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Editor’s note: This is the third article in a series of stories relating Bill Gothard’s sexual harassment of young girls at Headquarters. Click on these links to read the previous stories: Lizzie’s story Part 1 and Part 2, and Annette’s story, as well as a follow-up article, “A Call to Repentance.”
My story begins like so many others who got involved in the Advanced Training Institute (ATI). My parents were determined to raise their children “right” and decided to take the less-traveled path of homeschooling. In the early 80s, there wasn’t much support for homeschooling. Since they had been supporters of Bill Gothard since the mid-70s, my parents were very much interested in his new home education program. Our family enrolled in 1986, when I was six years old.
We were faithful followers of the ATI program. We studied our Wisdom Booklets every day. We had Wisdom Search every morning. We attended an “ATI” church where there were many families just like us. We didn’t listen to rock music, the girls didn’t wear pants, and we most certainly didn’t date. We rarely associated with anyone outside of ATI — If our close friends weren’t members it was only because they couldn’t afford to be. But everyone believed the same thing.
While attending an Institute in Basic Life Principles (IBLP) Counseling Seminar in 1997, Bill began smiling at me from the stage during one of the meetings. I wasn’t sure he was even looking at me, but immediately after the session he motioned for me and my sister to come speak with him. And so of course we went. He invited us down to his office where he told me how he had noticed my attentiveness and smile, and wanted to know if I would be willing to work for him at his Headquarters in Oak Brook, Illinois. I told him I would be interested, but that my parents would need to give their permission. I knew my parents would agree, as they had always told me that their dream for me was to be their “first-born sacrifice” by giving me back to (allowing me to work for) the ministry that had so blessed their lives.
So a few months later, at 18 years old, I said goodbye to my family and flew up to Chicago to my new job. My plan from the beginning was to work for six months as a volunteer before deciding if I wanted to become an employee. You could only be listed as an employee (and paid) if you agreed to work there for a year or more.
I was thrilled by the welcome I received at Headquarters! As I began my new position in the Telos department, I was singled out for attention by Bill Gothard on a regular basis at various functions. At the mandatory staff lunch every day, I was often invited to sit across from him, where he would touch my feet with his and play “footsie” under the table. My parents required me to attend the optional Sunday School class that Bill taught on Sunday mornings, and often, after the lesson, Bill would invite me and a few others to attend church with him and eat lunch together afterwards. Sometimes on my walk to work, Bill would drive by and offer me a ride in his big, blue car. On occasion, he even gave me special projects to work on that bypassed my direct supervisor and had me reporting directly to him. When my six months of volunteering were up, I signed on for another year and became a paid employee.
After meetings on Sunday nights, Bill began asking me to come to his office alone and talk with him while sitting next to him on his couch. Sometimes his assistant would be in the room, but often not. I remember jerking back when I felt his foot touch mine. I dismissed it again as an accident. But it kept happening. It happened more and more often. At lunch, in his office, riding in his van, sitting on his couch — his feet sought out mine whenever I was near him. When we sat on the couch in his office, he would sit very close to me and put his hand on my knee. During church he would lay his head on my shoulder and fall asleep. I would change positions, but so would he. He continued touching my feet but sometimes my leg as well. Sitting next to him was disconcerting as he wanted to sit very close. I began to feel more and more uncomfortable.
I called my parents and told them how uncomfortable I felt with Bill touching me. They assured me that Bill Gothard would never inappropriately touch anyone, but they gave me permission to be “less friendly” with him if I liked. Soon afterwards I was invited by Bill to travel with him to the Northwoods Conference Center, which at that time housed ALERT. I went, but in the van his feet began touching mine again. Only this time he had relaxed and taken off his shoes. I was disturbed and uneasy. I clearly remember him giving me a certain “look” when he would slide his foot over to touch mine, and I felt like something wasn’t right. I was nineteen by this time, but I had never been told what sex was, or what sexual behavior even looked like. I had read the encyclopedia’s entry on intercourse but that was extent of my knowledge about sexuality.
The next time Bill invited me to go on a trip with him (to Russia), I politely refused. I withdrew my “friendliness” and gradually Bill lost interest in me.
I continued to work at Headquarters after Telos moved to the Indianapolis Training Center the next year. I had already determined that when my year commitment was up, it was time to go home. Several instances had made me doubt the character of ATI, and Bill’s illegal employment practices (such as telling us not to turn in overtime hours for any work done at conferences or our pay would be deducted) made me anxious to leave. I didn’t have anyone else besides my parents to tell what had happened. I had heard plenty of stories of students being sent home from Headquarters when they complained or mentioned disagreement with Bill Gothard, so I didn’t dare open up to any of my friends there or share my concern about his uncomfortable actions. I had already been told by my parents that if I got sent home from Headquarters, I could consider myself kicked out of my parents’ home as well.
And so when my year was up I went back home. A few years later when I got married and expanded my sexual knowledge a bit, it didn’t take long to recognize that what Bill had done to me at Headquarters was sexual in nature. I had never heard of feet as a turn-on. At the time, I barely knew the mechanics of sex, let alone what would be considered a sexual fetish.
As I kept in touch with various friends, and as we would talk about our Headquarters experiences, I began to realize that I wasn’t the only girl this happened to — far from it. Other girls began mentioning to me that Bill had inappropriately touched them too. Almost everyone complained about his feet being just the start of his uncomfortable actions. Other girls mentioned the meetings alone, late at night in his office. Many said they had been uncomfortable with the intimate actions, looks, and whispers from Bill, but it took years for some of them to realize it was considered sexual harassment. Many of these girls, like me, came from sheltered homes and were clueless about sexuality. And it was hard to believe that someone who cared for them and took such a personal interest in them would be using them. While it didn’t feel right, they felt unable to stop it, and many were full of anger and fear — anger for what was happening, but fearful to be seen as ungrateful for all Bill had done to help them or their families. Some, like me, had been scared into silence because their parents had threatened to kick them out of the house if they “spread a bad report” or told anyone what Bill had done to them.
I am now happily married to the man of my dreams and we have a little girl. The desire to protect her is very strong, and now I’m able to see what happened to me in a new light. What if my daughter were invited to work for the head of a Christian organization? What if she were required to wear certain clothing, keep her hair in a certain style, and apply her make-up with a specific look? What if the leader were to specify the color of her nylons and nail polish, and then invite her to spend time alone with him in his office? What if he were to take her on overnight trips and touch her in ways that made her feel uncomfortable. How would I react? How should I react?
Add to the above scenario that the man in question is a leader without accountability and he has the power and influence to fire you from your job and send you home in disgrace if you come forward. Would my daughter feel the freedom to speak up?
I did the only thing I felt I could do at the time: I told my parents. And they chose to believe that the man they followed and trusted with their lives — and the life of their first-born daughter — was infallible.