It has been nearly two years since Bill Gothard stepped down from leadership at his ministry, the Institute for Basic Life Principles (IBLP), amid a growing number of accusations that he sexually harassed and molested girls and young women in his employ. This past October, a group of individuals filed a negligence lawsuit against IBLP. This lawsuit has been amended, and Bill Gothard is now named as well.
This week, Homeschoolers Anonymous obtained the text of the lawsuit, which involves complaints made by ten women, seven named and three Jane Does. This document is over 100 pages long. In the interest of improving accessibility, I have read through the entire document and am listing a summary of each woman’s allegations below. But first, some general thoughts.
Some of the allegations listed in the document were previously published at Recovering Grace, a website run by graduates of Gothard’s programs to express criticism of Gothard and his teachings, and others are similar in content to these allegations. In sum, Bill Gothard selected girls as young as 13 from the audiences at his conferences and invited them to come work at headquarters. Once there, he groomed them sexually and molested them. It was common knowledge at IBLP that Gothard took “pets,” and yet his behavior was allowed to continue unchecked.
Other allegations included in the lawsuit are new, though not surprising. One plaintiff discloses that Gothard raped her. In addition, we learn that Gothard and his employees failed to report disclosures of physical abuse, sexual abuse, and human trafficking as required by law for organizations working with children, and that this was true not only for allegations made against Gothard but also for disclosers that involved sexual abuse carried out by other IBLP employees or by children’s parents.
In several cases Gothard responded to teenagers’ disclosures of parental abuse by calling the parents, sometimes in front of the teen, to ask whether the allegations were true. At one point he told an individual that children must obey their parents even in cases involving sexual abuse. However, when an 18-year-old girl Gothard was pursuing rebuffed him, he told her that if she were 17 he would have called social services and had her removed from her parents’ home.
We also learn more about Gothard’s grooming and the extent to which he would latch onto a specific girl as his “pet.” The plaintiffs allege that Gothard told them he loved them, that they were special to him, that they were his “energy giver,” and more. He dictated where these girls lived, what clothes they wore, how they wore their hair, and even paid for them to undergo cosmetic surgery. That all of this was taking place and was common knowledge and nothing was done attests to the abusive power cultish leaders can wield over their followers.
Also of note, the lawsuit makes it clear that Gothard continued his predatory behavior all the way up to the point he stepped down from IBLP in 2013. Two of the plaintiffs, Melody Fedoriw and Jane Doe III, describe abuse that occurred in 2011 and 2012. This is especially appalling to me, given that I had friends from growing up who worked for IBLP and at headquarters during this period and in the years immediately before it. I’ll be honest—when I first opened the document I scanned the list quickly, worried that I would see a familiar name.
For most of the women listed in the lawsuit, the statute of limitations for the sexual abuse they suffered at Gothard’s hands have passed. For this reason, the lawsuit focuses not so much on the abuse itself as on the failure of both Gothard and IBLP to handle the abuse as required by law and on the damage caused through the sham investigation conducted by the Christian Law Association (CLA) in 2014.
According to the lawsuit, Gothard himself chose the CLA to conduct IBLP’s internal investigation into the allegations of sexual misconduct. CLA is a fundamentalist Independent Baptist organization run by David Gibbs, Jr., a personal friend of Gothard’s and a frequent speaker at IBLP conferences. CLA has no staff qualified for investigating abuse allegations, and the organization failed to contact or interview the individuals named in the lawsuit, in spite of the fact that many of them had already published their allegations and that it was these allegations that had triggered the internal investigation.
The lawsuit also claims that IBLP has made moves to sell its holdings in Illinois in order to avoid being sued there, where the majority of the abuse occurred.
These women—both the plaintiffs and those who have not been in positions to come forward—deserved better. They were failed on multiple levels. My heart goes out to the ten women serving as plaintiffs on this lawsuit, and to every survivor of Gothard’s abuse who has had to put one foot in front of another day after day. One of the women, Jane Doe III, describes the personal harassment and verbal assault she faced from Gothard after publishing her accusations in the comment section of Recovering Grace in 2012. To my knowledge, this is the first time any of Gothard’s survivors have come forward under their own names. Many of these women will lose family members or friends for what they are doing. They and the other survivors supporting them from behind the scenes are to be commended for their efforts to bring Gothard and IBLP to justice and to help protect future young people from facing similar pain.
