Inside RZIM, Staff Push Leaders to Take Responsibility for Scandal

Written by on January 6, 2021

Inside Ravi Zacharias International Ministries (RZIM), staff wondered for months whether the world’s largest apologetics ministry would be willing to tell the truth about its famous namesake.

In the final months of 2020, some pushed senior leadership to acknowledge the credibility of the detailed allegations raised against Ravi Zacharias after his death, demonstrate concern for victims of sexual abuse, and take responsibility for the corporate culture that prioritized his legacy over everything else.

Then, days before Christmas, RZIM officially recognized substantial evidence that Zacharias sexually abused multiple women. Zacharias’s daughter, RZIM CEO Sarah Davis, promised to release the full results of an ongoing independent investigation.

But the internal dissension is still roiling inside RZIM. Some staff members argue the $36 million global ministry—built on the late apologist’s reputation for faith and truth—could become a model for dealing with scandal or could be another example of an institution preserving its power at the cost of its christian witness.

RZIM staff originally heard that the allegations against Zacharias were baseless attacks designed to hurt their gospel work. But some began to openly reject that narrative—first within the ministry, then publicly. Senior RZIM leaders and board members (whose names are not made public) now face pressure from within the ministry to demonstrate a new commitment to accountability.

“I think we need a total apology and total transparency,” Max Baker-Hytch, an RZIM speaker who also teaches philosophy at Oxford University, told CT. “I’m afraid we won’t really admit to the corporate complicity and the toxic loyalty culture.”

When CT reported in September that Zacharias had repeatedly exposed himself to, masturbated in front of, and groped women who worked at two Atlanta-area day spas he co-owned, the ministry initially responded—as it had to previous accusations—by flatly denying the allegations. Though the organization told CT it would hire a law firm to investigate the claims, RZIM said in the same statement that it considered the claims false.

RZIM’s December 23 statement, summarizing preliminary findings from an outside investigation, marked the first time the ministry acknowledged sexual misconduct by its founder, who died in May at the age of 74. Over five decades of ministry, he grew to become arguably the most famous christian apologist in the world.

Staff members start to speak out

According to RZIM’s initial response to CT’s reporting, “the family and ministry teammates of Ravi Zacharias”—a group that includes a few hundred speakers and staff members in more than a dozen offices around the world—knew the allegations weren’t true based on their personal experiences with Zacharias.

At an online all-staff meeting in mid-October, however, RZIM speaker Sam Allberry, who officiated at Zacharias’s graveside service, asked why “ministry teammates” had been included in the official denial. They had not been consulted before leadership crafted the unsigned statement denying the claims.

“Why are you putting words in my mouth?” said Allberry, according to people who attended the meeting. “Frankly, I believe these women and find their allegations to be credible.”

Others at RZIM—from people who keep the Atlanta headquarters running to top-level apologists—also started to speak out, persuaded by the reporting in CT and World magazine that the accusations were serious and credible.

This increasingly vocal group pushed back against the institution’s official narrative, first with questions during staff meetings, then with letters to leadership and the board, and then with public statements when they felt their concerns were not being taken seriously.

“I believe the women who have come forward,” Amy Orr-Ewing, a senior vice president with RZIM and the ministry’s first full-time female apologist, told CT. “I am so grieved at what these brave individuals have described and the courage it has taken for them to even start to reveal their stories.”

Over the past three months, CT interviewed seven current and two former RZIM speakers and staff in five countries. CT has also reviewed more than a dozen internal documents and detailed notes of multiple meetings, which reveal growing frustration and escalating pressure as staff members attempted to force a full reckoning with what they see as an institutional failure. A number of ministry teammates believe the fault doesn’t lie only with Zacharias, but also with the top ministry officials who supported a culture that allowed him to abuse women without any fear of being challenged and encouraged the casual dismissal of allegations against him.

The efforts could lead to significant changes to the ministry, following the release of the full investigative report. There have already been internal discussions about changing the name and rebranding. Meanwhile, Zacharias Trust, the UK branch of RZIM, has officially called for “a commitment to reform radically the governance, leadership and accountability of the RZIM organisation.”

After the allegations emerged, Davis and president Michael Ramsden repeatedly assured staff members that they would not cover anything up. They have said they want the full truth to be told so the ministry can move forward.

“My prayer has been that the truth about these matters will be known,” Davis said in a written statement to CT on Tuesday evening. “I continue to pray this and when the investigation is completed, we intend to address allegations past and present, to ask forgiveness where needed, to seek restoration where appropriate. We have simply asked for patience until the investigation is concluded so that we can do these things, as fully and meaningfully as possible.”

The publication of the preliminary report from the outside investigative team and RZIM’s official acknowledgement of evidence of sexual misconduct indicate the ministry will take the charges more seriously than it has in the past.

