Sexual Harassment Part 2: “Aren’t you making too big an issue of this?”

23 April 2012, 06:00



Editor’s Note: This is Part 2 of a two-part article documenting sexual harassment within the Institute. Please click here to read Part 1 first–“Exploited Innocence: Sexual Harassment at HQ.” After publishing this first testimony, we have continued to receive similar testimonies of sexual harassment by Gothard: Another Witness: Sexual Harassment at HQ; Third Witness: Sexual Harassment at HQ. In June 2013, Recovering Grace issued Gothard a formal call to repentance.

I know the story I recently shared may bring many questions to mind, chief among them, “Don’t you think you’re making too big an issue of this?”

The problems with Gothard’s conduct with his favorite young ladies are several and serious, and I’ll address them in Q&A format.

Why didn’t you just say “No” to the behavior, or confront Gothard?

At first I did not speak up because each individual incident seemed as if it could be explained away as an accident or social faux pas. Perhaps the hand-holding was a misread attempt at friendliness, perhaps playing “footsy” was an attempt to be casual, perhaps gazing intently into my eyes for long minutes was an attempt at spiritual communion, perhaps lingering alone with me in the bedroom was a mere lapse in etiquette. It was the staggering aggregate of several behaviors repeated dozens of times over days, then months, that I could no longer ignore and soon sought to evade. Incredible mental gymnastics were and are necessary to explain away the entire collection of events as accidental or minor. Nevertheless, I did not know how to confront such a master of rhetoric. I had many times witnessed Gothard turn conversations and correspondence against those who questioned his actions, and I did not have confidence that I could frame an objection or appeal that could lead to a different outcome. I was afraid that the consequences of doing so would be a disgraced dismissal from Headquarters or the compromise of my reputation. Other staff members had frequently been sent away under suggestion of misconduct after disagreeing with Gothard’s teachings or actions, and I did not wish to join their ranks.

From what I know of the girls whom Gothard treated this way when I was in his orbit, each was either (1) from a background wherein she was not allowed to set boundaries with authority figures, (2) from a background wherein she received inadequate fathering, and so craved the attention, or (3) was aware that the behavior was inappropriate, but decided that that she couldn’t risk harming the ministry or her own reputation over it. I was in this last category. When at the end of the San Jose trip I described earlier, I finally summoned the courage to discuss with my female traveling companion Gothard’s literally hands-on approach, she agreed that it was troubling and wrong, but said that many people looked up to Gothard and would be terribly let down to know he behaved in this way. At the time, I agreed with the logic that we should protect Gothard’s reputation at the cost of our own rights to our bodies and to not be habitually touched by this older man.

If the behavior was so serious, why didn’t you just leave?

I had set aside a year of my life to complete a project that Gothard had convinced me was God’s will for me to complete, and I later stayed because I still believed in the work of IBLP (the Institute in Basic Life Principles). At the same time I employed a variety of strategies to avoid Gothard’s personal company. In retrospect, I should have left months sooner, but I did not have the courage or wisdom to do so as a teenager.

Gothard plays a mind game with certain young women who may attempt to graciously and discreetly evade his physical affections and implied emotional intimacies. He wordlessly removes that option from the table while verbally assuring them of the importance of their continued presence in the ministry. He uses his position of spiritual and organizational authority to frame leaving his side as leaving God’s will and losing the most effective place for ministry.

If the behavior was so serious, why didn’t you report it?

The problem was with whom to approach with concerns. IBLP was, and still is, structured in such a way that Gothard has no accountability outside of his Board of Directors. During the events I previously described, the Board of Directors was approached with this concern among others, and in turn, approached Gothard with it. This concern was based on reports from students who had worked and traveled with Gothard, and had I known of the Board’s actions at the time, I would have contributed my testimony.

The Board was scattered across the country and convened infrequently. At Headquarters, there was no relevant authority figure to approach with such a report, as the personnel department was in no position to investigate or curtail Gothard’s conduct. I feared my objections would sound like absurd overreactions to other ATI (Advanced Training Institute) people aside from girls who had been in the same role I was in. I was eventually able to articulate my situation using the following sentence: “Mr. Gothard takes liberties with young ladies; liberties that have not been extended to him.” This took the focus off the violations of personal space and privacy that could individually be explained away as “misunderstandings” or “not serious,” and placed the focus on the unauthorized and unwanted nature of the contact.

Don’t you think you read far too much sexual intent into minor incidents?

No, I think that in my youthful naiveté and admiration for Gothard’s work I gave him every benefit of the doubt, until doubt gave way to sickened certainty. At the very least, it is nearly impossible to imagine that a person with Gothard’s decades of experience in counseling and youth work would not recognize my and other girls’ dismay at his incessant attempts at physical contact and moments of engineered emotional intimacy. I would see his hand reaching for mine and pull it away as I managed a tight smile. I would look away from extended gazes, blushing in embarrassment and discomfort. I would try to gracefully change the subject when he, apropos of nothing in the conversation, asked for the “secrets of my heart.”  After the first incident of “footsy,” I would contort into whatever position necessary to try to keep my feet my own. I do not know how much Gothard did or did not sexualize this contact, but I know that he pursued it relentlessly and with disregard to the boundaries or consent of the young women involved.

