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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.
With Bill Gothard back in his seat as president of IBYC, there could be little left to say about what happened next. Those of us watching these events unfold from the vantage point of thirty-plus years in the future are leaning forward in our seats, wondering how such obvious corruption of power could have been allowed to continue. We cast our minds back to the names of beloved leadership and prominent speakers who surrounded Bill in the following decades, and we wonder how much they knew. We realize that there are individuals working with Bill in various capacities today who were major players during the scandal back then, and we wonder if they simply trusted Bill too much, or if they understood everything we have come to learn and deemed Bill above “normal” accountability.
Where were the champions for the victims? Where were the proponents of truth and justice and transparency? How could so many staff members have been so summarily dismissed that they had no voice that could stop the machine? Was Bill that powerful in 1980 that he could simply flick the switch and get the train moving again?
We do have answers to those questions. There is some peace in the existence of answers, although knowing nonetheless frustrates us, since there is nothing we can do now to help them. Not then, anyway. Today, Recovering Grace (RG) is doing what it can to carry the banner for the bold men and resilient women who were willing to stand up to Bill Gothard and his fervent followers.
The fact that Bill was back on board was not a complete coup for him. He was still banned from voting for a while, having “asked for a temporary leave of absence” (Board Meeting, July 25, 1980), which made him subject to the board for his actions within the ministry in a way that he had never experienced before. The board had already openly admitted that they had never functioned as a board is generally understood to function. Bill had made all the decisions and signed all the checks. The board had essentially rubber-stamped those decisions. Since Bill’s home church (which had ordained and commissioned him to Christian ministry) was refusing to review charges against Bill for the purposes of church discipline, stating that any charges against Bill were “a corporate matter,” the IBYC Board was the only authority Bill might recognize. IBYC was facing catastrophic loss if the board didn’t step up and take on its traditional role. For one thing, some of the seminar area committees around the country were recommending a hold on future seminars until the questions about Bill’s credibility and integrity could be resolved.
The problem was that the Institute had invested most of its surplus millions into buying property. Board notes from the late ’70s indicate that Bill was interested in starting a private school for the children of his seminar alumni. This school would be built on prime Oak Brook, Illinois, real estate, on land adjacent to the current headquarters. The problem was that the Oak Brook community vehemently opposed this proposal. They did not want to deal with all the non-residential traffic and other neighborhood issues that would come along with such a venture. As it was, though, IBYC already owned significant, beautifully landscaped acreage in Oak Brook and was buying as many houses and property as came up for sale within the neighborhood. By 1980, IBYC was land-rich and cash-poor. Had the seminars shut down even for just a few months, the Institute would have been financially unable to continue running its base operations.
One thing that has been impressed upon us by the former staff members who have been willing to share their stories with RG is that Board decisions regarding what to do about Bill will ultimately come down to finances. This is the problem that fell into the lap of one of Bill’s administrative directors in 1980. The director was assigned to look into the financial feasibility of shutting down the seminars, and came to the conclusion that doing so would require all operations to cease. The Basic in Atlanta had already been canceled by the Board on July 16, during Bill Gothard’s seventeen-day hiatus. The director suggested the sale of the Institute’s airplanes to help defray the costs. This strategy was agreed upon by the board on July 25, 1980—the day Bill was officially returned to his position. However, money was still going out. Steve Gothard was selling his personal property to the Institute for its appraised price of $75,000. Expensive word-processing equipment was being purchased at a cost of $15,000.
Settling accounts with disgruntled former staff was becoming expensive as well. Bill’s former aide was asked to resign, and when he insisted that he wanted to see the resolution of his commission by the Institute through to the end, the board handed him a letter of dismissal and a $6,000 check for his files on the scandal and his silence. The aide refused the money. Bill’s former seminar coordinator was offered a check in excess of $6,000 to do the same, including turning over his “folder of information” to the board. One of the LA Committee twins, who had worked on staff for Bill since before the first scandal in 1976, was offered $50,000 “to cover all claims with the expectation of signing a release to that effect.” The staff members were being strong-armed into silence. The advantage IBYC had over these individuals was that for some, their entire livelihoods had depended upon the Institute. Many of them had sold everything to come work for Bill, and being dismissed meant that they went from having all their basic needs met—housing, medical costs, even their children’s private educations—to having no place to live, no savings to fall back on, and no job to immediately turn to. A few thousand dollars from IBYC for their silence might be all that stood between them and poverty, until they could find alternative employment. Not everyone was offered money to go away quietly, and not everyone accepted it, but the activities of the Board in those days are nonetheless very telling. All the implied promises of shared Northwoods property and unpaid social security were swept under the rug. The shock and disillusionment among the staff in the aftermath of those days is difficult to describe, but it is acutely remembered by those who lived it, and by their children.
