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The GOTHARD Files: Failure to Reconcile 1981–ATI, part two
In our research for these articles, we have worked with a group of former IBYC staffers, volunteers, and associates who witnessed these events firsthand. In addition to the group’s first-person accounts of the scandal and surrounding events, they have shared with us a large volume of related documentation. Their memories, notes, and records have allowed us to write about these difficult events with evidence and accuracy.
The LA Committee was launching its own massive last-ditch effort to hold Bill accountable. Using their personal funds, the committee drafted a unified letter dated January 19, 1981, with a list of 28 questions they wanted answered, stating that in spite of their removal from seminar operations, they would continue to meet monthly to pray for the ministry, and would continue to be available, asserting with obvious emotion, “We feel we cannot just walk away from this ministry. We still love Bill; and, after years of devoted service, we cannot fail him or the Institute in this regard by walking away when there is such an obvious need for purification.”
The LA Committee concluded their January 19 letter with a prophetic warning: “We are concerned that without complete healing, the seminar ministry will continue to lose effectiveness and, in the end, give the world a cause to mock God through the failure of Christian lives.” The letter contained twenty-four individual signatures, the result of their painstaking commitment to unity and the ethical and moral standards they sought to preserve.
Bob and Muriel Hodel, restaurateurs and longtime alumni and committee for California’s Bakersfield Seminar, followed the LA Committee’s letter with one of their own on January 24, 1981. The Hodels had decided to disassociate completely from the ministry. They stated, “We have come to the conclusion that the basic intent of Bill and the board is to move ahead without properly dealing with the past. To do this makes the message of the seminar open to many dangers in the future. The seminar is no longer a living demonstration of its message.” The problems within the Institute had overtaken their lives for eight months, and their commitment to Bill’s reconciliation had resulted in nothing more than utter exhaustion, frustration, and disillusionment. To this day, their children look back and remember how the 1980s scandal overshadowed every aspect of their lives, and the family remains determined to having nothing to do with IBLP.
Bill’s former staff had not yet seen things resolved to their satisfaction either, and they were still in many ways personally unsettled, as there had been no real closure following the intense summer of firings in 1980. Some former staff members discussed what could be done, if anything, to force Bill Gothard and IBYC to become accountable and to address the core issues of the problems. Bill’s tactics were so heavy-handed and devoid of accountability that there seemed to be nobody he would listen to. They decided to take an “Al Capone” style approach to the problem. Al Capone was a Prohibition Era mob boss in Chicago in the 1930s. His approach to resolving conflict was decidedly more criminal in nature than Bill Gothard’s, as most of his opposition ended up dead. The FBI could never seem to catch Capone in any of his criminal activities, so they decided to nail him on tax evasion. It worked. Perhaps a similar approach might force Bill into an honest reconciliation with those he had so grievously harmed throughout the scandal. A few former staffers agreed that the IRS might be a reasonable avenue to force the issue, but a preliminary contact revealed that the IRS was elbows-deep in a similar, but bigger, non-profit church investigation, and it wasn’t ready to add IBYC’s issues to their docket. Another idea was a class-action federal lawsuit. This would force the Institute to provide documentation pertinent to accusations of payroll fraud and other unethical practices. It would also force Bill to be deposed under oath.
Several of the former staff members got together sometime in 1981 for the first of many reunions that have continued to this day. This first reunion was to discuss what might be done about Bill. Bill’s former chief pilot’s brother happened to be an attorney and had done some research for the group. The former director remembers, “A major portion of the meeting was taken up with how you translate what took place and how it violated Federal Law. The concept of sexual harassment was not even in the dictionary at that time, let alone defined in the law. Most of the issues got transferred into Wage and Hour Employment law, and transferring women across state lines, for immoral acts (Illinois to Michigan).” The attorney made it clear that none of their options would result in a financial windfall. In their minds, however, a lawsuit was not ultimately about the money. It was simply the only option left that they could see might properly address the issues Bill had steadfastly refused to address.
