Do you know how Bill Gothard was brought down?
By a blog.
Sexual harassment allegations had been made against Gothard for decades—yes, decades—but he was very good at silencing them, and at convincing his associates that he was blameless. Then a couple of years ago a variety of young adults who were raised in Bill Gothard’s ministry came together to create a blog: Recovering Grace. They used this blog as a forum to criticize Gothard’s teachings and practices, and to discuss the harm these things had done in their lives. But then came the allegations of sexual harassment, which took the Recovering Grace team by surprise, and yet rang true.
And so, Recovering Grace became a place for Bill Gothard’s young female victims to share stories of sexual harassment at his hands, generally under pseudonyms. The Recovering Grace team did what they could to verify these stories, but they were neither lawyers nor mental health professionals. They were simply ordinary people willing to finally listen to these women’s stories and do what was necessary to hold Bill Gothard accountable for his abuse.
Bill Gothard resigned from IBLP because Recovering Grace—a simple blog—finally drew enough attention to his abuse to convince people to listen. And so Gothard lost control of the narrative he had controlled for so long.
Could Gothard’s victims have perused legal action at the time the abuse occurred? Well sure, but what evidence did they have? Who would support them? And besides, pursuing legal action would likely mean being sanctioned by their families—and without the others’ stories, they thought themselves alone, and Gothard himself convinced many them to question their own senses and judgement of what had happened. It was only when the internet—and a blog—brought them together that Gothard’s victims became to see the patterns and commonalities in his abuse.
Could Gothard’s victims go to the police today, and pursue legal action? Some of them could, perhaps, but for many of them the statute of limitations has passed. And those who still could pursue legal action are faced with the prospect of pursuing a case based on very little evidence—a case against a wealthy and powerful man, no less. Doing this would involve reopening old wounds and and resurrecting painful memories. And besides, the things Gothard did are hard to prosecute legally. None of Gothard’s victims allege rape. instead, they allege subtle and longstanding harassment and emotional manipulation that often looked like no more than sitting side by side on a couch, with thighs touching, and constant attempts at footsie.
Is it any wonder that none of them, to my knowledge, have attempted such a lawsuit?
Counselors can help, and in many cases have, but this is personal and private. Victim support groups are likewise personal and private. How, besides legal action, should one to make public allegations of abuse? How is one to prevent future abuse? How is one to take down a prominent and even adored man who has privately abused young women in his employ for decades? How is one to warn people against trusting this man with their own daughters?
A blog. That’s what did it. A simple blog.
As the allegations grew in volume, Bill Gothard stepped down temporarily so that the IBLP board could conduct a review. As they stated in their report:
In response to allegations against Bill Gothard, the Board sought the facts through a confidential and thorough review process conducted by outside legal counsel. Many people were interviewed, including former Board members, current and past staff members, current and past administrators, parents, and family members.
At this point, based upon those willing to be interviewed, no criminal activity has been discovered. If it had been, it would have been reported to the proper authorities immediately, as it will be in the future if any such activity is revealed.
The board specified that the review was conducted by someone outside of the organization, and that it was thorough and confidential. But as Recovering Grace reported, one young woman who was interviewed reported both her sexual harassment at Gothard’s hands and blatant criminal activity (violations of child labor laws). Further, the man conducting the review, David Gibbs Jr., was in fact loosely associated with IBLP and had been for decades. Finally, Gibbs did not even contact the vast majority of the women who made allegations of sexual harassment.
So much for working with an independent investigator or mediator.
I say all this because I want to draw attention to a specific section of one of Rachel Held Evans’ latest comments on the Tony Jones situation. Here is an excerpt:
As you know, I greatly value the contribution of your life experiences in the comment section of my blog, Facebook page, and Twitter. However, the public forums I’m responsible for cannot become platforms for reporting abuse or publishing private information. Local authorities, qualified counselors, and victim support groups are created for these purposes and respecting their findings and direction are of paramount importance. I continue to support utilization of those channels and oppose efforts to circumvent them.
I respect Rachel’s right to set a comment policy for her blog, and to determine what she permits on her facebook page. When I wrote about Rachel’s comment earlier, I assumed this was all she was speaking of, and interpreted “victim support groups” fairly broadly. After all, I would in some sense qualify my own blog as a “victim support group,” as it often serves that function. But a reader pointed out to me a phrase I had skimmed over in my first read through, and now I’m not certain.
Rachel mentions “local authorities, qualified counselors, and victim support groups” as the proper places for “reporting abuse and publishing private information” and says that she opposes efforts to “circumvent” these channels. I am not sure what she means by this, though in a previous comment she mentioned “trial by church” and “trial by twitter.”
Telling victims that they should not tell their stories outside of “proper” channels is a silencing technique. As we see from the above discussion of Bill Gothard’s fall, legal channels won’t always cut it, independent investigators are frequently not as independent as claimed, and therapists and support groups, while helpful to individual healing, do not by themselves bring down abusers or prevent them from preying on additional victims.
Is a blog an acceptable place for making allegations of abuse against a prominent religious leader? Some would say no. But if Gothard’s victims had not taken to a blog to tell their stories, Gothard would still be president of IBLP, leaving a slue of new victims in his wake. I for one am thankful that those at Recovering Grace chose to forgo the “proper” channels for reporting and discussing abuse allegations.