I am going to summarize the allegations of each woman below, with quotes from the lawsuit. I am doing so in order to make this information more accessible. Remember, there are still individuals out there defending Bill Gothard. I don’t want them to have any excuse—including the excuse that the information is buried in a 100+ page document full of legalese—not to view and learn the allegations involved in this current lawsuit.
First, a very brief summary:
Gretchen Wilkinson was groomed and molested by Gothard during counseling from 1991 to 1993 while still a minor.
Jane Doe was severely abused by her adoptive parents. When she reported this to Gothard as a young teenager, he blamed her and failed to notify the authorities.
Jane Doe II was sexually abused and trafficked by her father. When she told IBLP staff they failed to notify the authorities. She was also raped as a child by IBLP employee Kenneth Copley while at the Indianapolis Training Center. She reported this, but the other IBLP employees did not believe her.
Melody Fedoriw was groomed and molested by Gothard while working at headquarters in 2012 at age 15.
Charis Barker was groomed and sexually harassed by Gothard while working at headquarters in the late 1990s, beginning at age 18.
Rachel Frost was groomed and sexually harassed by Gothard while working at headquarters in the early to mid-1990s, beginning at age 15.
Rachel Lees was groomed and sexually harassed by Gothard while working at headquarters in the early 1990s, beginning at age 19 or 20.
Jane Doe III was groomed by Gothard in the late 2010s beginning at age 13.
Jamie Deering was groomed and molested by Gothard while working at headquarters in the early to mid-1990s, beginning at age 14.
Ruth Copley Burger was sexually abused by her father, Kenneth Copley, while the family lived at the Indianapolis Training Center in the mid-1990s when she was 11 or 12.
Now a more detailed summary. As you read this, if you choose to do so, please remember that these women have come forward not to give people fodder to use to mock “fundies” but rather to bring accountability to IBLP and bring Gothard to justice. They have told their stories not to initiate a snark fest but rather to bring change. Many of the women involved in this lawsuit are still strong believers in God and the Bible. This isn’t about making a strike against religion, it’s about making a strike against abuse and brining meaningful change.
Gretchen was an IBLP participant and employee as a minor from 1991 to 1993. She was molested by Bill Gothard while being counseled in his home office. According to the lawsuit:
45. The molestation included Bill Gothard placing his hands on Ms. Wilkinson’s breasts and on her thighs—up to her genitals, while she was clothed.
Gretchen was a minor at this time. Gretchen published her account with Recovering Grace under the name “Charlotte.”
Jane Doe attended IBLP conferences from 1982 to 1988. Jane Doe was abused and neglected by her adoptive family, including sexual abuse by multiple male relatives and severe physical abuse. According to the lawsuit, “she was beaten so severely by her adoptive family that she would duck and flinch anytime someone came near.” When Jane Doe told Gothard about her abuse, while still a teenager, he not only failed to report it but also blamed her for her own abuse.
80. On several occasions—including when JANE DOE was 14, 15, and 16 years old, JANE DOE informed Bill Gothard of her physical, psychological, and sexual abuse. Bill Gothard’s response was to advise her to “let go of her bitterness,” and to “let go of her rights,” and to “stop being rebellious.” Bill Gothard always made the abuse JANE DOE’s fault.
Gothard also sought to cast demons out of Jane Doe.
82. When she was approximately 15 years old, JANE DOE became aware of Bill Gothard’s teaching that adopted children should be “given back” to their biological parents or to the state. Bill Gothard taught that due to the “curse of the sins of the forefathers” adopted children were doomed to repeat the evils of their biological parents. Bill Gothard also taught that adoptive children tainted a family’s biological children. Thus the reason they should be given back.
83. Bill Gothard attributed his teachings about adopted children to “demonic forces” that he claims affect these children. He taught that if adoptive children were not “returned,” they should at least be ordered to “earn their keep” in the family home. It was his teaching that they should be treated more like slaves than children.
Under the influence of Gothard’s teachings, Jane Doe’s parents ultimately kicked her out of the house and disowned her. Her mother beat her again the day she was kicked out.
