Ten women on Wednesday filed a lawsuit against Bill Gothard, who for decades was a major force in the conservative Christian homeschooling movement, charging him and leaders in his ministry with sexual abuse, harassment and cover-up.
Gothard, who urged Christians to shun things like short skirts and rock music, is accused of raping a woman. The same woman says she was raped by one of the ministry’s “biblical counselors.”
The lawsuit is part of a battle between dozens of women and the Institute in Basic Life Principles, which was until recently an influential homeschooling ministry, and its charismatic leader Gothard, who urged Christians to focus on their “biblical character” and have large families. Gothard has never been married.
Gothard, 81, resigned from the ministry in 2014 after more than 30 women had alleged that he had molested and sexually harassed women he worked with, including some who were minors.
Reached by phone on Wednesday, Gothard said he has not seen the lawsuit and denied allegations that he had raped one woman. “Oh no. Never never. Oh! That’s horrible,” he said. “Never in my life have I touched a girl sexually. I’m shocked to even hear that.”
Gothard denied sexually harassing women. “That really is not true,” he said. “I’d rather hold off to comment until I see what’s in the lawsuit.”
A smaller group of the same women filed a lawsuit in October against IBLP. In Wednesday’s amended lawsuit, more women have joined the lawsuit, and the lawyers added Gothard to the complaint as a named defendant. The ministry, which has training center across the country and about a dozen across the world, asked the court to dismiss the complaint, and the judge gave the plaintiffs’ lawyers permission to file a new complaint.
Gothard’s ministry was once a popular gathering spot for thousands of conservative Christian families, including the Duggar family from TLC’s “19 Kids and Counting.” Gothard’s Advanced Training Institute conferences, where families would learn from Gothard’s teaching, were popular among homeschooling families. He has also rubbed shoulders with Republican luminaries like former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee.
Wednesday’s lawsuit includes an undated letter in which Gothard allegedly wrote to the women who were accusing him. “I was very wrong in holding hands, giving hugs, and touching their hair and feet. I was also wrong in making statements that caused emotional turmoil and confusion,” the letter reads, describing what he did as “sin.”
In Wednesday’s interview, Gothard declined to confirm or deny whether he had written the letter. “I need to get more facts here, okay?”
The lawsuit filed Wednesday, a copy of which lawyers provided to The Washington Post, includes an affidavit signed by Gothard saying IBLP’s board has not contacted him for information or for assistance and has not met with the women or their attorneys. Gothard said in the affidavit that the board is “handling the case unwisely as I have the information they need. This is a shameful waste of donors money.”
“I assume that the IBLP Board thought that the plaintiffs and their counsel were bluffing and that they would not sue,” Gothard wrote. “Obviously that is not the case.”
Although Gothard resigned, his affidavit makes clear he intends to return to the ministry he started in 1961.
“During the past seven months, God has allowed me to publish six new books that contain a powerful new message that I want to get out to all of the alumni,” Gothard wrote, adding that over 2.5 million alumni have attended his seminars.
Gothard confirmed that he worked with the plaintiffs’ lawyer on the statement, but denies giving the lawyer permission to use it in the lawsuit. He declined to comment further.
IBLP was in the headlines last year after In Touch magazine reported that Josh Duggar, the eldest son of reality TV stars, 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. IBLP did not respond to a request for comment about the lawsuit.
The ministry posted a statement on Wednesday saying it welcomes “the structure and integrity of the court process as a means for determining the truth with respect to these allegations.”
“Many of these allegations concern conduct that allegedly occurred as early as the 1990s, and, as claimed, primarily involved Mr. Gothard,” the statement says. “Since March 2014, Mr. Gothard is no longer associated with the Institute.”
The lawsuit alleges that IBLP is liquidating its assets of over $100 million and plans to sell off its holdings in Illinois, where most of the allegations took place, and move to Texas, which Gothard confirms in his affidavit.
Each of the 10 plaintiffs — Gretchen Wilkinson, Charis Barker, Rachel Frost, Rachel Lees, Melody Fedoriw, Jamie Deering, Ruth Copley Burger and three Jane Does — are seeking at least $50,000 in damages, alleging that Gothard and the organization, claiming intentional infliction of emotional distress, negligence, willful and wanton and civil conspiracy.