In August, the area committees were sent a letter from IBYC’s reinstated chairman of the board, Gus Hemwall, explaining that the seminars were going to be continued. The LA Committee pushed back, reminding the staff that the seminars had always been by invitation of the local church leaders, and that they had already been told that canceling seminars until things at Headquarters were resolved would be an option. The LA Committee requested that the October seminar in their area be postponed.
The Board refused again to postpone the October seminar. In an official letter, Gus Hemwall stated, “Our desire is to continue to work with your current leadership, but recognize that this can only take place as God leads you to fully support us in this decision.” The LA Committee was astounded. Steve had been fired and wasn’t even fully gone from the premises, even though he had officially been denied access to all IBYC property. Bill was on leave of absence, yet continued to run things in an unofficial capacity that effectively changed nothing. The finances had been checked over by an accountant who said everything looked great, and that seemed to be enough for the board.
There was no independent investigation taking place, neither regarding the staff scandal nor the financial questions. The Board was either being used by Bill unknowingly, or was complicit in his manipulations. Either way, their assertions that the problems were being dealt with were false. Nothing was being dealt with regarding the scandal, and the closer the date of the big LA seminar approached, the more the Board demonstrated their insistence upon moving forward regardless of the local pastors’ and committee members’ concerns.
Two men were assigned to the LA Committee problem. One of these men was Bob Bulmer, a long-time friend of Bill’s who, over the years, filled a variety of roles supporting the ministry. The committee later stated that they received phone calls from Bob Bulmer almost daily for the purpose of trying to persuade them to reconsider their stand. Bill was also in regular contact with the committee. On September 5, 1980, Bob sent out a letter to Regional coordinators stating that the Seminars would no longer announce a return date for the next seminar in their Friday night announcements with the wording that they would be coming by the invitation of their local committee. Rather, the wording would reference the preferences of the alumni that they would return. This would effectively annul any suggestion that if the committee changed its mind or asked for a postponement, IBYC would feel in any way obligated to consider their request.
In mid-September, one of the twins and the LA Committee chairman flew to Chicago for a national ACC and regional Seminar meeting. Knowing they would be absent from their LA office, the Institute secretively sent Steve’s former assistant (who had apparently not been fired for his part in the scandal) and another man to the Fullerton, California, office. They told the staff secretaries that their termination had “been ordered by the board because they suspected [that the committee staff] were using seminar files in questionable ways.” The secretaries were told to surrender their office keys and gather their personal belongings. The two Institute men escorted the women, weeping in disbelief, to the parking lot. One woman asked the men why they would swoop in unannounced like that and in such a heavy-handed way. One of the men responded that Christ was to come unannounced in the end times, after all.
The LA Basic Seminar went ahead in October as planned, but was video only and was staffed with chairmen and ACC’s from other seminar cities around the country. Attendance was less than a third of the normal fall attendance at this seminar, which of course put a serious dent in the financial intake from the seminar. The Institute was going to have to try to make nice with the LA Committee. In November, Bob Bulmer and the man assigned by IBYC to handle the Basic Seminars went to the LA Committee offices to discuss privately with area office committee members the Board’s desire to continue the seminars regardless of the committee’s full support. These individual meetings lasted anywhere from one to more than six hours. The committee was denied further communication with Bill. They asked each individual staff member whether they would be able to fully support the decision to continue immediately, to which each expressed a variety of responses. Some of the committee members asked pointed questions of the two men about what was being done about Bill and the scandal. Some expressed concern that things didn’t seem to be handled well. Others simply stated that they supported the committee’s decision to postpone the seminars until the scandal was resolved. One young LA Committee member took notes of the meetings and shared the following report of her interview:
“I shared concern about Bill projecting himself to be someone he is not, that was one of the main concerns of our committee. I shared even if only one of the things we have heard was true wouldn’t that be reason enough to suspect an individual and organization that espouses such high principles? Would Christ be pleased with the way people and situations were handled?”