At around this time Jane Doe spoke again with Bill Gothard, expressing concern that her siblings, too, were being abused. Gothard never reported anything to social services. Jane Doe wrote to the IBLP Board of Directors, letting them know what she had told Gothard, and they, too, failed to report anything.
Jane Doe II
From 1991 (when she was four) through 2009, Jane Doe II participated in IBLP programs and served as an IBLP volunteer. She was physically, emotionally, and sexually abused in her home, as were her siblings. According to the lawsuit, she was “raped by her father and other relatives” and “sold for sex by her father through commercial sexual exploitation and human trafficking.” Jane Doe II reported both the severe sexual abuse and the human trafficking to IBLP staff, but those staff members did not contact authorities.
As a child, Jane Doe II was raped by Kenneth Copley, a counselor at ATI’s Indianapolis training center. Jane Doe II reported this rape to IBLP staff, but nothing was done and nothing was reported to authorities.
Jane Doe II later told Gothard about her abuse.
128. On at least five occasions, JANE DOE II told Bill Gothard that she was being sexually abused by her father and that her younger siblings were also being abused. Bill Gothard took pleasure in the details presented and kept pressuring JANE DOE II for more explicit details of the abuse that took place.
129. On one occasion, when JANE DOE II disclosed details about her abuse and the abuse of her siblings, Bill Gothard called JANE DOE II’s father on a speakerphone and asked if the allegations were true. JANE DOE II’s father denied the allegations. JANE DOE II was humiliated by this process. The last time JANE DOE II tried to disclose abuse, Bill Gothard personally threatened her. Bill Gothard taught that parents were to be believed over children and that children were to obey their parents no matter what, even if they were being sexually abused.
A short time later, Bill Gothard took Jane Doe II to his “private suite” and raped her.
During this entire time, neither Gothard nor any of the numerous other IBLP staff members who also knew of Jane Doe II’s accusations against her father and against Kenneth Copley notified authorities.
Melody attended IBLP’s Journey to the Heart in 2011 and worked at IBLP headquarters during much of 2012. During her time as an employee at headquarters, Melody, only 15 years old, was groomed and molested by Gothard.
169. Bill Gothard would call Ms. Fedoriw into his office late at night for Bible study and to mentor her. During this time, Bill Gothard would always want to sit on the couch with Ms. Fedoriw.
170. During the Bible study and mentoring process, Ms. Fedoriw reported the fact that she was being abused by a parent to Bill Gothard.
171. Bill Gothard then called Ms. Fedoriw’s parents and disclosed the abuse information that she had disclosed in confidence to her abuser.
172. By the second instance of late night Bible study/mentoring, Bill Gothard was putting his arms round Ms. Fedoriw and pulling her closer to him.
173. Despite the fact that Ms. Fedoriw confronted Bill Gothard about his conduct, it continued.
174. Bill Gothard continued to touch Ms. Fedoriw in ways that made her uncomfortable, including rubbing her back and legs. While Bill Gothard was rubbing Ms. Fedoriw’s legs, he would move his hands to her upper thigh. Bill Gothard was touching Ms. Fedoriw very close to her vaginal area, when he rubbed her upper thighs.
The above quote is long, so let me summarize. Gothard had one-one-one late night mentoring sessions with Melody, who was then 15 and living at headquarters. When Melody disclosed abuse she had suffered at her parent’s hands, he called her parent and reported what she had said. He also sexually molested her during these mentoring sessions despite her attempts to get him to stop.
In March 2014, after Gothard stepped down from his position, Melody reported Gothard’s conduct to the local police department. The police department classified Gothard’s actions as criminal but did not prosecute because the statute of limitations had passed.
Charis Barker’s involvement with IBLP began in 1986, when her family enrolled in the ATI program when she was six, and continued through 2000. In 1997, when she was 17, Gothard singled her out at an IBLP seminar and invited her to come work at headquarters. When she was 18, she left home for headquarters, first as a volunteer and then as an employee. While there, Gothard groomed and sexually harassed her.
211. At lunch, at times in his office, while riding in his van, while sitting on his couch, whoever possible, Gothard’s feet would touch Ms. Barker’s feet, whenever he had the opportunity.
212. Gothard’s sexual harassment of Ms. Barker got to the point that the only way she was able to prevent Gothard from touching her feet, while riding in his van, was for Ms. Barker to sit on her feet.