The lawsuit in DuPage County Circuit Court in Illinois, where IBLP’s headquarters is located, charges that IBLP, its employees and board members received reports of sexual abuse, sexual harassment and “inappropriate/unauthorized touching” from women and girls. But, the women allege, the defendants never reported the “potentially criminal allegations” to law enforcement authorities or the Illinois Department of Children & Family Services as required by state law.
One of the Jane Doe plaintiffs in the lawsuit alleges that she was raped by her father and other relatives and says she was sold by her father through human trafficking when she was a minor. She said she reported the abuse and trafficking to IBLP staff, which failed to report to authorities.
Families in the ministry would sometimes send their children to institutes across the country, including its headquarters in Illinois. When the Jane Doe plaintiff was at a ministry’s training center, she and Gothard both called her father and Gothard asked him if abuse allegations were true, the lawsuit states. After her father denied the allegations, she said Gothard threatened her. Gothard taught that children were to obey their parents even if they were being sexually abused, the lawsuit states.
The Jane Doe then alleges that Gothard had sexual intercourse with her without her consent, saying she notified IBLP of the rape through an email in 2013. She alleges that an IBLP-employed counselor also raped her in his office at an IBLP training center in Indianapolis. David Gibbs III, the plaintiffs’ lawyer, said she is not sure how old she was at the time of the alleged rapes, but was likely around 17 or 18 years old. Another woman in the lawsuit, Ruth Copley Burger, who was the adopted daughter of the counselor in question, alleges that her father sexually molested her.
Gibbs said that he believes both women went to the police with the allegations but he is not sure why law enforcement didn’t prosecute the cases. Allegations of sexual abuse that happened years ago are often difficult to pursue due to the possibility that the statute of limitations — the time period during which prosecutors are able to pursue a crime — has expired.
“It would not surprise me if law enforcement got involved in this case [now], but we’re not anticipating it at this time,” he said.
For the past few decades hundreds of young people from around the country would come to the ministry’s training centers, some sent by their parents, others by juvenile court, for counseling.
“This wasn’t just a church youth group,” Gibbs said. “This was holding itself up as an expert in counseling and care for children.” Gibbs said he has been contacted by more women and men who are alleging abuse within the ministry and expects more plaintiffs to be added to the case.
Since 2012, the website Recovering Grace, run by former IBLP-affiliated women, began posting stories from more than 30 women alleging they experienced sexual harassment and abuse.
Gretchen Wilkinson, a plaintiff who is now based in Winchester, Va., says that she went to work for Gothard in 1992 at IBLP’s headquarters in Oak Brook, Ill., when she was 16. During her time there, she said Gothard would play footsie with her and hold her hand. At one point, she said, he had coordinated a ride from the airport for them to be together and molested her.
“He was built up to a god-like state in our eyes because he was a man who could do no wrong. I looked up to him as a father figure, almost like how Catholics look up to priests, bishops or their pope,” said Wilkinson, who is now 40. “Now I can see a photo of him and say, ‘You can’t touch me.’ That’s incredibly freeing to me.”
A different Jane Doe plaintiff alleges in the lawsuit that after she wrote about sexual harassment on the Recovering Grace website, Gothard called her and verbally assaulted her for three weeks until she had the stories taken down.
In the lawsuit, a woman named Jamie Deering alleges that Gothard sexually abused her multiple times. She said he would play footsie with her and he would sit across from her with an erection and with his legs spread wide apart.
After he resigned in 2014, Gothard denied the sexual harassment charges, saying “God is my witness that I have never kissed a girl, nor touched any young lady in a sensual way.”
In 2014, IBLP conducted an internal investigation, writing in June 2014 that “no criminal activity has been discovered,” saying that what Gothard did was “inappropriate behavior” and “sin.” The investigation was conducted by the Christian Legal Association, and the lawsuit says none of the women were contacted during the investigation.
Rachel Frost, who alleges in the lawsuit she was sexually harassed from 1992 to 1994 when she was a minor, and then again when she was an adult, said she was initially afraid to share her story. She said Gothard was able to control and micromanage any allegations until women began sharing their stories online.
“I feared the backlash of people who would question my motives, asking why I would come out against such a famous and charismatic leader,” Frost said. “He could not control social media and victims coming together and validating each other and realizing they were not alone.”
The court’s first hearing on the amended lawsuit will be Jan. 13.