The attorney made one more thing clear to the former staff: a lawsuit that forced Bill to tell the truth would be equally invasive into their own personal lives. The former director clearly remembers what the attorney told them,
“Basically their life would be turned upside down, and every aspect would be scrutinized. [The attorney] made it clear that this person should be from the normal rank and file of employees, the one that could best represent the “class”. After he had made it clear what to expect no one stepped forward. Keep in mind that none of the girls that were involved with the serious sexual aspects were in attendance at this meeting. Only one girl was there that had a lesser encounter with Steve. Everyone was still trying to rebuild their lives, support their families and move on with their lives. I was surprised that [the aide] did not sign on, though he had personal reasons not to step up on the lawsuit even though it was his initial idea. I was concerned that if we did not move forward with the suit Bill would just get away with it again as he had done in the past. During the meeting, I asked if I would qualify as the petitioner. [The attorney] made it clear that to some degree I would, but that there was also a chance that it would be dismissed due to my somewhat “executive” position at IBYC. [The attorney] questioned me on my responsibilities and questioned me on my ability to hire and fire any one. Of course I did not; no one had that other than Bill, his dad or Steve. The final conclusion would be that I could be the petitioner; however, a weak one, being that no one else volunteered.”
The problem now was, how would the class action lawsuit be financed? The former staff had no money, and a lawsuit was going to be expensive. This issue was resolved by the aide’s uncle, who was also a Wheaton College graduate and a long-time acquaintance of Dr. Gus Hemwall. The uncle corresponded with Bill over his willingness to involve himself in the lawsuit as a last resort, if Bill continued to refuse to address the problems. After some initial correspondence between the two men in an effort to build a bridge of reconciliation between the dismissed staff and Bill, the aide’s uncle found himself reeling in astonishment from a 19-page letter Bill had personally sent to him, describing the aide as many as sixty-nine times in the letter as an “agent of satan.” Bill had based the letter on his authority teachings, describing in great detail the ways he felt the aide had not conducted his (requested and sanctioned) investigation of the scandal in a manner that demonstrated that he was under authority. Bill had printed and distributed the letter to the aide’s home church, several of his unsuspecting family members, and many pastors and Christian leaders nationwide, which resulted in the aide being blacklisted from ministry for many years to follow. It was a salacious piece of tripe that many of the former staff and alumni who knew the aide well became highly indignant over. On the right is a letter from a former IBYC secretary, one of many of the staff who had left in June of 1980. This is the same secretary whose papers were ripped from her typewriter as she was preparing for a board meeting just a few months earlier. Those who had chosen to continue supporting Bill—and to accept his assurance that the ministry was moving forward wiser and with lessons learned—were in approval of the “agent of satan” letter, in spite of the fact that Bill was actively spreading a bad report.
With the financing for the lawsuits covered and a viable name to attach to them, two suits were filed (Click Here to view first suit, Click Here view second suit). Before the suits were filed, the Christian Legal society had contacted Bill and offered to help resolve his issues with his former staff in accordance with Matthew 18:15–18 and I Corinthians 6:1–11. John McLario was no longer running IBYC after his seventeen-day stint as its president, though he was still retained as a legal consultant for the ministry. He had informed the Christian Legal Society that IBYC preferred not to use their services. The board had other ideas. The former director explained to us what took place: “We found out that some time in the past the IBYC board had purchased Board liability insurance to protect themselves from this type of situation. With that money they hired the second largest law firm in the country (at that time), Sidley and Austin. This was from the outset a Goliath vs. David situation. They had a national law firm; we had a nice guy from Topeka.”
According to the former director, Sidley and Austin had plenty of money and could afford to be brutal.
“Their first step was to ask to have [the first lawsuit] dismissed based on my position and I believe the judge did dismiss it. We appealed it and won, and it was reinstated. To say they were vicious would be an understatement. They accused my wife of stealing from the kitchen; they wanted all my phone records, tax returns, and everything about my life was now open. [The attorney] had warned us of this back in Denver. I guess that was why no one else volunteered.
