Bill Gothard has been a big name in the Christian homeschooling movement since its very inception. Gothard runs the Advanced Training Institute (ATI) and the Institute for Basic Life Principles (IBLP), puts on family life seminars, and produces curriculum and “wisdom booklets” used by Christian homeschooling families across the country, including the Duggars (Bill Gothard himself spoke at Josh Duggar’s sister-in-law’s wedding, which was featured on the Duggars’ television show). Gothard’s influence in the Christian homeschooling world likely eclipses that enjoyed until recently by Doug Phillips, and certainly eclipses that of the Pearls or Botkins.
While my own parents were not strict Gothard followers and were more influenced by other leaders, they did adopt some of the ideas he taught (umbrella of authority, anyone?). Further, I was in an all-girls Gothard Bible study for a time (COMMIT), and several families I was close to were Gothard followers.
Bill Gothard never married. In the years that I’ve been blogging, I’ve heard more than a few people comment on this. How odd that someone who makes his living off of preaching about godly family life never married! It’s not like there would have been a shortage of picture-perfect Christian women who would have been honored to marry him, after all. Well, the reason Gothard never married is starting to come to light—and it’s very, very ugly.
I’ve been following Recovering Grace, a group focused on correcting the errors of Bill Gothard’s teachings and exposing problems in his ministry, since they launched several years ago, and I soon noticed a pattern in some of the posts. It seems Gothard has displayed some weirdly improper behavior, and even harassment, toward some of the many teenage girls who staffed his ministries and offices, often working as volunteer interns and often coming at his personal invitation. It was very common among Gothard followers for parents to send their teen and twenty-something daughters to work for Gothard, and remains so today—one of the girls from the Gothard Bible study I attended as a girl is actually currently at headquarters, working for Gothard.
Many questions have run through my mind as I have read these stories of impropriety on Recovering Grace. One question is how these things could go on without anyone noticing. But as I’ve read, I’ve noticed another pattern—Gothard’s followers were so sotted with hero worship that they refused to see. In story after story, graduates of Gothard’s programs have said they thought it odd that Gothard would spend so many hours alone with teenage girls, behind closed doors, but he was Gothard—and Gothard could do no wrong.
But things have now turned a corner. Recovering Grace has put up a new post, this one pulling together the threads and providing background information, not only about Gothard’s recent past but also about his distant past—a past many of his followers have been unaware of for the past three decades.
Today we would like to prayerfully share with you some important information about what is going to be happening on our website over the next few months.
When we launched our website in July of 2011, we did so with the express mission of helping people whose lives have been impacted by the teachings of Bill Gothard through the Institute in Basic Life Principles (IBLP) seminars and the Advanced Training Institute (ATI) homeschool program. We have attempted to fulfill that mission through regularly posted articles primarily written by former students of ATI—articles that have covered a wide variety of issues such as theological discussions of IBLP teachings, personal stories of discovering grace, and bringing to light some of the darker aspects of working at an IBLP Training Center. What we truthfully did not realize at the time of our launch was the strong undercurrent of depravity displayed for decades at the highest levels of IBLP leadership. Our thought at the time was that the most viscerally damaging effects of Gothardism were spiritual, and that Bill Gothard’s worst flaws were theological and hermeneutical. As such, most of our attention for the first year of our website was focused on these areas.
In early 2012, this all changed for us when a young lady shared with us her experiences working for Bill Gothard at Headquarters. While it has long been widely known by anyone who worked there that Bill had his favorites, this young lady opened our eyes to what being a “favorite” meant: unwanted and unwarranted emotional and physical attention from a man in a position of authority to young women who could not refuse it. In other words, it was textbook sexual harassment.
So, on April 20, 2012, we published Lizzie’s story. And as soon as we did, we discovered that we had opened Pandora’s box. The emails and comments poured in like a flood, and we knew that we had stumbled across something bigger than we could have ever anticipated. A few weeks later, we published Annette’s story; a year later, Grace’s. Over the past two weeks, Meg has shared with us her very painful personal journey. And, later this week, we will share yet another account.
Since the time that Lizzie’s story was published, we have identified by name at least 34 different women who have experienced the same harassment, and we have sufficient evidence to believe that there are dozens more. We have had men and women who served in IBLP leadership confirm that the allegations are true, although they felt (and often were) powerless to do anything at the time. In fact, we have learned that the IBLP Board of Directors has on more than one occasion addressed this behavior with Bill Gothard, but to no lasting avail.
. . .
Meanwhile, our team continued to receive emails and collect information that confirmed to us that these problems were not limited to the ATI era (1984–present) of Bill Gothard’s ministry. We learned that this type of behavior was commonplace in the early years of the Institute ministry, culminating in a public “scandal” that led to Bill Gothard’s forced resignation from the ministry in 1980, only to see him forcefully return to power shortly thereafter, decimating the financial and spiritual lives of dozens of Institute staff members in the process. The ministry nearly came to an end at that point, but Bill was able to revive it with a new group of leaders who were willing to overlook what had taken place. A few short years later, in 1984, the Advanced Training Institute of America homeschool program was created, and with it came a new generation of willing laborers … and young victims.