Imagine for a moment if Gothard were as physically free with teenage boys as he is with some young women; imagine he frequently held hands with them, stroked their hair, petted and rubbed their arms, brushed their thighs, played footsy with them, and commented on their bodies, and imagine that these incidents recurred scores of times with many different boys over two to four decades. Would that be seen as acceptable fatherly behavior? What if he conducted himself this way with married women of his own generation; would people assume that the contact was purely brotherly? What if the Governor of a state behaved this way with young interns? There is no reason that the specific combination of Bill Gothard and young girls should receive less scrutiny or be held to a lower standard–especially when there are under-aged girls as young as 14 in the scenario.

Where are all these other girls?

I could name other women whose experiences were similar to mine, but their stories are theirs to tell. I’ve limited my account to things I personally witnessed, but first-person reports of this behavior stretch from the earliest days of ATI to this past year. Even if the behavior had been limited to a very few girls, is there a maximum number of young women it would be acceptable to physically harass before the scale tipped against Gothard? Does his social status grant him an acceptable harassment quota?

Don’t you think a truly immoral person would have made overt advances?

I make no conjecture about the state of Gothard’s soul, only a report on the patterns of his conduct. Gothard’s behavior is condemned by his own clear standards for members of his organization. He does not conform to the code of conduct he so strictly enforces, and any IBLP student or staff member who behaves the way Gothard has with the opposite sex is disciplined and/or expelled as soon as the conduct is discovered. “What I did was not truly immoral” has never been an accepted excuse from an IBLP staff member, and should not be an accepted excuse for Gothard’s violation of his own rules for others.

What’s the problem, if no real crime has been committed?

Actually, Gothard’s conduct could be categorized as sexual harassment in the state of Illinois, but in my situation the statute of limitations has run out. Here are the relevant excerpts from The Illinois Human Rights Act of 1980, 775 ILCS 5/8-111.

The Act applies to all employers who employ 15 or more people within Illinois for at least 20 weeks during the year. 775 ILCS 5/2-101.  It also applies to all employers who are sued for discriminating on the basis of handicap or for sexual harassment, regardless of the number of people they employ.

 An employee’s civil rights are violated when he or she is subject to sexual harassment. 775 ILCS 5/2-102(d). The Human Rights Act defines sexual harassment as “any unwelcome sexual advances or requests for sexual favors or any conduct of a sexual nature.” 775 ILCS 5/2-101. The Act is violated when these sexual advances or requests become an explicit or implicit term or condition of employment, the basis of an employment decision, or has the purpose or effect of substantially interfering with an individual’s ability to perform a job or creates an “intimidating, hostile, or offensive work environment.”

One can debate the definitions and specific applications of “implicit term or condition of employment, the basis of an employment decision,” and an “intimidating, hostile, or offensive work environment.” The fact that these topics are even in play, and that some young women affected were younger than 18 years of age, should serve as a red flag to current and prospective associates of IBLP, especially parents thinking of placing their daughters in Bill Gothard’s care.

For young women who have been in or are currently in this situation:

You are not to blame for this older man’s behavior. You did not ask for it, you did not cause it, and you are most certainly not overreacting to it. If you are subject to unwanted physical contact or to alone time with Gothard that is more intimate than you wish or feel comfortable with, trust your inner sense of caution. You are not obligated to spend time with someone who disregards or violates your boundaries of intimacy, propriety, or bodily autonomy, and you are certainly not obligated to alter your boundaries to accommodate him.

If it is possible, voice your objection or leave the situation. If that is not possible because of risk or circumstance, know that you are not at fault and not alone. Document your experiences, even if only for yourself. Discuss your experiences with those you find trustworthy, including other young women in the same situation. Know that no indiscretion or shortcoming in your own life justifies your sexual harassment or spiritual abuse. Know that others have stood where you now stand, and that we’re cheering for you. Then turn around and walk out of there.

See how the experiences Ruth, Annette, Charlotte, Rachel, Meg, Lizzie, and Grace had with Bill Gothard fit together chronologically here, and behaviorally here.

Lizzie’s parents first attended the Basic Youth Conflicts Seminars in the 1970s, and her family was enrolled in the ATI program for most of the 1990s. Between 1994 and 1998 she spent several months at the Indianapolis and Dallas Training Centers, worked at IBLP seminars in five states, and served at the Moscow Training Center. She worked at IBLP Headquarters in Oak Brook, IL, 1997-98. Lizzie graduated from Moody Bible Institute and did graduate work at Wheaton College.

 If this sexual abuse series brings up any emotions that you would like to process with a professional counselor, please e-mail us at: [email protected]g. We would be happy to recommend some professional counselors who are associated with the Recovering Grace ministry and who are familiar with the fundamentalist background of ATI and IBLP.

All articles on this site reflect the views of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of other Recovering Grace contributors or the leadership of the site. Students who have survived Gothardism tend to end up at a wide variety of places on the spiritual and theological spectrum, thus the diversity of opinions expressed on this website reflects that. For our official statement of beliefs, click here.