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I had a smattering of random dots on a field of a thousand points. Reading the testimony of “Meg” a few weeks ago allowed me to connect some of those dots for the first time in 21 years. Her story struck a cold pang in my heart when it dawned on me that she was the secretary who had replaced me. While the lines that she described being crossed were further out than I had experienced, her accounts hit strangely close to home.
The first memory that I have of meeting Bill Gothard was at a counseling seminar at the Northwoods Conference Center in Watersmeet, Michigan. It was 1989, and I was a brand-new student in the Advanced Training Institute of America (ATIA, later ATI, the IBLP homeschool program). I was walking past the head table in the dining room when Bill suddenly broke away from the bustle of students around him and strode over to talk to me. I was dumbstruck.
Taking my hand, he leaned in with a boyish grin and said, “I’ve been watching you. Did you know you have the brightest countenance in this room?” Memories grow hazy after 25 years, but that particular moment is highlighted in my mind, and it struck the tone for the next four years of my life. I was seventeen.
For the life of me, I couldn’t figure out why in the world he would choose me, but Bill wanted me to come work at the Headquarters—and right away. It wasn’t long before I was working in his correspondence department. It soon became clear that I was special to him. I could make him laugh, and that was something I particularly enjoyed doing. He would always say, “You’re such a character,” and he regularly reminded me, “You are my energy-giver.”
It seems needless to outline too many details about my daily interactions with Bill Gothard because I was given the same type of singling-out attention that has now become a familiar pattern: the nudges and whispers and too-close-for-comfort car and van rides, the fixation on altering my appearance, the seclusive demands of time, the unwarranted attention, the controlling protectiveness and verbal undermining of my parents, the deeply personal questions—and, yes, the foot thing.
Bill said my naturally curly hair was, “distracting and worldly.” He revealed that, “It might be a temptation to men that you have such wild curly hair.” I started using hot rollers. He informed me that, although I had a “beautiful closed smile,” the small gap in my teeth was distracting. He encouraged me to have it fixed–for free. [Editor’s note: This procedure was performed by the same license-revoked dentist who participated in Meg’s dental work at HQ.] Bill asked, “Have you ever considered having your teeth whitened?” He pointed out that I should consider having the tiny mole on my face removed. He noted a very dim birthmark on the side of my face that nobody ever notices. My already shaky perception of my appearance grew worse. I was beginning to realize that I was even more awkward-looking than I had previously thought.
Living like this just became normal to me. Even though Bill treated me in a way that would have gotten others sent home, I justified it in my mind. I simply could not believe that a man of God would intentionally be inappropriate. I really didn’t know how to handle it, but the disconcerting emotions that I experienced were eased by the wonderful times I shared with my darling girl friends. The constant inward compulsion to continue serving God with a grateful and cheerful spirit deadened the growing alarm in my heart.
It was while we were on a plane during a 1992 New Zealand/Australia IBLP trip that everything came to a deafening crescendo. The way that I felt on that plane made me realize for the first time, in bright lights, that something was not right. And the moment Bill reached down, grabbed my ankle, and began to move his hand up my leg, something snapped inside of me. It was from there on out that I began to feel my heart cower away from him, and the process of separating myself emotionally began.
Shortly after that trip, my dad and I both approached Bill about our concerns, first privately, and then with other witnesses. His apology expressed sorrow over our misinterpretation of his intentions. He assured me that his behavior was simply that of an affectionate father. He explained it all away. I was torn in my heart because I knew that this was not any way that my father would ever treat me, but I didn’t know how to express it. My parents decided it was time for me to come home.
Very few people knew the real reason I left. Leaving suddenly without a “reasonable” explanation brought a significant degree of embarrassment. I was disappointed and confused. I doubted myself and partially believed that somehow I had imagined all of it—as Bill had suggested. Maybe I was delusional? He expressed that he would never have continued the way he was treating me if he had sensed my discomfort. In fact, he told me a particular story about a young woman who had made it clear that she did not appreciate his attentions by repelling him and acting coldly. He explained that men can adjust their conduct toward young ladies by being discerning of their responses. I felt ashamed because I had failed to adequately indicate my uneasiness. After going home, I knew I must keep silent because it would be disloyal to share an “evil report.” I wondered if I would be painted as presumptuous and paranoid, and this also added an extra dose of silencing fear. That fear was confirmed to be well-founded when a friend later relayed that Bill had told her a story about my dad and me.
She recalls “…He told me that you had left his office because one day you were stepping down from the van and must have stumbled or something and he put out his hand to stop you falling, and that you must have objected to him putting his hand on your back, because your father called him demanding you to go home. He said it with an air of bemusement, like you were just very touchy.” This anecdote was a half-truth that seemed to cast himself in a victim’s light.
My father did not take confronting Bill Gothard lightly. It was done with great trepidation, and it took courage. My father is truly the meekest man I know. He did not approach Bill in a demanding fashion, as Bill suggested; he did it in a spirit of deep love and concern. This “grievance” that Bill reported to be the only cause for my leaving is not even an incident that I remember, and his implication that it was the sole factor for my going home gave the impression of mockery and belittlement. In retrospect, my friend wondered if it was an attempt to condition her to be more receptive to his advances.
My family and I hoped that my experience was an isolated incident, and that the Lord would work in Bill’s heart to be more cautious, but it appears that the pattern continued. A few years after I left Headquarters, my non-ATI husband and I were in the Chicago area and I wanted to show him where I had lived as a teenager. It was pretty deserted because much of the staff had already left to attend the annual ATIA conference. When we walked into the Staff Center and stepped into Bill’s office, he was sitting on the couch with a young girl. They were the only ones in the building.