“I do hope our decision to publicly release an interim report before Christmas—really a simple update from Miller & Martin—demonstrates our desire for transparency. Certainly, it was a damaging preliminary report and we were under no obligation to release it,” Davis wrote.

The official statement did not, however, acknowledge any corporate responsibility. Concerned team members hope that by applying pressure, they can push RZIM to commit to deeper and broader cultural change.

That concerted pressure “may salvage the ministry if they can get cooperation from the people at the head,” said L. T. Jeyachandran, former executive director of the Asia-Pacific branch of RZIM from 2001 to 2012. “I don’t know if that can happen because of the cult of personality. The culture of RZIM is adulation and unquestioning loyalty. You praise Ravi all the time and never hold him accountable.”

New scrutiny of past scandals

The recent crisis has prompted staff members to revisit previous scandals. Three incidents have shaken staff members’ trust in Zacharias and RZIM leadership in recent years. First, Zacharias was accused over the years of claiming academic credentials that he hadn’t earned. Then, in 2017, he was accused of soliciting sexually explicit images and messages from a supporter. And a few months after his death, CT reported allegations that he had sexually harassed multiple massage therapists whom he employed.

Previously, staff accepted official explanations and dismissals. Sometimes leaders would invoke Zacharias’s reputation, saying, “But that’s Ravi,” suggesting he was above reproach. Other times, the staff members tell CT, Zacharias and other senior leaders would claim that outsiders were concocting scurrilous rumors and launching bogus attacks because of the good work Zacharias was doing promoting the gospel. After the latest accusations, it became harder to accept these explanations.

“Each of the Ravi crises have reminded people of the previous crises and forced people to revisit them,” Baker-Hytch said. “The new allegations have been a watershed. This is like ‘strike three.’”

As Baker-Hytch and other teammates in the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, Spain, South Africa, and the United States first started thinking the new allegations against Zacharias might be true, they also questioned the way RZIM leaders managed the previous scandals.

By their accounts, the apologetics ministry—committed to “the fearless pursuit of the truth”—seemed at key moments to withhold information from staff, fudge the facts to be more favorable to Zacharias, and prioritize the protection of the founder’s reputation over everything else.

The credibility of the recent allegations led them to scrutinize RZIM’s statements about Zacharias’s settlement of a 2017 lawsuit with the woman who said he groomed her into sending him sexually explicit messages.

Baker-Hytch recalled that RZIM leadership said board members had reviewed “all the emails” and text exchanges between Zacharias and the woman. Baker-Hytch later learned from one board member and an outside adviser that they had only reviewed some of the correspondence—a binder of messages that Zacharias had selected and printed out. The board apparently cleared Zacharias of any wrongdoing without ever having access to all the correspondence, Baker-Hytch said.

When he asked about the discrepancy, RZIM leadership told Baker-Hytch that “all the correspondence” meant “everything that exists and is in circulation.”

“When I can fact-check the assertions the leadership has made, it has really disturbed me,” Baker-Hytch said.

Staff members were also told that the lawsuit was “dismissed,” only to later learn it had been settled with a payment of about $250,000, according to four people inside RZIM. When they complained the term “dismissed” was misleading, they were told the details couldn’t be discussed because of a non-disclosure agreement (NDA), even though RZIM is not party to the agreement.

Lori Anne Thompson, who came forward to identify herself as the victim in this case and asked to be released from the NDA, told CT that she was not contacted by RZIM during its initial review of Zacharias’s correspondence or during the current investigation. She has said the abuse she suffered went far beyond the images Zacharias mischaracterized as “unsolicited.” Staff members who believe her allegations want RZIM to review how the ministry handled the claims and are charging leadership with complicity in Zacharias’s cover-up.

Other teammates have called out inconsistency in Zacharias’s own response to the lawsuit. He said he safeguarded his marriage by following the “Billy Graham Rule” and never spending time alone with a woman who wasn’t his wife or daughter. But that wasn’t true.

“He was alone with many women on staff,” said Carson Weitnauer, a longtime staff member who worked in the Atlanta office until he resigned from RZIM on Monday after publishing an essay in the christian Post about how he lost faith in Zacharias. “They’d meet in his office to work on projects.”

No one has alleged that anything inappropriate happened between Zacharias and women on RZIM staff, but staff members are now asking why he lied about being alone with women—and why leadership let him misstate the truth. During one staff meeting, an assistant pointed out that people in leadership knew this was a false statement when Zacharias said it.

“The leadership’s message to us is ‘We’re above reproach. We’re going to find out what happened. Trust us,’” Weitnauer told CT. “It’s really clear what kind of person Ravi was. It’s clear there was a lot of complicity at this organization.”

‘We forgot he was just a man’

In all-staff meetings held between the start of October and the Christmas break in 2020, top leaders impugned the outlets reporting the allegations, speculated about the possibility of elaborate conspiracies to attack Zacharias’s reputation, prayed against demonic forces, and asked the staff to trust them and the law firm they hired.