Following the interviews, the LA Committee was informed that they had effectively resigned their positions due to their unwillingness to support the seminar returning to LA. This decision was sent out in a subsequent memo to the fifty-plus ACC’s nationwide.
Other area committees were becoming concerned that the issues were not being handled by the current board of directors. The Dallas committee sent a letter in December stating, “We earnestly hope that the confidence of the Christian community in the management of the Seminar can be restored at the earliest possible time. In order to do this we are unanimously agreed that the board of the Seminar must be expanded to include a substantial majority who were not in positions of authority during the period under question. A total membership of eleven would probably be adequate. Certainly nine would be the minimum.”
The pressure for an independent financial review and an independent investigation into the scandal allegations and Bill’s part in it continued. Back in October, the Board of Directors had discovered that Bill was still communicating with the former staff who had been fired or resigned. Bill was still trying to handle the situation on his own, and the result was that the concerns regarding his ability to lead IBYC were growing. The board was perhaps beginning to realize that Bill’s stated willingness to repent was not showing in his actions. They put it to a vote and informed Bill that he needed to stop calling former staff members.
The board made some other important decisions independent of Bill’s preferences at that October 15th meeting, including the long-requested hiring of Price Waterhouse to do an independent audit. The audit took several months, after which Bill released a statement to the effect that the audit uncovered reasonably acceptable non-profit practices based on similar ministry audits, in spite of the fact that he did not offer the audit opinion or required financial statements for public review. Bill’s letter referred to the audit and how it was performed, but did not give details as to the audit opinion expressed or if an opinion was expressed at all. An audit opinion is the pivotal and key piece of any audit, and the letter released did not contain this information. Without an expressed opinion, the letter from Price Waterhouse is meaningless in terms of a professional statement on the entity financials and their fair representation. We have been told that Bill never even discussed the audit in 1981 with his remaining staff.
Another step the board took was a vote to finance Steve’s move to California, a move which they had ordered several months previously. (Another cover-up: Steve had spent some time in the Northwoods following the scandal, in spite of having been banned from all IBYC premises. When confronted with this at the time, Bill had replied, “No one will know if you don’t tell them.”)
Bill was becoming impatient. For years, he had run his ministry as he saw fit, hiring and firing at whim, and signing all the checks as he deemed necessary. If Bill wanted something to happen, it happened. He had been the king of his castle, and it had been an astoundingly obedient castle. Suddenly, he found himself having to wait. He was banned from his daily phone calls to disgruntled staff. The board had asked him to leave the area “to rebuild his heart in the Lord.” He was going to have to wait months for an audit to clear his ministry from the cloud of financial distrust that hovered over it. His father was off the board, his brother was banned from the ministry, and the rest of his siblings were in varying stages of fury and distrust and bruised loyalty. Bill’s seminars were still happening, but Bill was not in attendance. The board wanted him to wait until the end of the year before they would decide if he would continue his live seminars, although he was allowed one or two appearances just to show his face and say a few words.
Bill chafed at the enforced inaction. He hatched a plan to fast-track his reinstatement to ministry. He called several respected pastors and Christian leaders of the day including Rev. Jack Taylor, Dr. Charles Stanley, Rev. Miles Seaborn, Rev. Gordan Dorian, and Mr. Jim Sammons. His plan was to set up a meeting at LaGrange Bible Church, where he attended and had been ordained. LaGrange had already refused to address any church disciplinary action with Bill, since they didn’t consider him to be under their authority. However, the rest of the evangelical world would see a meeting at this venue as an appropriate “Matthew 18” handling of the situation. Bypassing any actual investigation, Bill would get these men to publicly declare him clean of all accusations and recommend him for further ministry. Bill made the arrangements and purchased the plane tickets at Institute expense, although he later insisted that the men were coming on their own initiative. His audacity is astonishing, but what may be more astonishing is that these men agreed to attend, although it is possible that they didn’t understand precisely what Bill’s goal was for the meeting. Dr. Samuel J. Schultz, vice chairman of the IBYC board, found out about Bill’s proposal, and urged him to cancel the meeting. Bill refused. Dr. Schultz called an emergency meeting of the board, informing them of Bill’s intentions, upon which they immediately agreed that the meeting should not take place. Bill was called in. One board member, Dr. Roy Blackwood, faced Bill with the solemn warning, “If the church acts in a procedural way that does not really get at the facts and if they come to the wrong conclusion, they could damn the church as well as the person they are evaluating.”
