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Though I left my family’s home three years ago, Bill Gothard’s twisting of Scripture still haunts me as a young adult today. The way the Advanced Training Institute (ATI) and its secondary programs are set up, they might work in a perfect world, but in the broken reality of this world, they operate with many similarities to a cult. I have had some friends argue that it’s not the program that causes every kind of abuse, but the bad people who use the program. But my family was pretty much normal until Bill Gothard’s influence came into our home. My dad was a pastor of an Independent Baptist Church so life had its normal challenges; but I do remember my early childhood for the most part being happy and contented.
My parents went to one of the first ATI conferences in Australia and came back excited and eager to embrace this new form of home-schooling. That was when things began to change. Life was suddenly filled to the brim with conferences and Wisdom Booklets and other ATI families. Before I knew it, most of the church families at my dad’s church had also adopted the curriculum, and we lived, breathed, and slept Bill Gothard’s belief system.
Under the teachings of ATI my family grew to twelve kids. And with a church to handle, and 12 kids at home, my mum and dad couldn’t handle caring for us all, let alone schooling us. Instead, older siblings were put in charge of younger siblings (kind of like the Duggar’s “Buddy System”). My older brother resented the responsibility of practically having to be a father to his younger siblings, so he began to bully and abuse us. He first sexually assaulted me when I was ten years old while he was being forced to help me with my homework.
My parents found out a year into his regular sexual abuse of me and insisted that I apologize to him. According to Bill Gothard’s “principles” on dealing with sexual abuse, I was as much to blame as my brother for “leading him on,” despite our several year age difference. We were then forced to “forgive” each other, and once again in accordance with ATI teaching, to never bring the matter up again now that it was forgiven. Since nothing was done to stop him from abusing, and he was not held accountable for what he’d done, the abuse continued with increasing severity and regularity for two more years until I hit puberty.
It wasn’t until I left home at the age of 19 with severe depression and other health issues that I found out he’d also abused four of my younger siblings, and that my parents knew about that too. And so I reported the abuse to child services and they initiated an investigation. In the end, they were unable to prove anything since my older brother was away when they came, and because my dad has thoroughly coached all of his kids in drills on how to answer questions from outside sources from the time we were very young. My siblings have been raised to be terrified of government officials, and particularly police and child services. However the investigation is now on record, so if just one of my eleven siblings speaks out with me, child services will be able to step in.
Because my parents are convinced they are following “biblical” principles, to this day they have not acknowledged their fault in how they handled my abuse, nor have they set up any safety measures to protect the underage children still in their home who are still around my older brother.
Anyone who claims that ATI’s teachings are basically good but are taken out of context by bad people clearly do not understand the depth and darkness to the teachings. A solid adherence to the teachings of Bill Gothard cannot help but cause a cult-like following in families and churches, because Gothard presents his biblical principles as the only way to true success in all areas of life. If these principles are strictly followed, it is believed that success will also follow. If you are not experiencing success, you should just apply more principles and try harder. So in an effort to more perfectly follow the principles and see success in their families, fathers often crack down and become abusive and controlling. The result is that older siblings are often saddled with unwanted parental responsibility of caring for younger siblings, and mothers often feel overwhelmed to the point of neglecting the needs of their individual children.
Specifically, Gothard’s principles for dealing with sexual abuse within families only damaged my family further as it heaped shame and guilt on us girls who were abused and minimized the sin of our abuser. These “principles” did not help my parents respond to abuse the way they should have—it only made things worse. Instead of blaming us (finding reasons why the abuse was our fault) and covering it up in the name of “forgiveness,” they should have protected us from the abuse and gotten help for my brother.
It is sad that after all these years, so many abused kids are growing up and speaking out against this cult, but there are still so many families deep in its grip who genuinely believe Bill Gothard to be a good teacher. I can only pray that one day it will all change and their eyes will be opened to exactly how dangerous these teachings really are to families.
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