213. Whenever she sat on the couch in his office, he would sit very close to her and put his hands on her knee.
214. During church he would lay his head on her shoulder and he would at least pretend to fall asleep.
Charis published her story with Recovering Grace under the pseudonym “Grace.”
Rachel Frost was a volunteer and employee at IBLP headquarters from 1992 to 1995. Gothard singled Rachel out at an ATI conference when she was 15 and asked her to come work at headquarters. Rachel initially demurred, saying she was too young, but Gothard hounded her and wore her down, paying for her plane ticket and handing her cash to attend to her needs once she arrived. Gothard then groomed and sexually harassed her.
259. Gothard told Ms. Frost that he wanted to keep her close to him, so she started her work at headquarters as one of his personal assistants (secretaries). However, at the age of fifteen (15), she had poor secretarial skills and no understanding of how the organization ran or who was important. After a week in his office, Ms. Frost was moved to the ATI Department.
Gothard paid Rachel special attention and would touch her feet with his during lunch; she eventually learned to keep her feet back behind her chair to prevent this. Gothard sent a 17-year-old boy home for talking and flirting with Rachel.
265. Gothard advised Ms. Frost that she had a special place in his heart and advised her that he wanted her to remain at headquarters indefinitely.
Rachel returned home after three weeks because of family issues, but Gothard called her soon afterward to ask her to travel with him on a trip to Australia and then to come to headquarters permanently. He offered to pay all of her expenses. Rachel’s parents wanted her to stay at home and finish her education, but were eventually worn down by Gothard’s constant requests. At age 17, Rachel took the GED and headed to headquarters to work for Gothard’s ministry “indefinitely.”
Once she was back at headquarters, Gothard continued to single Rachel out, and gradually initiated further inappropriate physical contact. He sexually harassed Rachel during van trips, pushing his thighs against hers, grabbing her hair, and touching her legs with his fingers and her feet with his feet.
274. As a result of the special treatment and physical attention she received from Gothard, Ms. Frost was referred to as Gothard’s “pet,” his “type,” his “favorite,” or a “Gothard girl.” The sexual harassment, and special attention were no secret. Gothard’s conduct was common knowledge to the IBLP staff.
Rachel began looking for excuses to avoid Gothard, and ultimately left for a job as a nanny. Rachel published her story on the Recovering Grace website.
Rachel Lees served as Gothard’s secretary from 1992 to 1993, during the same time Rachel Frost was at headquarters, and had many similar experiences. Rachel was 19 or 20 when Gothard met her at a seminar in New Zealand and asked her to come work at headquarters. He assigned her to himself personally. When she was running low on money, he gave her cash. He quizzed her about former boyfriends and wanted to hear the details of any moral failings she may have had.
312. Approximately six to eight weeks after Ms. Lees began working for Gothard, she noticed that he found reasons to touch her. The touching consisted of sitting so close to her that they were touching. He would sit close, so that his arm or hand would brush against hers. It progressed from there to other physical contact, which made Ms. Lees uncomfortable. The other physical contact included lingering hugs and holding hands. Gothard also began to find reasons to be alone with Ms. Lees.
313. Gothard told Ms. Lees that it was fun. He liked being with her, “just you and me.”
At one point, while on a trip to Dallas, Gothard called Rachel to his hotel room alone, and embraced her as they sat on the couch. At another point, Gothard embraced her and whispered in her ear, telling her that she was his “jewel” and his “energy-giver.”
317. On a long drive to Detroit, Ms Lees felt Gothard put his hands on hers. Later, she felt his foot brush up against her leg. When she first felt his foot run up the back of her leg, she was startled. He locked his leg under hers, and she felt his foot rubbing against hers. He was playing “footsie” with her. But Ms. Lees describes Gothard’s actions as more intimate than that. His foot stroked the back of her leg, played with her toes, explored her leg all the way up her calf muscle and back down over and over again, while he was gripping her hand in between them. When Ms. Lees lifted her hand to intentionally break his hold, Gothard pulled her hand over his thigh. When she resisted, he held her hand and rested it on his thigh, covering her hand with his. He patted her hand, massaged it, rubbed her fingers with his thumb, running his dumb slowly up and down between her fingers, over and over. Gothard would frequently hold hands with Ms. Lees during travel.
