Five women have sued the Institute in Basic Life Principles, once a leader in the Christian homeschooling movement, charging that the organization and its board of directors enabled and covered up sexual abuse and harassment of interns, employees, and other participants in its programs.
Each of the plaintiffs — Gretchen Wilkinson, Charis Barker, Rachel Frost, Rachel Lees and a Jane Doe — seeks $50,000 in damages, alleging that the organization and its board acted negligently, with willful and wanton disregard for them, and engaged in a civil conspiracy to conceal the wrongdoing.
The lawsuit is the latest chapter in a long-simmering scandal that has engulfed the ministry once admired by conservative Christian parents for teaching them how to raise obedient, devout and chaste children since the 1960s. The ministry has found dedicated followers in politics, including Rep. Daniel Webster (R-Fla.), who sought to replace Rep. John Boehner (R-Ohio) as House Speaker, and in entertainment.
Last year, IBLP’s founder and longtime president, Bill Gothard, resigned amid allegations by more than 30 women that he had sexually harassed them. Former followers have said that Gothard was revered as an almost saint-like figure, and that members of IBLP’s homeschooling arm, the Advanced Training Institute, feared questioning him.
Earlier this year, IBLP was once again in the headlines after the gossip magazine In Touch reported that Josh Duggar, the eldest son of reality television stars and longtime Advanced Training Institute members Jim Bob and Michelle Duggar, had been sent to an IBLP training center as a teenager after he admitted he had sexually abused four of his younger sisters and a family friend.
The new lawsuit, filed on Tuesday in DuPage County Circuit Court in Illinois, where IBLP’s headquarters is located, charges that IBLP, its employees and directors “frequently received reports” of “sexual abuse, sexual harassment and inappropriate/unauthorized touching.” But, the lawsuit said, they never reported “these serious, potentially criminal allegations to law enforcement authorities or the Illinois Department of Children & Family Services” as required by state law.
David Gibbs III, the attorney representing the women, said in an interview the women decided to litigate only after unsuccessful efforts to address the issues with the IBLP board of directors, who are also named in the lawsuit. Gibbs added that his clients did not want to sue, but that the board “rather stubbornly and in my opinion rather arrogantly basically challenged the girls to bring the case.”
The board, he said, “is not operating in a spirit of transparency or openness,” and has not discussed the allegations with the victims.
IBLP did not respond to a request for comment.
Founded in 1961, and led by Gothard until his resignation last year, IBLP was once highly regarded among conservative Christians for its conferences and teaching materials that focused on “biblical character” development.
The organization’s culture and teachings were depicted in the Duggars’ reality show, “19 Kids and Counting,” until TLC canceled it in the wake of the revelations about Josh Duggar. But IBLP’s philosophy continues to be shown on “Bringing Up Bates,” a reality show on the Up television network, about another family with 19 children, whose patriarch, Gil Bates, serves on the IBLP board and is named in the lawsuit.
Despite the positive depictions on reality television, IBLP recently has seen a decline in support, particularly since the Web site Recovering Grace, created by disaffected former followers, began drawing attention to the sexual harassment charges in 2012. Recovering Grace compiled the stories of more than 30 women who said they had been sexually “groomed” and inappropriately touched by Gothard over a three-decade period, and sought to address the charges internally at IBLP.
About the lawsuit, John Cornish, a spokesman for Recovering Grace, said, “Our goal and our hope is the same as it’s been all along — that they will be accountable for what’s taken place, that Bill [Gothard] and the board would repent, and that the victims will finally be acknowledged and taken care of in the right manner.”
The longtime founder and head of the ministry, Gothard, who is now 80, has long denied the sexual harassment charges, even as he resigned as president of the organization in March 2014. (Gothard is not named in the lawsuit because, Gibbs said, he is no longer affiliated with the organization.) That year, IBLP conducted an internal investigation (with which David Gibbs, Jr., Gibbs’s father, was involved), after which it concluded “no criminal activity has been discovered,” but that “Mr. Gothard has acted in an inappropriate manner.”
But the plaintiffs say the internal investigation amounted to sweeping a pattern of abuse and possible criminal activity under the rug. The victims, said the younger Gibbs, were as young as 13 or 14 years old, and often had been subjected at home to physical, sexual and other abuse or neglect. The “pattern” common among the plaintiffs, he said, was that the girl would “act out” as a result of the abuse at home; her parents would then send her to IBLP for counseling.
Other women who have been counseled by Gothard have said he questioned sexual assault victims about whether they were dressed immodestly or had “lustful” thoughts. He also taught that sexual assault victims must “cry out to God” to stop the assault; if she does not, Gothard has taught, she is equally guilty with her assailant.
Gothard, said Gibbs, was aware of the abuse the girls had suffered at home, and would offer to counsel them at IBLP headquarters. When they were alone with him, they say he inappropriately touched them. Sometimes, he added in an interview, a driver would take the pair out for ice cream, for example, and “inappropriate touching” would take place in the back seat of the car.
If they pulled away or rejected the advances, Gibbs charged, Gothard or another IBLP leader would “call the parents and share with them all the allegations of abuse that were shared in counseling, and then send the children back into those environments.”
No one answered the phone at Gothard’s home on Thursday, nor was there a voicemail system or answering machine.
Although they were reluctant to sue, Gibbs said, his clients want to hold the organization accountable for “perpetuating this philosophy and culture of abuse.” He said since filing the lawsuits, other women with similar experiences have contacted him.
The lawsuit further charges that IBLP is seeking to liquidate its sizeable real estate assets, now located in seven states (the organization’s most recent tax return values these holdings at nearly $80 million). Gibbs also said the organization is seeking to relocate its headquarters to Texas, where, he said, the courts are less aggressive than those in Illinois in handling sexual abuse cases.
Cornish, the Recovering Grace spokesman, emphasized IBLP’s own claims to act biblically and morally. “For an organization that has always prided itself on doing the right thing, it’s a bit of a shame that it’s taken legal action for them to even have a discussion with the victims about this,” he said.