Gender & Sexuality

More Plaintiffs Join Sexual Abuse Case Against Evangelical Ministry

Nine additional plaintiffs have joined the lawsuit against disgraced evangelist Bill Gothard and the ministry he founded, the Institute in Basic Life Principles, charging that the organization's board tolerated and covered up decades of sexual harassment and abuse.

In partnership with Talking Points Memo, the Investigative Fund published an investigation into the Chicago-area ministry last September, documenting decades of charges by women who said Gothard sexually harassed them, told them that rape was a woman's fault if she dressed immodestly and failed to “cry out to God,” and subjected them to grueling and humiliating physical work at his training centers for little or no pay.

The investigation also detailed how the Duggar family, of 19 Kids and Counting fame, were longtime acolytes of Gothard, and used IBLP's Advanced Training Institute to homeschool their children. The Learning Channel, which aired their reality television program, canceled the show last summer following the admission of the Duggars' oldest child, Josh, that he sexually abused five girls, including four of his sisters, as a teenager.

TLC recently announced the launch of a new Duggar program, which will not include Josh. The Duggars, who sent Josh to an IBLP “training center” following his admission, have never repudiated the teachings of Gothard and IBLP.

Five women sued IBLP last October, and in January, additional women joined the suit. Gothard was added as a defendant at that time.

The second amended complaint, filed in February, includes the claims of nine additional plaintiffs. One of the new plaintiffs, Joy Simmons, spoke at length to the Investigative Fund and TPM about her childhood growing up with the homeschooling methods of IBLP's Advanced Training Institute, and the years she spent working at IBLP facilities for little or no pay.

At age 24, she was sexually assaulted near her home by a man from another ATI family, and sent to IBLP as punishment. “I was isolated with no one to help me leave. I was brainwashed into believing God would hurt me if I didn't do everything I was told to do,” she said.

Shawn Collins, the attorney for IBLP, declined to comment on the complaint apart from pointing to IBLP's and Gothard's motion to disqualify the plaintiffs' attorney, David Gibbs III. They claim that Gibbs acted as Gothard's attorney for a time before the litigation was filed.

Gibbs disputes this account, calling the motion “utter nonsense,” because “Gothard, in my opinion, is attempting to distract from the real issue. People who are sexual predators are good at this.” 

Gibbs says Gothard reached out to him, knowing that Gibbs was representing his victims, in order to attempt to reach a settlement, and is now claiming he believed Gibbs was representing him. Gibbs told the Investigative Fund that his firm intends to “vigorously fight the motion to disqualify.”

Glenn Gaffney, an attorney representing Gothard, told the Investigative Fund that he is “very confident” the motion to disqualify Gibbs will be granted. He declined to comment on the more than 200-page complaint, except to say, “There are a few things in there that are true, but there's much in there that's not true. We can't get specific regarding all of these allegations, there's just way too much to comment on.”

Gaffney also threatened to sue the people involved with the website Recovering Grace who, he said, “have posted false and defamatory statements within that website.” Recovering Grace is a whistleblower site launched in 2011 to document the stories of former IBLP employees, interns, and volunteers, who say they were subjected to sexual harassment and other abuse.

John Cornish, spokesman for Recovering Grace, said Gothard's attorneys had not notified his group of which posts they considered defamatory. He said that Recovering Grace has published more than 500 articles focused on helping people whose lives were negatively impacted by the teachings of Bill Gothard, the Institute in Basic Life Principles, and the Advanced Training Institute,“ and that each one was published ”with extraordinary care and with the knowledge that we might one day have to defend our decisions in a court of law, as Gothard has threatened legal action in the past to silence his critics.“ He noted the irony of Gothard's legal threats, adding that Gothard ”taught for years that Christians should neither sue fellow Christians nor take fellow Christians to court.“

Other new plaintiffs to the lawsuit describe similar experiences to the women who spoke to the Investigative Fund for the original story. Megan Lind, who said was confined to a room as a teenager IBLP's training center in Indianapolis in the late 1990s, said she was permitted to leave the room for ”prayer“ sessions with Gothard, during which he rubbed her leg. ”I remember blocks of time sitting in there, frozen, and I don't remember what we talked about, what I said, I just remember being completely numb and terrified,“ Lind, now 35, said.

Because her parents, longtime IBLP members, ”worshipped“ Gothard and taught her that his teachings ”were kind of above God,“ Lind said she was ”brainwashed“ into thinking that she was ”lucky to be chosen to be prayed over“ by him.

Jennifer Spurlock, who was 15 when her parents sent her to the Indianapolis Training Center, was the victim of an attempted rape by another teenager there. IBLP staff did not report the attempted rape to authorities. Instead, ”it was always my fault, I was the one bringing it on,“ Spurlock told the Investigative Fund.

Spurlock, who had an eighth grade education when she arrived at IBLP, said she was locked in a room and then forced to cook meals and clean nearby homes. She was never given the opportunity to continue her education. ”We were taught that college was evil, a man-made institution, not a God-made institution,“ Spurlock said. ”Especially for a woman. My full purpose was to be a wife and to be a mother.“ She said Gothard told her she was ”rebellious“ for enjoying sports, going to the beach, and other activities.

”I wasn't allowed to contact anybody,“ about the conditions there, Spurlock told the I-Fund. ”If you contact anybody, you're going to bring down this wonderful thing we're doing here. I would be sinning against God.“

Spurlock is now 38 years old. ”I've struggled my whole life, not having an education, not being able to fulfill the dreams that I've always had,“ she told the Investigative Fund about her experiences at IBLP. ”Relationship wise, the trust factor, I have trouble getting involved in churches because I don't trust anybody. It's really rocked my whole world, it changed everything.“

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.