Once again, this attention was not secret.
318. Gothard’s emotional and physical attraction to Ms. Lees was no secret at IBLP. On one occasion, the wife of an IBLP Board member approached Ms. Lees and told her that people had expressed concern about “the attachment between you and [Gothard].” “People are starting to notice that he is paying you special attention.”
At one point, one of Gothard’s sisters accused Rachel of wanting to marry Gothard, and was angry with her. Gothard pushed his control further, arranging for a doctor to remove Rachel’s small skin blemishes, which he called “a distraction.” In 1993 Rachel was forced to leave IBLP headquarters due to immigration issues.
Years later, Rachel learned that Gothard had sought permission from the IBLP Board to marry her. She was horrified at this information, finally recognizing him as a predator. She also learned that the board denied Gothard permission to marry her. At this time, Gothard was nearly 60 years old. Rachel was 20. The board also reportedly told Gothard that they were not going to allow him to have female personal assistants in the future, but they never enforced this rule.
Rachel published her story with Recovering Grace under the name “Meg.”
Jane Doe III
Jane Doe III participated in ATI from 2003 through 2012. In 2006, Gothard approached Jane Doe III at a seminar and asked her to join a missions opportunity on his staff as soon as she turned 14. Jane Doe III declined the invitation because of a medical condition, and Gothard spent the following five years badgering her.
352. . . . Gothard frequently used the stress in JANE DOE III’s home as a reason that she should come to headquarters.
353. In 2011, at the age of 18, Bill Gothard aggressively pursued JANE DOE III at a conference in Indianapolis. At 11:00 PM one night, he called JANE DOE III’s father to ask permission for her “to come to headquarters for 3-4 weeks” to “learn how to respect him.”
354. Gothard did not want JANE DOE III to work. He just wanted her to come counsel with him personally to learn how to deal with the stress of her strained relationship with her father.
When Jane Doe III’s parents finally agreed to let her come to headquarters for several weeks, Gothard wanted to come pick her up in his van immediately. Her mother refused, insisting on driving her to headquarters herself the following week.
356. When JANE DOE III arrived at headquarters, Gothard announced: “the day I have been waiting for for six years—you are finally here.”
357. Gothard then informed JANE DOE III, that her “[f]ather has lost his authority over [her], because of his behavior. We are your family now.” He made an analogy to Jesus on the cross telling John to care for Mary, her mother.
Rather than counseling her, Gothard focused on convincing Jane Doe III to stay at headquarters permanently. He attempted to turn her against her mother, and to convince her to send her mother away. When Jane Doe III refused, and explained that her mother was her “best friend” and that she would not be separated from her, Gothard commenced efforts to convince Jane’s mother to divorce her father and stay and work at headquarters.
361. Gothard would hold JANE DOE III’s hand, touch her hair, carries her, wink at her, whisper in her ear, kick her feet under the table, place his shoes on top of hers when sitting on the couch, and be very flirtatious with her. Frequently, he would press his thigh against hers while sitting together, place his arm along the top / back of the sofa or chair. He would complement her hair, smile and laugh several times per day. He directed her never to cut her hair. He would say to her: “[JANE DOE III] come over here.” “You belong here. Perfect Angel. Beautiful. Amazing.” He said to her: “I love you, you know that, right?” “Maybe you dad doesn’t love you, but I do.” “God has put a special love in my heart to you.” “You are my energy giver.” “I love being around you.” She felt that other people knew that she was one of “Gothard’s pets.” This made her uncomfortable and she would shake her head and with a stern look would frown and correct Gothard and tell him: “No, I’m not perfect.” Despite JANE DOE III’s clear disapproval, the unwelcome complements kept coming.
Gothard gave Jane Doe III his credit card to buy new clothes and had his assistant tell her that he was unhappy that her skirts were ankle length rather than calf length.
364. After ten days, JANE DOE III and her mother decided to leave. After Gothard tried another failed attempt to convince JANE DOE III’s mother to separate from / divorce her husband, Gothard attempted to have JANE DOE III stay by trying to get her to say that her mother was abusing her. Gothard asked: “How old are you again?” When JANE DOE III said: “18,” Gothard replied: “Well, if you were 17 we wouldn’t even be having this conversation, because I would call up DFS immediately and tell them you are being abused and have you taken away from home. After all, emotional stress is just as bad as physical abuse.”
