ravi Zacharias International Ministries (RZIM) confirms abuse by Zacharias at day spas he owned in Atlanta and uncovers five additional victims in the US, as well as evidence of sexual abuse in Thailand, India, and Malaysia.
Even a limited review of Zacharias’s old devices revealed contacts for more than 200 massage therapists in the US and Asia and hundreds of images of young women, including some that showed the women naked. Zacharias solicited and received photos until a few months before his death in May 2020 at age 74.
Zacharias used tens of thousands of dollars of ministry funds dedicated to a “humanitarian effort” to pay four massage therapists, providing them housing, schooling, and monthly support for extended periods of time, according to investigators.
One woman told the investigators that “after he arranged for the ministry to provide her with financial support, he required sex from her.” She called it rape.
She said Zacharias “made her pray with him to thank God for the ‘opportunity’ they both received” and, as with other victims, “called her his ‘reward’ for living a life of service to God,” the report says. Zacharias warned the woman—a fellow believer—if she ever spoke out against him, she would be responsible for millions of souls lost when his reputation was damaged.
The findings, alongside details revealed over months of internal reckoning at RZIM, challenge the picture many have had of Zacharias.
When he died in May, he was praised for his faithful witness, his commitment to the truth, and his personal integrity. Now it is clear that, offstage, the man so long admired by Christians around the world abused numerous women and manipulated those around him to turn a blind eye.
Miller & Martin attorneys Lynsey Barron and William Eiselstein, hired by RZIM to investigate, interviewed 50 witnesses and examined phones Zacharias used from 2014 to 2018. In the end, the lawyers said “we are confident that we uncovered sufficient evidence to conclude that Mr. Zacharias engaged in sexual misconduct,” though the investigation was not exhaustive.
The RZIM board released a statement alongside the investigation expressing regret and taking some responsibility:
“Ravi engaged in a series of extensive measures to conceal his behavior from his family, colleagues, and friends. However, we also recognize that in situations of prolonged abuse, there often exist significant structural, policy, and cultural problems. … We were trusted by our staff, our donors, and the public to mentor, oversee, and ensure the accountability of Ravi Zacharias, and in this we have failed.”
RZIM hired Miller & Martin after a September 2020 Christianity Today report on allegations of abuse by three women who worked at Zacharias’s spas. Initially, the ministry leadership stated it did not believe the women. Today that has changed.
“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 statement said.
In a span of eight months, RZIM has gone from having to reimagine the work of its global ministry following the death of its renowned namesake to having to restructure entirely, as Christians inside and outside the organization lost trust in its longtime leader.
Multiple speakers and RZIM staff members left the ministry during the course of the investigation, concerned about top officials’ initial response to the allegations. RZIM’s Canadian branch suspended fundraising efforts and donation collection through April, while the UK-based Zacharias Trust is threatening to split if RZIM does not apologize to victims and institute major reforms. (Update: The day after the report was released the UK board voted unanimously to separate from RZIM and choose a new name.)
Even before the report’s release on Thursday evening, RZIM leadership had shifted to reduce the involvement of the Zacharias family. Margie Zacharias, Ravi’s widow, resigned from the board and the ministry in January, while her daughter Sarah Davis stepped down as board chair but remains CEO.
Staff members inside RZIM say the ministry—the largest apologetics organization in the world—plans to dramatically downsize to as few as 10 US apologists and a few international speakers, supported by a small staff.
Investigation limited by NDA
In addition to confirming previous reports of abuse at Zacharias’s spas, the new report corroborated four-year-old allegations by Lori Anne Thompson, the Canadian woman who says Zacharias manipulated her into sending him sexually explicit texts and photos. Her case was the first sexual scandal related to Zacharias to go public, and it inspired other victims to come forward.
Zacharias had sued Thompson in 2017, claiming that her lawyer’s letter to the RZIM board alleging sexual abuse was actually an elaborate attempt at extortion. The board wrote on Thursday that “we believe Lori Anne Thompson has told the truth about the nature of her relationship with Ravi Zacharias.”
Investigators interviewed other witnesses who “recounted similar conduct” as Thompson’s allegations and found a six-year-long pattern of text messaging with other women before and after her.