As our database of troubling information has grown, our team has struggled over what to do with what we know. We have always tried to demonstrate a grace-based approach to our work and ministry, even towards the one man we believe to be the originator of the greatest damage. However, we also know that God desires both justice and mercy, and that grace does not preclude justice or truth. Every time we hear of another young person struggling with their faith in God, or dealing with chronic health issues because of physical mistreatment and exhaustion while working at a training center, or fighting depression and confusion because they were sexually harassed by Bill Gothard, an inescapable question confronts us: What can we do with this information to ensure that the abuse does not continue to happen?
. . . the Recovering Grace team has decided that over the next couple of months we are going to release a large volume of information concerning the life and ministry of Bill Gothard. This information will come in the form of personal accounts, never-before-published documents and correspondence, and factual reports of events that were swept under the rug years ago. Additionally, many of the coming articles will clearly show how individuals attempted to reconcile with Bill Gothard and/or follow the Matthew 18 process but were met with persistent refusal to acknowledge the issues, distortion of the truth, and a resistance to follow biblical steps towards humble repentance.
Then, today, came Charlotte’s story. Her story was the first that moved beyond grooming accompanied by uncomfortable and unwanted hand holding, caressing, and footsie. Her allegations are so serious that the Recovering Grace team felt the need to publish the confessions of two witnesses backing up her story. You can read Charlotte’s story yourself, but I do want to post an excerpt:
We went to a conference in Knoxville in July of 1992. That’s where I first met Bill Gothard. I remember he wouldn’t let go of my hand, and he kept telling my parents how sweet, beautiful, and pure I was. I was in awe as I listened to the man whom I had been told was responsible for me being alive tell my parents that he wanted me to come to Headquarters. Me? The youngest of seven children, a preacher’s daughter? What did I have to offer him, this man whom my mother almost worshiped and my father would preach about in his sermons? That was during the first week of July. By mid-August I was at IBLP Headquarters by his request. I was put on payroll right away. I was 16 years old.
. . .
He wanted me around him as much as possible, wanted me to be with him as much as he could get me. I started meeting with him in his office in the morning, every morning. He would pick me up in his blue classic car by 5:30 a.m. for prayer and Bible study. There were others there, but they would leave, and he’d keep me with him to “talk.” It started out with him telling me how beautiful I was, how I inspired him, and how I made him feel alive. It went to hand-holding, then long hugs. He would touch me and hug me after devotions and then take me to the eight o’clock staff meeting session. His assistant would drive us to the staff meeting.
. . .
Bill would have me accompany him in his car to the airport, and be there to pick him up when he got back from trips. He insisted that I go on the first IBLP trip to Australia that October and paid for me to go. We were all so busy on the trip, I didn’t see much of him. When we got back from Australia he added counseling after-hours, at night.
We would meet after dinner in his office around 7 or 8 p.m. That’s when he started really touching me. I am curvy, and he loved my breasts. He gave me cash and told me to buy bras that pushed me up more; he wanted me to always wear them when I was around him. He never wanted me to show him, though. He just liked to touch over the clothing. He would drive me home so I wouldn’t walk alone to my house in the dark. He would hold my hand and rub my leg and tell me not to tell anyone about what we did in his car.
I was getting a lot of heat from my housemates. I was known as Bill’s “pet.” I loved the attention, but I felt dirty. But a part of me thought this was how I was to treat “godly” men. After all, my father had trained me well. I was turned on by Bill, but I also felt terribly guilty.
I went home at the end of October for a week, and Bill called and talked to me daily. I told my mom about what was happening, and she told me I was lying. Bill arranged my flight back to O’Hare so we could ride back to Headquarters in the car together. That’s when he first put his hand between my legs and felt me all the way up.
There were rumors going around about Bill and me. My brother started hearing things and asked me about it. Of course I denied everything. Bill had sworn me to silence with both guilt and fear. I was the one who was at fault because I was tempting him. If I told anyone, the future of the entire ministry could be compromised. Why would I want to hinder God’s work? He told me that this was our little secret, just between us. If I told anyone, he said he would kick my family out of ATI.
There was enough of a stir about how much time I was spending alone with Bill that my brother went to a higher-up in January and had him try to get Bill to send me home. As I understand it, the IBLP Board called Bill on the carpet for spending so much time alone with a young girl, and I was sent home in January. I believe my brother saved me.
When Bill knew I was being sent home, he called me into his office. He took me in his arms and ran his fingers through my hair. Hugging me tight, he told me never to cut my hair, that I was his inspiration. He then kissed me deeply on the lips and told me never to forget him. Then I was picked up and put on a plane, and I have never heard from him since.
My parents blackballed me and thought I was the devil because I was sent home from Headquarters. I was a shame to the family for being sent home. I really went on a tailspin after that. I tried to take my life a number of times. . . .
I am sure the statute of limitations has passed for a lot of this, and I don’t know whether Gothard can be taken down legally. I’m sure the Recovering Grace team is looking into it. Regardless, I would like to hope that Gothard will be increasingly seen as the sexual predator he is, and that this will dethrone him from his prominent position in the Christian homeschooling world. I’m increasingly seeing the Christian homeschooling culture as an unsafe place for girls and young women. I wonder about my childhood friend and her work at headquarters, and I worry for the girls Gothard continues to surround himself with even today. And when I remember that Bill Gothard had successfully weathered a sexual abuse scandal even before I was born, I despair of things changing.
At least now we know why Gothard never married.