Ravi Zacharias: When Religion and Institutional Sexual Abuse Collide
With the ugly truth about Ravi Zacharias’ long-hidden history of perpetrating sexual abuse having come to light, the world is faced with yet another example of sexual abuse being hidden and enabled in an institutional setting—a religious institution in this case. Tragically, it isn’t an isolated example as more than a few churches and religious institutions have been accused of ignoring, enabling, perpetuating, and/or covering up sexual abuse to various degrees in recent years.
As painful and horrific as it is for these realities to surface, the deeper tragedy is the fact that the abuses took so long to surface in the first place.
According to reporting from CT:
A four-month investigation found the late Ravi Zacharias leveraged his reputation as a world-famous Christian apologist to abuse massage therapists in the United States and abroad over more than a decade while the ministry led by his family members and loyal allies failed to hold him accountable.
He used his need for massage and frequent overseas travel to hide his abusive behavior, luring victims by building trust through spiritual conversations and offering funds straight from his ministry.
The details that have emerged regarding the scope of the abuse that went unnoticed (at best) or ignored and covered up (at worst) reveal a deeply troubling portrait of the religious trappings that Zacharias incorporated into his abusive patterns:
A 12-page report released [in February 2021] by Ravi Zacharias International Ministries (RZIM) confirms abuse by Zacharias at day spas he owned in Atlanta and uncovers five additional victims in the US, as well as evidence of sexual abuse in Thailand, India, and Malaysia.
Even a limited review of Zacharias’s old devices revealed contacts for more than 200 massage therapists in the US and Asia and hundreds of images of young women, including some that showed the women naked. Zacharias solicited and received photos until a few months before his death in May 2020 at age 74.
Zacharias used tens of thousands of dollars of ministry funds dedicated to a “humanitarian effort” to pay four massage therapists, providing them housing, schooling, and monthly support for extended periods of time, according to investigators.
One woman told the investigators that “after he arranged for the ministry to provide her with financial support, he required sex from her.” She called it rape.
She said Zacharias “made her pray with him to thank God for the ‘opportunity’ they both received” and, as with other victims, “called her his ‘reward’ for living a life of service to God,” the report says. Zacharias warned the woman—a fellow believer—if she ever spoke out against him, she would be responsible for millions of souls lost when his reputation was damaged.
Institutional abuse happens when multiple levels of leadership and the very structure of the organization itself become a haven for predators wherein they are given access to their intended prey as well as positions of trust and leadership from which they can both perpetrate their abuse and attempt to protect themselves from accountability and justice.
Religious institutions are an important part of our society; however, as evidenced in the case of Ravi Zacharias and RZIM, faith leaders and faith-based organizations are not magically exempt from these abuses and the temptation to ignore/cover up failures. It is incredibly problematic when any organization eschews necessary systems of transparency and accountability and religious institutions are no exception. When robust systems of transparency and accountability are not present, history and our present reality remind us that religious institutions are not immune to sexual abuse scandals. Worse yet is when abusers incorporate religious elements in their abuse and in the cover-up of their abuse.
That doesn’t mean that all hope is lost or that all institutions are inherently abusive. Many are wonderful entities that serve crucial roles in our society—indeed, religious leaders and institutions have even played vital roles in fighting against abuse and exploitation throughout history.
What is key for institutions of all sizes is an honest and humble acknowledgement of the reality that they are not above the need for systems of safety and, beyond that acknowledgement, a commitment to applying systems of transparency and accountability across all levels of the organization and its staff—even and especially those in positions of trust and leadership.
No matter where abuse occurs, it is always wrong, and should be reported. There are several specific resources listed below. You can also visit our Resource Center for more.
National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-SAFE
National Sexual Assault Hotline at 1-800-656-HOPE
National Child Abuse Hotline at 1-800-252-2873, 1-800-25ABUSE
- Find a local Crisis and Counseling Center (Open 24/7)
- National Sexual Assault Online Hotline (Open 24/7) Live help for sexual assault victims, and their friends and families. Chat with someone for free and confidentially
- Empowering and training Christian communities to recognize, prevent, and respond to child abuse
- Keeping Children Safe sets rigorous International Child Safeguarding Standards to help organizations protect children from exploitation and abuse.
- Resources for male survivors of abuse include a 24/7 online support line offering 1-on-1 chat with a trained advocate, our free and confidential online peer support groups which meet weekly, and a wealth of useful information, including answers to common questions and an explanation of certain myths & facts.
- TAALK has many resources and a private forum with one section that is specifically for parents of children who have been sexually abused: https://taalk.org/forum.html
Visit our Resource Center for more.