Yet Thompson and her husband, Brad, were unable to participate in the recent investigation themselves. The late apologist’s estate refused investigators’ requests to lift a nondisclosure agreement (NDA) to allow the Thompsons to speak about what happened. Their attorney, Basyle Tchividjian, told investigators that with everything that has come to light, the fact that the Thompsons are still bound by an NDA is “reprehensible.”
Davis wrote in a ministry-wide email that RZIM “asked for a modification to the NDA for the purpose of the investigation,” but the organization has no authority over the estate, which is controlled by her mother, Margie Zacharias. The estate also refused to have Zacharias’s personal attorneys hand over any evidence collected from his devices at the time, leaving a gap in the record examined by Miller & Martin.
According to the investigative report, however, Zacharias continued soliciting sexual images of women as he settled the case with the Thompsons, defended himself publicly, and assured the RZIM leadership and staff he did nothing wrong and there was no need to investigate.
“While he told his staff that his real mistake in the Thompson matter was not alerting someone that he was receiving photographs of another woman, we have no indication that he ever went to RZIM management or its Board on the more than 200 occasions he received photographs of women during and after the Thompson matter,” the report says.
In fact, one day after Zacharias publicly stated in 2017 that he had learned a “difficult and painful lesson” over his communication with Lori Anne Thompson, he received more photographs from another woman, investigators found. That woman went on to send him nude pictures as well.
One thing did change, though. After the Thompson case, the investigators noticed that Zacharias did a better job of deleting his messages in ways that could not be detected or uncovered.
In its statement released with the report, the RZIM board acknowledged the failure and apologized to Lori Anne Thompson.
“We were wrong,” the statement says. “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. This leaves us heartbroken and ashamed.”
‘He was able to hide his misconduct in plain sight’
Much of the abuse uncovered by investigators took place around massage, which Zacharias relied on to treat a chronic back injury. He regularly traveled with a personal masseuse and criticized a fellow RZIM staff member who questioned the “appearance of impropriety” for doing so.
While the report did not interview sources abroad, investigators uncovered evidence that Zacharias routinely met massage therapists when he traveled.
“He would often arrange for massage treatments in his hotel room when he was likely alone,” the report said. “According to his text messages, at times he would meet the therapists in the hotel lobby and at other times he would direct them to come straight to his room.”
In Bangkok, he owned two apartments in the early 2010s, sharing a building with one of his massage therapists, the investigators found. The notes app on his phone included Thai and Mandarin translations of phrases like “I’d like to have a beautiful memory with you,” “little bit further,” and “your lips are especially beautiful.”
The massage therapists and the women pictured in Zacharias’s phone albums were decades younger than him, many in their 20s.
The investigation did not find any evidence that RZIM leadership or staff knew about Zacharias’s sexual misconduct. It also shows the ministry provided little to no accountability for its namesake and founder.
“Because his need for massage treatments was well known and accepted, he was able to hide his misconduct in plain sight,” the report says.
Zacharias spoke about the importance of “physical safeguards” to “protect my integrity,” but the Miller & Martin report notes that “As the architect of those ‘physical safeguards,’ Mr. Zacharias well knew how to elude them.”
The investigation confirmed that Zacharias lied about not being alone with a woman other than his wife or daughters. He also maintained multiple phones at all times, kept them on a different wireless plan than RZIM, and never used the wireless network at the office. Zacharias said this was for security, but it ensured his communication could not be monitored.
The RZIM board’s statement acknowledges that it has “fallen gravely short” and expresses regret “that we allowed our misplaced trust in Ravi to result in him having less oversight and accountability than would have been wise and loving.”
Each example in the report contrasts with the public witness of a leader—and a ministry—known for preaching integrity and truth.
“Those of you who have seen me in public have no idea what I’m like in private,” Zacharias told his supporters in a talk he gave about a year before he died, in a recording shared with CT. “God does. God does. And I encourage you today to make that commitment and say, ‘I’m going to be the man in private who will receive the divine accolade, “Well done, thou good and faithful servant.’”
Many who looked up to Zacharias as a mentor, model, and spiritual father have been trying to grapple with the new information, their feelings of betrayal, and questions about their own responsibility.
“I feel disappointed in myself and others who could have pushed harder against the tides of submissive loyalty to demand better answers earlier, as there is no part of the evangelical creed that honours cowardice or sacrifices conscience,” Dan Paterson, the former head of RZIM in Australia, wrote on Facebook Wednesday night.