In 2012, both Jane Doe III and her mother wrote about their experiences in comments on the Recovering Grace website. Gothard saw the posts and personally contacted Jane Doe III, verbally berating her and accusing her of being a liar and of “trying to viciously destroy his life’s work and his entire organization.” Gothard continued to harass and verbally assault Jane Doe III until she removed her comments.
In 2014, Jane Doe III contacted IBLP headquarters hoping to talk to the IBLP Board of Directors about what had happened, but she was refused access. She managed to get in contact with the director of ATI, who told her the Christian Legal Association (CLA), which was conducting a review of the accusations, would be in contact with her. When she failed to hear from CLA, she contacted the group directly, leaving a detailed message. She never received a return call.
Jamie Deering was involved in IBLP’s ATI program beginning in 1992. In 1994, when she was 14, Gothard personally invited her to come to headquarters. Jamie’s story is much like those of Rachel Frost and Rachel Lees, with one exception. During a trip to Russia, something “very bad” occurred in the middle of the night that left Jamie sleeping on the couch in another couple’s room, and Gothard left the trip suddenly afterward. Jamie has not recovered full memory of the event, and has other memory gaps as well.
Beyond this, her experiences mirror those of other girls sexually abused by Gothard during these same years, with the same process of groom and the same “pet” status.
404. Gothard went so far as to make sure Ms. Deering’s bedroom was directly across form his office window, so he would know when she could come to his office, after everyone else had left.
. . .
407. As part of his sexual abuse of Ms. Deering, Gothard would tell her where to sit. Gothard would then sit across from her, with his legs spread wide apart. Gothard would frequently have an erection and he wanted Ms. Deering to know it.
408. On airplanes Gothard would have Ms. Deering sit next to him, and—under a blanket—he would touch her thighs and her hand. Ms. Deering was very uncomfortable with this and was afraid people would know what was occurring.
. . .
412. On one occasion, Gothard required Ms. Deering to touch his groin area on top of his clothing.
. . .
414. As a result of the special treatment and physical attention she received from Gothard, Ms. Deering was referred to as Gothard’s “pet,” his “type,” his “favorite,” or a “Gothard girl.” The sexual harassment and special attention were no secret. Gothard’s conduct was common knowledge to the IBLP staff.
At one point when Jamie was back at home, her father physically abused her. At a loss for what to do, Jamie called Gothard for help. Gothard refused to help in any way and did not report the incident to the authorities.
Ruth Copley Burger
Ruth is the adopted daughter of Kenneth Copley and lived at the Indianapolis Training Center from 1994 to 1995. Her father had already been forced out of a previous ministry due to sexual misconduct, and was forced to leave IBLP in 1995 due to “sexual misconduct involving other IBLP staff in the age range of 14 to 20 years old.” In 1994, when Ruth was 11 or 12 years old, Copley began sexually abusing Ruth. Copley used the IBLP facilities to conduct this abuse, which I will not describe.
Ruth has suffered PTSD and has been suicidal on multiple occasions, leading to two hospitalizations, as a result of the abuse she faced at the hands of her adoptive father. Ruth published an account of her abuse in 2010 or 2011 and added more details in 2012. Her allegations came to the attention of the IBLP Board of Directors, and were badly mishandled during the sham 2014 CLA investigation.
Over the past two years, multiple Gothard defenders have asked why, if all of this did happen, no one had attempted a lawsuit. It’s ironic, really, because these are the same people who argue that Christians should not sue Christians, and should instead settle disputes within the church—and here they were, using the lack of a lawsuit as proof that there was nothing to the allegations. There were, of course, multiple barriers to starting a lawsuit, including the statute of limitations and the personal costs involved in doing so.
Still, I am glad to see that there is now a lawsuit, and I would like to hope that it will help put remaining objections to rest, bring justice for survivors, and save future young people from similar predation. I’ve said it before and I know I’ll say it again—evangelical Christians need to clean up their act when it comes to abuse. Between blaming victims for what happened to them, elevating religious leaders beyond question, and sweeping problems under the rug because they might detract from an organization’s “godly witness,” there are some serious problems that need addressing.
We can only hope that this lawsuit will prod others to clean their houses.