“Our only goal was to get Bill to be deposed. Since I was the one who brought the suit I had to fly to Chicago on two different occasions to be deposed on two five day sessions. I think the deposition ran almost 900 pages from what I saw. [The attorney] and I sat at one end of the table and around 6 or 8 of their attorneys sat at the other end of the table. There is no need to go into the details, but their only goal was to prove that I was not a qualified class representative.
“Needless to say, we were not successful in getting Bill deposed. They fought with everything they had to prevent that from happening.”
The former aide remembers his own separate deposition well, also.
“[W]hen deposed for 40 hours by [Gothard’s] law firm in downtown Chicago, the group of attorneys were very good at grinding, testing, cornering and playing chess with details in preparation for later days when they hoped to catch you in some inconsistency. They asked me about every key word I had ever written, all my notes [I had taken], down to every jot and tittle. Their chief antagonist was expert in the Greek and Hebrew languages. He took many Scripture references I had used in my notes and comments to [Bill Gothard] and asked me if I knew what tense and what mood each word was in the Greek language.”
This chief attorney commended the aide privately on his responses, saying, “You are doing very well.” This was, after all, the man who had documented the scandal painstakingly over a period of many months.
The aide was not named in the lawsuit, nor was he party to the class action. It is the former director’s opinion that the deposition was used as a form of punishment for the aide’s role in exposing the scandal or to find out what information he actually possessed. In the end, Steve’s former assistant, who had still not been dismissed for his role in the scandal, but was now working under Bob Bulmer, was pulled in to testify to the former director’s role. “He was very clever to elevate what I was playing down as my ultimate responsibilities. I did have a great deal of responsibility, but no title that outlined that responsibility. I do not believe that my salary was any greater or less than anyone else’s. By this time, it was early 1983 and IBYC went back to court armed with [the assistant’s] statements regarding my responsibility seeking to have the suit dismissed, Summary Judgment. They were successful and it was dismissed for a second time.”
The former staff regrouped to discuss their options. Their financial backing had been depleted, and the team had already spent quite a bit of their own money responding to the demands of the larger law firm. The firm was seeking money from the former director named in the dismissed lawsuit. He remembers, “So, if I could just write them a check for a half million everything would be okay. Since that exceeded my petty cash fund I offered them the opportunity to proceed on the alumni lawsuit. They did not get excited about that. Option two, [I suggested that] if they would not make my life a living hell trying to get a half million out of me, I would drop the second lawsuit. I guess they did not know we (the team) were broke and they agreed.” The exhausted former staff believed that they had done all that they could, and although it hadn’t been enough to hold Bill accountable, it is enough to know today that they did put forth the enormous effort and personal sacrifice to do their part for the victims of the scandal.
The former director told us, “Years later, Bill accused me of spending a half million dollars of the Lord’s money. Our cost was less than $20,000 on this lawsuit, David versus Goliath. I countered back that an honest man would not have to spend a penny to walk into court and put his hand on the Bible and tell the truth. He did not respond.”
Right about the time the class action lawsuit was being dismissed, Bill was gearing up to launch his latest big venture: the Advanced Training Institute of America. ATIA would serve as a replacement for his squashed plans to start a school for alumni children on his Oak Brook campus. Instead, he would start an “apprenticeship program” that would allow him to bring young people onto the IBYC campus for the purpose of ministry. This idea resolved his staffing crisis following the 1980 Scandal, and it provided free labor to many of the businessmen’s retreats and counseling seminars that Bill was starting to offer at the Northwoods and around the country. Many other articles have been written to describe the emotional and spiritual aftermath of the ATIA (later ATII, then simply ATI) ministry, and we will not go into that here. Many students who have fond memories of those days interacting with like-minded young people look back with the realization that in the process of building friendships and learning basic skills, they were also being exploited.