“I feel a profound sense of the fear of the Lord, knowing that one day I too will give an account, where like the RZ report, everything done under the shroud of darkness will be made known. Jesus comes to restore justice through judgment. Oh, how I wish Ravi repented here!”
Changes coming to RZIM
The board (whose names are not publicly available) and leadership have been planning for a reckoning since investigators’ interim report in December prepared RZIM to expect the worst.
Going into the process in September 2020, the ministry’s official stance was that the allegations couldn’t be true but that it would conduct an investigation to clear Zacharias’s name. At first, RZIM hired the firm of one of the lawyers who sued the Thompsons. Several people inside the ministry said vice president Abdu Murray suggested enlisting a “rough” ex-cop to track down the accusers and uncover information the ministry could use to discredit them.
RZIM changed course and hired Miller & Martin in early October, after several speakers said they found the allegations credible and demanded the ministry do a real and reputable investigation.
“I believe each of us bear a degree of responsibility for what we’ve all been blind to, what we’ve unwittingly enabled, what we’ve not spoken against, and what we’ve allowed to go on and continue,” Sam Allberry, one of the speakers, told colleagues in the UK.
As CT previously reported, fights over complicity and accountability roiled the ministry for months as the investigation continued. At the start of the new year, RZIM was bracing for a split.
Davis informed staff that some global offices may decide to separate from RZIM and become independent, national organizations. Currently, each office has its own articles of incorporation or national charter as a charity and is associated with the US-based ministry through an “affiliate agreement.” This has allowed RZIM to function as a single global ministry.
“We have been able to operate as one organization in practice for over 35 years, however, in a time of crisis such as ours, this has caused some of our boards to need to exercise decisions separate from the HQ and International Board in order to make what they feel are the best decisions for their entity,” Davis wrote.
Some senior apologists in RZIM think national separation is the only way to preserve parts of the ministry that are doing good work.
John Lennox, a Northern Irish mathematician and apologist who famously debated Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, and other “new atheists,” has urged the UK branch of RZIM to separate. Lennox withdrew from all association with RZIM the day after CT reported the spa allegations, but told British apologists he would happily work with them if they were to form an independent organization.
“The current allegations are of such a serious nature that I cannot be involved in any ongoing activity in the name of RZIM,” Lennox wrote in a statement to the UK and US boards. “In my view, a renaming of the organisation and fundamental restructuring of the organisation and board needs to be done and done very quickly, if the potential of the marvelous young team of apologists is to be retained in any collective sense.”
Other national boards are also in the process of disentangling themselves from the US headquarters, according to multiple sources inside the ministry. The Canadian board said in a statement that “It is clear that this ministry cannot be built on previous structures” but “must be built on new approaches and relationships.”
The Canadian apologetics ministry also laid off four team members, including Daniel Gilman, a speaker who decided he believed the women who accused Zacharias of sexual abuse and vocally challenged RZIM leadership to acknowledge complicity. Gilman told CT he was deeply concerned the ministry he loved would choose to rebrand but not repent.
Gilman’s severance package included an NDA, which would bar him from “any action that could reasonably be anticipated to cause harm to the reputation” of or “negatively reflect” on RZIM. Gilman protested and the NDA was replaced with an agreement to keep donor information confidential.
Many more layoffs are expected soon. RZIM employees told CT that they expect the international ministry, which once boasted 100 speakers and 250 staff members nationwide, will be reduced to a fraction of that. Davis told staff that layoffs will be announced in the weeks after the Miller & Martin report is released.
“This is a very difficult decision necessary only because of the situation we find ourselves in,” she wrote. “We are profoundly sorry for this.”
After the staff reductions and national splits, the team that remains will likely be some of the speakers who were closest to Zacharias and have well-established relationships with major donors. People inside RZIM expect the core to include speakers Michael Ramsden, Abdu Murray, and Vince Vitale, led by Davis.
Davis stepped down as chair of the board, handing the reins over to Chris Blattner, a retired energy company executive and major donor from Minnesota. During the crisis, however, Davis has taken on more of the day-to-day management of RZIM, personally putting her name to all internal and external communication.
