Gender & Sexuality

New Charges Allege Rape by Prominent Religious Leader

A woman has charged in an expanding sex abuse lawsuit that Bill Gothard, founder of the Institute in Basic Life Principles (IBLP), a once-prominent evangelical ministry with ties to the Duggar family, raped her when she was a teenager.

The claim, made in an amended lawsuit filed by former employees, interns, and volunteers of the ministry, marks the first time one of a growing number of women who say Gothard sexually harassed them has accused the 81-year-old evangelist of rape.

As I reported for The Investigative Fund in October, five women sued the organization and its board of directors, alleging a pattern of sexual harassment and abuse that was enabled and even covered up by the organization's board. On January 6, lawyers for the plaintiffs filed an amended lawsuit, adding Gothard as a defendant and five more women as plaintiffs.

The original lawsuit came a month after publication of my investigation at Talking Points Memo's the Slice, reported in partnership with the Investigative Fund, about a long-simmering sexual harassment scandal at IBLP, and how the Duggars' reality show on The Learning Channel (TLC) sanitized IBLP's teachings when depicting the mega-family's fundamentalist Christian faith. The show included portrayals of the family's adherence to sexual “purity,” including the chaste “courtships” between the older Duggar children and their future spouses.

Former IBLP employees, interns, and volunteers told TPM and the Investigative Fund that Gothard would target particular young women for sexual harassment, including unwanted touching and suggestive comments. They also reported that he would “counsel” young women who had previously been victims of sexual abuse or assault by subjecting them to unwanted touching, and by telling them that if they dressed immodestly or did not “cry out to God” to stop their attacker, they shared equal guilt for their assault.

One of the original plaintiffs, Gretchen Wilkinson, charges that Gothard once touched her genitals. But Jane Doe II's charge is the first to accuse Gothard of rape.

Jane Doe II alleges that her family joined ATI in 1991, when she was four years old. At home, she alleges that her father and other relatives raped her, and that her father sold her for sex.

At IBLP, the complaint alleges, Jane Doe II “told Bill Gothard that she was being sexually abused by her father and that her younger siblings were also being abused.” Gothard, the complaint goes on, “took pleasure in the details” and “kept pressing” the young woman “for more explicit details of the abuse that took place.” She also alleges he raped her in his private suite at IBLP headquarters when she was 17 or 18 years old.

Reached by telephone at his home in LaGrange, Illinois, Gothard called all the allegations, including Jane Doe II's charge of rape, “terribly outlandish, they're ridiculous, and totally false, and I can prove that.” He also said, “I welcome that lawsuit because it's going to give me an opportunity to prove all of the allegations are false. That's what I'm working on now and I'm very at peace about it because I know it's going to work out right.”

To IBLP followers and members of its homeschooling arm, the Advanced Training Institute, Gothard was seen as an infallible authority figure, and they feared questioning either his doctrine or his actions.

According to David Gibbs III, the plaintiffs' attorney, “those who were victimized fit a pattern, and they were typically those who were victimized elsewhere or were abused at home and were in a tough situation and were sent there for counseling.”

Given their background, Gibbs said in an interview, it takes a lot of bravery and courage to step forward.

As I reported in September, Gothard who founded IBLP in 1961, built a ministry with facilities in seven states and tens of millions of dollars in real estate assets. The lawsuit alleges that the organization, from which Gothard resigned in 2014, is in the process of liquidating assets in an effort to evade paying out any judgment in the lawsuit. Although Gothard denies the allegations in the complaint, he provided an affidavit to the plaintiffs' lawyers in which he stated his opposition to the liquidation of IBLP assets and to a planned move of the headquarters from Illinois (where the lawsuit was filed) to Texas. He also states his willingness to meet with the alleged victims—something the board has refused to do, said Gibbs, adding that for the plaintiffs, “not to be given the dignity to even be heard is very, very painful.”

The lawsuit also charges that in February 2014 IBLP hired the Christian Law Association, which is headed by Gibbs III's father, David Gibbs, Jr., a longtime IBLP follower, to conduct an internal investigation of the sexual harassment charges. No report was ever made available to the alleged victims, and the board refused their requests for meetings, said Gibbs III. Gothard resigned from IBLP in March 2014.

The Christian Law Association did not respond to a request for comment.

In a statement on its website, IBLP noted that Gothard is “no longer associated with the Institute.” IBLP said it takes the allegations “very seriously,” adding, “we therefore welcome the structure and integrity of the court process as a means for determining the truth with respect to these allegations.”

Although not widely known outside fundamentalist circles, IBLP and its homeschooling arm, the Advanced Training Institute, were long held in high regard by evangelical families seeking “biblical” educational alternatives and “Christian” guidance on childrearing. In their TLC reality show, the Duggars were shown using IBLP homeschooling materials, including its “Wisdom Booklets,” and attending ATI conferences.

Although the whistleblower site Recovering Grace began publishing first-hand accounts of Gothard's history of sexual harassment in 2012, TLC continued to air the Duggars' reality show until 2015. It only canceled the show after tabloid revelations that Josh Duggar, who had risen to become the executive director of a leading religious right advocacy group, Family Research Council Action, had sexually abused his younger sisters as a teenager. Duggar, a married father of four, later also admitted to cheating on his wife and using the site Ashley Madison.

TLC later produced a special about two of the Duggar sisters, “Jill and Jessa: Counting On,” which aired late last year.

Gibbs III has asked the court to appoint a receiver or use another mechanism to ensure that IBLP's assets are available for any possible judgment in the case. “One of the questions that needs to be asked in light of these allegations,” he said, is “what is IBLP at this point? What is their educational or religious purpose, what are they intending to do with these public charity dollars?”

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.