Bill’s plan to never be fired from ministry was in serious risk of the most spectacular firing of his career, and he had no backup. He desperately attempted to turn the tide. Bill insisted to the board that he was in a quandary about the obedience he felt he must offer his own father versus his obedience to the direction of his board. Oddly, the difference between ministry accountability and familial accountability did not seem to exist in Bill’s mind. He told them that he needed his father to be on the board, so that his personal quandary would no longer be an issue for him.
The board did not make any immediate decision on Bill’s assertions regarding his father (although we know that Bill Gothard, Sr., was reinstated as a consultant in January 1981), and the LaGrange meeting never took place. However, the board did nod to one of the requests by the ACC’s by voting in an additional board member, Dr. Ed Brown, who had been with Bill since the beginning in 1964. Ed had resigned from the board in 1977 at Bill’s request, following several board meetings in which Ed had questioned the Institute’s finances. Dr. Brown was now back from the foreign mission work and agreed to come back on the board. However, Bill wasn’t finished attempting to re-establish control of his ministry.
The LA Committee was still meeting regularly to pray for the ministry and seek reconciliation. A flurry of letters and requests were being sent back and forth in a desperate effort to see justice done. Lists of questions were sent with the statement that if answers could be forthcoming, resolution could finally be found. In the end, though, resolution was not to be had. Bill convinced Board Chairman Gus Hemwall to insist on the removal of Ed Brown, as Dr. Hemwall hadn’t been present at that meeting and hadn’t been given the chance to waive his vote. Bill later informed Ed that he simply couldn’t endorse his return to the board, as he objected to his beard. Since Ed Brown had worn a beard the entire time Bill had known him, this reasoning came across as preposterous. Odd as it sounds today, Bill would continue to verbally employ that same reasoning to pick and choose those who would be involved in his ministry for many years to come.
Dr. Schultz and the LA Committee were finally convinced that nothing was going to change or be resolved with Bill. On December 11, 1980, Dr. Schultz read aloud a letter to the board, stating to his regret that that board had “little to report by way of progress to answer the questions by those engaged in promoting the IBYC ministry.” Dr. Schultz addressed Bill’s teachings, asking, “Can we conscientiously endorse Bill as God’s messenger above reproach and of good report when out there he is being compared to the Pharisees who were ensnarled in legalism with rules and regulation and principles of interpretation?” Dr. Schultz then addressed Bill’s behavior, stating, “On May 14, 1980, we as board members were shocked to learn of the gross immorality that had prevailed for some time among the staff under Bill’s supervision as president. The disruption that followed adversely affected the lives of almost the entire staff and families associated with IBYC. Their confidence in Bill was shaken and his credibility deteriorated rapidly in the wake of this eruption. At this crucial occasion, Bill took refuge and stated that he was under the authority of the board.”
Schultz concluded, “So Bill is our problem. He is our basic problem. We dismissed the staff involved in immorality and gross pornography with pornographic films ordered by IBYC personnel under Bill’s jurisdiction. Dozens of staff members have left with deep-seated grievances against Bill, not only since May but during the last five years, because of Bill’s failure to apply the biblical principles he taught in public. Over four years ago, many tried to communicate to Bill and his father the concerns they had about Steve but like Eli in biblical times, these warnings were ignored. […] This insensitivity to each warning continued in the life of Bill while he taught and developed biblical principles for years until Steve’s immorality was publicly exposed.”
Schultz ended his letter to the board with a list of the concerns that he felt precluded the board from endorsing Bill for further public ministry. Among the items were a breakdown of how Bill had not, in fact, remained under the authority of the board in spite of his public assertions; his refusal to apply the seminar principles to his own life; his efforts to resolve relationship problems with unapproved monetary payments rather than connecting in a personal way with his staff; the fact that some of his seminar principles were actually unbiblical; and Bill’s overall legalistic philosophy, which had resulted in an unprecedented level of personal control over all aspects of the ministry.
Dr. Schultz had finally had enough. On January 7, 1981, he released a statement of resignation to the Religious News Service.