The RZIM board stated Thursday that “In light of the findings of the investigation and the ongoing evaluation, we are seeking the Lord’s will regarding the future of this ministry … We will be spending focused time praying and fasting as we discern how God is leading, and we will speak to this in the near future.”
RZIM announced it is bringing in victims advocate Rachael Denhollander to educate the board and leadership on sexual abuse and advise them on best practices going forward. The ministry has also hired a management consulting firm to evaluate “structures, culture, policies, processes, finances, and practices” and propose reforms.
The secret of Zacharias’s abuse started to unravel the day of his funeral in May 2020.
One of the massage therapists he groped, masturbated in front of, and asked for sexually explicit images watched in shock as the apologist was honored and celebrated on a livestream.
Famous people, including Vice President Mike Pence and Christian football star Tim Tebow, spoke of Zacharias in glowing terms.
Has no one come forward? she thought. No one?
She worried about other women who might be out there, hurting. She prayed that something would happen.
The woman googled “Ravi Zacharias sex scandal” and found the blog RaviWatch, run by Steve Baughman, an atheist who had been tracking and reporting on Zacharias’s “fishy claims” since 2015. Baughman blogged on Zacharias’s false statements about academic credentials, the sexting allegations, and the subsequent lawsuit.
When the woman read about what happened to Lori Anne Thompson, she recognized what had happened to that woman was what had happened to her.
As far as she could tell, this atheist blogger was the only one who cared that Zacharias had sexually abused people and gotten away with it. She reached out to Baughman and then eventually spoke to Christianity Today about Zacharias’s spas, the women who worked there, and the abuse that happened behind closed doors.
The woman from the spas told CT she didn’t expect anything from RZIM. Not an acknowledgement. Certainly not an apology. A multimillion-dollar ministry built in one man’s name and on his reputation would never admit the truth of his secrets, she thought.
She only spoke out because she wanted other women—women hurt by Zacharias, and women victimized by other famous and celebrated Christians—to know the truth. She wanted them to know that they weren’t alone.
This week, she believes God answered her prayer.
“I think it happened in God’s perfect time,” she said. “It’s in his time; it’s in his way. The Lord is doing this, and what will be left over is what God wants to be left over.”
Author Lee Strobel also plans to revise his “Case for Faith” to remove the late apologist. KATE SHELLNUTT
Comments from this Blog Editor:
Whenever these stories on immorality and infamy come to light it should bring a dose of humility and reality to all of us. Ravi is not the first and he certainly won’t be the last e.g. Carl Lentz.
As the scripture says
“Let him who thinks he stands, take heed, lest he fall” — 1 Cor 10:12
12Therefore let him who thinks he stands take heed lest he fall. 13No temptation has overtaken you except such as is common to man; but God is faithful, who will not allow you to be tempted beyond what you are able, but with the temptation will also make the way of escape, that you may be able to [d]bear it.
Flee from Idolatry
14Therefore, my beloved, flee from idolatry. 15I speak as to wise men; judge for yourselves what I say. 16The cup of blessing which we bless, is it not the [e]communion of the blood of Christ? The bread which we break, is it not the communion of the body of Christ? 17For we, though many, are one bread and one body; for we all partake of that one bread.
However there are a number of other lessons to learn here:
1- The deceitfulness of sin (Heb 3:13)
2 – The desperate wickedness of the human heart (Jer 17:9)
3 – Idolatry and the unwillingness to yield fully to God in all areas of our life
4 – The lies that go along with the sin (1 Jn 1:10)
5 – The ability to be lovers of pleasure rather (more) than the lovers of God (2 Tim 3:4)
6 – The modern idea that God is gracious and over looks sin. (Rom 2:4)
A W Tozer wrote;
Many evangelical teachers insist so strongly upon free, unconditional grace as to create the impression that sin is not a serious matter and that God cares very little about it!
They make it seem that God is only concerned with our escaping the consequences. The gospel, then, in practical application, means little more than a way to escape the fruits of our past! But the heart that has felt the weight of its own sin and has seen the dread whiteness of the Most High God will never believe that a message of forgiveness without transformation is a message of good news.
To remit a man’s past without transforming his present is to violate the moral sincerity of his own heart. To that kind of thing God will be no party! For to offer a sinner the gift of salvation based upon the work of Christ, while at the same time allowing him to retain the idea that the gift carries with it no moral implications, is to do him untold injury where it hurts him most!