Corporate Accountability

Homeschooling Ministry Sued for Pattern of Harassment

There was an explosive new development last week in the ongoing scandal dogging the Institute in Basic Life Principles, the insular homeschooling ministry with close ties with the Duggar family. Five women, all former employees, interns, or volunteers with IBLP, sued the organization and its board of directors, alleging they enabled and covered up a pattern of sexual harassment.

As I reported last month in piece published in partnership with Talking Points Memo and the Investigative Fund, Bill Gothard, IBLP's founder and long-time president, resigned from the organization in 2014 after more than 30 women came forward with allegations of sexual harassment. At the time we went to press, none of these women had sued Gothard or the organization (Gothard is not named as a defendant in this suit, but IBLP and its board of directors — all men — are). The lawsuit, filed on Tuesday in DuPage County, Illinois Circuit Court, where IBLP is headquartered, seeks damages for Gretchen Wilkinson, Charis Barker, Rachel Frost, Rachel Lees, and a Jane Doe. David Gibbs III, their attorney, told me there may be more plaintiffs added as more victims come forward.

None of these five women were sources for my article. But Gibbs's description of the plaintiffs' experiences, which added more detail to what is in the complaint, are strikingly similar to those of some of my sources.

According to Gibbs, each of the plaintiffs experienced a pattern of behavior by IBLP. First, they were subjected to some kind of physical or sexual abuse or neglect at home. Their parents believed them to be “acting out,” and sent them to IBLP for counseling or training. Once there, Gibbs said, Gothard sought time alone with them, and “counseled” them about their past abuse. During these encounters, Gibbs said, Gothard inappropriately touched the plaintiffs, some of whom were as young as 13 or 14 years old. If they rebuffed him, Gibbs said, Gothard would call the parents and divulge what the young woman had revealed to him about the abuse at home, and then send her back into that environment.

Similarly, my source Leigh described her own encounters with Gothard:

Leigh had been raped as a child, and Gothard “counseled” her personally about it. The “counseling,” she said, consisted of blaming her for being raped because she wasn't wearing modest clothing, had “lustful thoughts,” and “didn't cry out to God” to stop her rapist.

“He told me the sin — the pain I felt in my heart over the years — was because of my sin in it,” she said. “So he had me confess my sin for being raped as a child.”

“We just trusted him, I guess,” Leigh continued. “He would listen to my story, get physically close, get me to try to cry into his chest.” That made her uncomfortable, she said, but she “grew up believing he was infallible.”

Leigh recalled other instances of familial sexual abuse in ATI families that were brought to Gothard's attention during the three years she worked for him between 2006 and 2009. “I would help him counsel girls who had been sexually abused by family members,” she said. “That was not an uncommon thing. He would counsel them with that [same] material, he would immediately send them home and never report the offenders [to authorities].” Mark said he knew others who had received that same “counseling,” including a girl who had been raped by her uncle when she was five.

The lawsuit also alleges that IBLP failed to report instances of child sexual abuse to the proper law enforcement authorities as required by Illinois law.

I reached out both to IBLP and Gothard for comment on the lawsuit and Gibbs's charges. IBLP did not respond; the phone was not answered at Gothard's home and there was no answering machine or voicemail. In a statement on his website in June, Gothard denied the charges of sexual harassment.

Before filing suit, Gibbs told me, the plaintiffs, through their attorneys, sought to resolve these issues with the board of directors, but to no avail. They allege in the lawsuit that IBLP's internal investigation of the sexual abuse and sexual harassment allegations — an effort, incidentally, in which Gibbs's father, David Gibbs, Jr., was involved — amounted to sweeping the scandal under the rug. The investigation found “no criminal activity has been discovered,” but that “Mr. Gothard has acted in an inappropriate manner.”

In May, reports about the Duggar family's secret — that Josh Duggar had sexually abused his sisters and a family friend, and was sent to an IBLP training center for counseling — led the TLC network to cancel their reality show, 19 Kids and Counting. But another reality star remains at the center of this saga: Gil Bates, the patriarch of the Bates family, which was first introduced to viewers on the Duggars' show, and now has its own reality show on the Up TV network. Bates is an IBLP board member named in the suit. (Bates's daughter Alyssa is married to John Webster, son of Rep. Daniel Webster, the Florida Republican who gained in the endorsement of the House Freedom Caucus in his ill-fated bid to become Speaker. The Websters, too, have long been involved in IBLP.)

In addition to seeking damages for the sexual harassment, Gibbs may also pursue claims based on IBLP's failure to compensate employees for their work. As I also reported in my piece, these workers often put in long, grueling hours of physical labor for little or no pay. “A lot of these girls were working, doing manual labor, renovating a hotel, painting walls, 11 or 12 hour days, axnd received no compensation. They would get a $50 cash payment once a week,” Gibbs said.

“In some measure this child labor force was almost like a group of worker slaves for the organization,” Gibbs added. “When you look at how they were mistreated financially, they were victimized at many levels.”

About the reporter

Sarah Posner

Sarah Posner

Sarah Posner is an investigative journalist and author of God's Profits: Faith, Fraud, and the Republican Crusade for Values Voters.