In a staff devotional meeting before Christmas, Margie Zacharias—Ravi’s widow and the chief culture officer at RZIM—assured everyone that the ministry’s donors are “letting us know loudly and clearly that they are still with us,” according to multiple people in attendance. She also used the opportunity to praise her husband for being a great example and “a man filled with the Spirit of God.”

Other family members made public statements attacking those who would criticize Zacharias.

“For some weird reason we seem to want people to fall. Maybe it makes us feel better about ourselves?” wrote Robert “Drew” McNeil, ex-husband of Zacharias’s daughter Naomi and former director of the RZIM Academy, on Twitter in mid-October. “A man lives a life of integrity for 74 years, and people will still believe lies that are wholly incompatible with who he was. People who didn’t know him might believe the lies—but not those who knew him well.”

That sense of defensiveness does not appear to have limited the scope of the investigation conducted by the law firm Miller & Martin. The investigators’ interim report said that “we were given broad discretion and authority to follow leads into other sexual misconduct that might arise, and that is exactly what we have done.”

Lynsey Barron, the lead investigator, said the team has interviewed “dozens of witnesses,” including “many massage therapists” who “have spoken candidly and with great detail.” The investigators reported interviewing other sources confirming and corroborating allegations of sexual abuse as well.

The team interviewed Anurag Sharma, the co-owner of the Atlanta-area day spas who said he was a longtime friend and admirer of Zacharias. The interview lasted about four hours in an Atlanta hotel room, with two investigators asking questions in person and two watching over Zoom, Sharma told CT. In tapes of his interviews shared with independent journalist Julie Roys, Sharma said Zacharias asked him to destroy evidence of the sexual abuse of a massage therapist in 2010.

The investigators have also looked at Zacharias’s personal and business travel to probe potential misconduct overseas. And they have interviewed multiple members of RZIM staff in multi-hour sessions, asking about Zacharias’s personal history, his extensive travel schedule, and the culture of the board and leadership.

Teammates pushing for a fuller reckoning at RZIM said they were quickly persuaded the investigation would be far-reaching and thorough. They expect Miller & Martin’s final report to be “horrific.”

The question, they say, is whether RZIM will take responsibility for either not knowing about the abuse and failing to offer any accountability, or knowing about it and covering it up.

“The full weight of this now rests on the board and the leadership of RZIM who repeated Ravi’s denials,” said Rio Summers, an associate producer for RZIM global media and an executive assistant to Ramsden before he became president. “My heart longs to see the RZIM board and leadership publicly repent.”

In her Tuesday statement, Davis was willing to admit she and others in leadership had made mistakes. She said they believed Zacharias when he denied accusations, and they didn’t ask some tough questions when they should have.

“I think I, and others, without awareness, expected Ravi to be more than human,” Davis wrote. “We believed that God had uniquely gifted him, built him for this life, never seeing the fraying, the vulnerability, the dark side.”

According to Davis, “we forgot he was just a man, because he seemed like such an exceptional one. And while in many ways he was, we are now learning he was a human with very real flaws.”

Facing increased internal pressure, leaders have started to discuss a period of prayer and fasting to follow the final report. Davis sent an internal email to RZIM staff in mid-December promising to release the full report when it is finished and urging everyone to be patient until it is done.

A choice between rebranding and repentance

Ramsden has also told staff members he will not cover up evidence of Zacharias’s wrongdoing, according to notes from multiple meetings. Before the interim report said there was substantial evidence of sexual misconduct, Ramsden speculated about a possible conspiracy, suggesting CT might have fabricated the abuse victims or that an atheist blogger might have paid the women and coached them to lie. He also said, however, that if the investigation proved the worst allegations were true, that wouldn’t be fatal for the ministry. RZIM could clearly condemn the misconduct and move forward.

Daniel Gilman, a Canadian-based RZIM speaker, told CT his concern is that the ministry will rebrand but not repent.

“When I started to think, He might be guilty, I wanted to know, how can I bring the truth to light and not be part of the problem,” Gilman said. “I want us to be asking, ‘What would RZIM have to do to truly repent?’”

Gilman, Allberry, and others have sought advice from Rachael Denhollander, advocate and author of What Is a Girl Worth? They have pressed RZIM leaders to bring Denhollander in to consult on the ministry’s response to the report and take other steps to communicate a strong commitment to victims of sexual abuse.

Gilman has also asked RZIM to make a clear statement that allegations aren’t invalid if people come forward after the person they’re accusing has died, since many victims don’t feel safe until then. Allegations also aren’t discredited if the accusers remain anonymous, he said.

“If our process is seen as circling the wagons around Ravi, then those in positions of influence within christian ministries and churches who are sexually abusing vulner

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