The few members of Bill’s former staff who had tried to step back into the picture and help rehabilitate Bill found themselves increasingly disturbed by what they saw. Bill’s former pilot, who was now married to Bill’s former executive secretary, recalling an experience in the mid-’80s, said “it became obvious to us that Bill was taking financial advantage of the ATI students, and this made our resolve even stronger that Bill had not changed and was one of the issues that caused us to break our relationship with him. Let me explain. We had an all-expense paid vacation to this medical seminar [in the Northwoods] with our daughter; the doctors had this wonderful getaway with their wives and paid very little for the required continuing medical education training that all medical professionals have to take. It was not just doctors and their wives there, but ATI students. I remember Bill saying that the ATI students were all encouraged and given time to attend the sessions and that he was working on an ATI type medical school similar to the legal one. It sounded wonderful, these bright young kids (that all looked and dressed the same) could sit shoulder to shoulder with doctors and learn how God really wanted medicine to be. But that was not the whole story. Each ATI student had to pay their own way to Chicago, then the Institute drove them to the Northwoods in a bus; again, they were charged for that privilege. I don’t remember if they had to pay for room and board but they were there to work. The girls cleaned the rooms and facility. The boys were waiters and worked in the kitchen and did the ‘heavy lifting.’ I remember the kids were tired and during any free time they just wanted to hang out and not hear a seminar on ‘Vasectomy Reversals.’ Some rode bikes and could get away in mixed company and circumvent the attempt to segregate them. Ruth and I walked away thinking that the only difference between us and them (ATI students) was that we were paid staff (not much) and the kids were paying to be staff under the guise of “apprenticeships.” The whole thing in our mind was a sham and, as I think [the former director] said, a new revenue stream.”
Their experience has certainly jaded the “old guard” against any action Bill may appear to take today in making things right with those he has harmed. They would strongly encourage today’s staff and leadership to prayerfully consider their actions going forward. We have been asked by several from the 1980 Scandal to be clear that it would not be enough to hire a figurehead to replace Bill. Such an action would simply give IBLP enough credibility to continue the ministry in a manner that will not disrupt the current cash flow, but it would not necessarily change anything in the basic operations of the ministry. They believe that Bill would likely choose someone “who will be generally accepted by the staff, and who hasn’t been actively raising the alarm against Bill.”
We believe that God doesn’t need the efforts of man to protect His message of grace and forgiveness. Conversely, we believe that He doesn’t need Christians to cover up sin to “protect the cause of Christ.” God can take care of Himself and protect His message. But our concern is for the victims—past, present, and future. Following the 1980 Scandal, four men wrote and signed a document detailing their reasons for pursuing the issues regarding Bill’s life and character. We, the children of IBYC and its ATI affiliate, can relate, at least in part, to their words:
“Four years ago, [in 1976, we four men] tried to approach Bill about the need in his life to examine his own character. He had admitted to pride, wrong priorities, and personal inconsistencies as being the causes for his rejection of the three men who approached him. He admitted he failed them when they tried to warn him, and he rejected their reproofs. He also said, ‘I deeply regret that it has taken this tragedy as well as the leaving of additional staff to bring me to comprehend the full significance of the problem.’ He has, in essence, admitted that those men were more aware of his needs than he was. [Today, in 1980,] Bill has again rejected us before the task could be completed. He has not yet fully comprehended the significance of the problem.
“[We] who saw something four years ago that he did not see agree now that he still does not see it. The methods used in handling the recent turmoil are further indications that he not only does not fully comprehend the significance of the problem, but he has also become worse.
“We realize it can be difficult for those who do not know Bill as well as we do to comprehend the need in Bill’s life. We have great fears concerning the next four years if again the situation is not dealt with. [We] failed Bill four years ago when we did not cling to him for his own good. We do not want to fail him again. Love does not fail.”
1 Corinthians 13
If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love,
I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal.
If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge,
and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing.
If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast,
but do not have love, I gain nothing.
Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud.
It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered,
it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth.
It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.
Love never fails. But where there are prophecies, they will cease;
where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge,
it will pass away. For we know in part and we prophesy in part,
but when completeness comes, what is in part disappears.
When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child,
I reasoned like a child. When I became a man,
I put the ways of childhood behind me.
For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face.
Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.
And now these three remain: faith, hope and love.
But the greatest of these is love.