Bill immediately jumped up and my husband recalls that “It was like walking in on two teenagers.” Of course I had shared my Oak Brook experiences with my husband, but I had mostly focused on my countless positive memories and just skimmed the surface of my misgivings. When my husband came upon this scene and quickly made the connections in his mind, a deep anger and sadness welled up inside him. The conversation with Bill was brief and extremely awkward. When we left the Staff Center, the mood was somber.
My husband brokenly asked me, “How did you work for this man for so long?” He could not understand why I had downplayed his actions toward me and wondered how someone who repeatedly holds a double standard could possibly be trusted as the president of a ministry.
Hope always believes. We want to believe the best about Bill. But when we stand back and evaluate his actions with our eyes on Jesus and our hope in Him, it leaves us questioning. We don’t expect Bill to be perfect. We all fall short. But how should we respond when we fall?
I have been thinking so much about the verse, “It is to a man’s glory to overlook an offense.” Overlooking an offense requires acknowledging the sin that was there. And yes, we have done that. Over time, I have experienced the freedom that comes from forgiving an unrepentant heart. It takes something supernatural to do it, and it feels unnatural, but healing and freedom can come without true repentance from our offender. And part of that freedom is accepting that even though the Enemy “intended it for harm, God meant it for good.”
In my situation, it was just a few months after coming home from Oak Brook that my future husband and I met for the first time. Our paths might never have crossed without that “upset” to my plans. I don’t say this lightly because I would never want to convey that God approves or tolerates evil to accomplish His will; He is always grieved by it (and in my case it was much milder than some have reported). But God’s comfort is extended to the afflicted and gives bright hope for tomorrow, even from the ruins of abuse.
The exposure of wrong-doing is overwhelming and the denial is heart-breaking, but I have grown to a firm resolve that covering it up has served no biblical purpose of righteousness. God used my time at Oak Brook to bless me with so many precious and lasting treasures, but I cannot ignore the real sorrow over the hurt as well. I have been in much tearful prayer that the Holy Spirit would guide us to restore our beloved brother in a spirit of gentleness. God has given me a voice—not to be a judge, but to be a witness of the truth that I know. Now is the time to trust God for justice and pray with a unified heart that the final outcome will bring healing and hope to all, including Bill Gothard.
Telling my story is scary, and it’s the last thing in the world I would ever have chosen to do, but the many women who have been hurt are worth standing up for. We are a family. I can find rest in knowing that the innocent have been warned, that we stood up for the oppressed, and that we have sounded the sirens. Forgiveness is what will free the broken.
[Editor’s note: The following was written by Robin’s parents, Fred and Barb.]
A few weeks ago Robin told us how women who had worked for Bill Gothard were coming forward with stories of misconduct. We were profoundly saddened but not surprised. Those stories brought back memories of reports relayed to us many years ago by Robin herself.
We had not been with ATI long when Robin was invited to IBLP Headquarters. She seemed to be thriving, and we were proud of the position she had as a correspondence secretary to Bill Gothard. When, a few years later, she described incidents of inappropriate behavior, we were stunned and confused. We always believed Robin, but wondered if she had misunderstood the incidents, or taken them out of context. But even if the “best-case scenario” were true, that this lonely man had fallen in love with our daughter, we still understood the behavior to be wildly inappropriate. The “worst-case scenario,” a predator willing to regularly take advantage of a misplaced trust, was so unthinkable that we don’t recall even having it come into our minds.
We spoke with Bill about these concerns, and while he apologized for the offense, he assured us that we had misunderstood his intentions. He expressed that we could trust him with our daughter. In speaking with other IBLP staff, we also remember sharing our growing caution about Bill working so closely with young women, how it just did not look right and seemed to make the ministry vulnerable to scandal.
Robin came back to Michigan and met her wonderful future husband. They were married, and the painful and perplexing events surrounding her abrupt return home from Headquarters were rarely spoken of. But in our hearts, it quietly festered. We had questions we never had the courage, or perhaps the humility, to ask. Doubts about whether we had done all that we should have were suppressed.
Now we look back, and it’s as if we are waking up. What on earth could we have been thinking? How could we have been so blind? How could we have been so naïve? We’re still not sure about those questions (although we have our suspicions), but we are sure about a few things: God is still God, and He is always good. This train wreck of a situation is not beyond His reach nor is it too spectacularly awful to be used by Him to accomplish His purposes. There is no formula for escaping our fallen nature—there is only Jesus. And He’s enough. He was enough before we were associated with the Institute and He’s enough now. Paul uses the metaphor of war, which seems to make this world a battlefield. And our enemy is vicious and remorseless. Battlefields are places where the wounded fall. Soldiers can be treated, they can recover, and they can return to the battlefield. That is what we are in the process of experiencing. In fact, we pray that will also be the case with all who have been impacted by these developments, including Bill Gothard.
After Robin returned home, our enthusiasm for the ministry gradually waned. Our four youngest children have never even attended a Basic Seminar. Much of what we’re describing happened before some of them were even born. The true things we learned from the ministry we continued to employ as best we could. It hasn’t been “easier” to be a Christian family since drifting away from IBLP, but I don’t know any families that choose to follow Jesus (or even those who don’t!) who find being a family “easy.” The enemy is heavily invested in disrupting family.
There is much work to do. Truth and Love need to be restored and upheld throughout the process. We pray that all wounds will be bound with compassion, and that justice is righteously applied wherever the damage requires it. We are altered by our involvement in this epic disaster, but not shattered. Bill Gothard has done a great deal of damage, but Jesus assures us that the enemy does not have the power to snatch anyone out of His hand. We believe Him.
Fred and Barb are the parents of ten children who have all put their trust in the Lord. Their hope and prayer is that each one of them would make Jesus their best friend for life, and that God will someday say to each one of them, “Well done, good and faithful servants.”