Ravi Zacharias’s Ministry Investigates Claims of Sexual Misconduct at Spas

Ravi Zacharias’s Ministry Investigates Claims of Sexual Misconduct at Spas
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Ravi Zacharias’s Ministry Investigates Claims of Sexual Misconduct at Spas

Editor’s note: See today’s related article about why we report bad news about leaders—even after they have passed away.

Ravi Zacharias International Ministries (RZIM) has opened an investigation into allegations that its late founder and namesake sexually harassed multiple massage therapists who worked at two day spas he co-owned.

Three women who worked at the businesses, located in a strip mall in the Atlanta suburbs, told Christianity Today that Ravi Zacharias touched them inappropriately, exposed himself, and masturbated during regular treatments over a period of about five years. His business partner said he regrets not stopping Zacharias and sent an apology text to one of the victims this month.

RZIM denies the claims, saying in a statement to CT that the charges of sexual misconduct “do not in any way comport with the man we knew for decades.” The organization has hired a law firm “with experience investigating such matters” to look into the allegations, which date back at least 10 years. RZIM declined to answer any further questions about the inquiry.

During his ministry career, the renowned apologist—who died in May at age 74 from cancer in his sacrum—spoke of chronic back pain resulting from a spine injury in 1985. He said he managed the pain with massage and physiotherapy.

The women who worked at the spas said when Zacharias wasn’t traveling with RZIM, he came in for treatment two or three times a week. The businesses were a 15-minute drive from the ministry’s headquarters in Alpharetta.

The three women knew Zacharias as the owner and a client as well as a Christian leader and famous author. Some of his books were sold in the store, and the employees read them so they could talk about them when he came in.

Zacharias was kind and took interest in their lives, according to the people who worked there. But over time, in the small private treatment rooms, Zacharias would make unwanted sexual advances, the three women each said independently. At first, they tried to ignore it, too embarrassed to call out a famous Christian minister. By their accounts, his inappropriate behavior only escalated.

“He would expose himself every time, and he would touch himself every time,” one of the women told CT. “It was where he went to get what he wanted sexually.”

Zacharias masturbated in front of one of the women more than 50 times, according to her recollection. He told her he was burdened by the demands of the ministry and he needed this “therapy.” He also asked her to have sex with him twice, she said, and requested explicit photos of her.

CT has verified the identities and job histories of the three women. They shared their stories under the condition that they not be named, fearing the stigma of coming forward as victims and possible retribution for harming the reputation of a famous Christian leader. They spoke with CT by phone multiple times over the past five weeks, and CT heard from three coworkers at the spas who corroborated elements of their accounts.

Their claims come three months after Zacharias’s death and three years after he settled a case against Lori Anne Thompson involving sexting allegations.

Thompson is not allowed to speak about what happened under the terms of a non-disclosure agreement but has previously detailed how the apologist requested naked photos from her, saying he flattered her and suggested he deserved the sexual release because of the great “cost” of his ministry. In a 2017 statement, Zacharias confirmed their communications and the photos but said they were unsolicited.

The women who worked at the spas said they have not spoken up previously because they do not want money, publicity, or even apologies for what happened. But in the wake of Zacharias’s death, they said they want other victims who may be out there—like Thompson—to know that they are not alone.

At the spas

Zacharias went into business as a spa owner in 2004, opening Touch of Eden in a shopping center in Johns Creek, an affluent, rapidly growing suburb in northeast Atlanta. Financial records obtained by CT indicate Zacharias invested at least $50,000 and was listed as vice president and owner of one-third of the company.

When Touch of Eden closed in 2008, Zacharias and his business partner Anurag Sharma opened a second spa in the same location. It was called Jivan Wellness, named for a Hindi word for “life.” Jivan remained in business until 2015. At the time, tax records show Zacharias was earning a total compensation of about $365,000 per year from RZIM.

Jivan Wellness grand opening in 2009.

Jivan Wellness grand opening in 2009.

Zacharias didn’t keep his involvement in the spas secret. RZIM confirmed its former president’s ownership of the businesses in a response to CT. He also had business cards listing him as the owner of Touch of Eden and appeared at a grand opening event for Jivan Wellness. The second spa’s website indicated RZIM’s relief arm—Wellspring International—was a beneficiary of the for-profit business.

Six to ten people worked at the spas at a time. Almost all were unmarried women trying to build their careers as licensed massage therapists, aestheticians, nail technicians, and small-business owners. The employees said that Zacharias, who came in for regular massages as well as skin treatments, made people feel special when he spoke to them and valued their intellectual and spiritual lives.

He asked the women about their professional aspirations and got them to talk about their personal background—including past relations, traumas, and abuse. The three women who spoke to CT each said that Zacharias gained their trust, and then the sexual harassment started.

“He would touch my leg, which was kind of by his hand, but then he would run his hand up to the middle of my thighs and then to the private area,” one woman said.

Another woman recalled Zacharias touching her lower back. It seemed friendly, almost comforting. Then he moved his hand down and inside her of pants. Several other times, he moved his hand up her side and touched her breast.

The women said they pulled away and pretended nothing had happened. Each worried they had done something wrong—maybe there was a misunderstanding or maybe they had done something to cause the famous Christian leader to “stumble into sin.” They hoped that their body language would communicate that the sexual advances were unwelcome.

“I felt ashamed. I felt embarrassed,” one said. “You have this world-renowned evangelist who is being inappropriate, and I had no idea what to do. He wasn’t just the head of the company. He wasn’t just a CEO. He was a Christian leader.”

When the women didn’t say anything, the sexual harassment escalated. The three separately allege Zacharias began pulling off the covering sheet during treatments and exposing himself. One woman said Zacharias showed her his erection at least 15 times in a few months.

“In school they taught us proper draping,” she said. “There’s a way you pull the sheet up so you can get to certain areas like the lower back. You wrap the sheet around almost like it’s a baby diaper. Nobody’s easily exposed. It was made to look like an accident. But it was on purpose.”

One woman said Zacharias was completely silent when he exposed himself. Another said he made “inappropriate noises.”

The third woman said that after Zacharias exposed himself several times, he asked her to massage his groin area and moved her hand there. It is possible that his back injury caused pain in that area, she said, so she complied with his request even though it made her uncomfortable.

By that point, they had talked for hours in the private massage rooms, the woman said. He had asked about her life, and she had told him everything from her career aspirations and her struggles as a single mother to her childhood relationship with Jesus and how she had been sexually abused.

The woman felt that Zacharias was ministering to her and “there was a holiness around him.” She thought she was, in turn, helping him and felt compelled to go along to an extent.

Then Zacharias tried to move her hand to his penis, the woman told CT. She refused and turned away as he masturbated. The next time she gave him a massage he exposed himself again and masturbated again. By her account, this happened more than 50 times over the next three years.

“He would say, ‘I need it. I need it. I need it,’” the woman recalled. "He would say he needed it so much and it was good therapy.”

Zacharias asked her to have sex with him. Both times, she refused because he was married. He told her that he dreamed of being able to leave his ministry and his life as an apologist behind to live a normal, private life. But he couldn’t because this was his “burden,” the woman recalled.

Staying silent

The three who spoke to CT said they did not tell anyone about Zacharias’s behavior at the time, which was around 2005–2010. They didn’t even speak of it to each other. One woman recalled sharing “a look” with a coworker. Another remembered someone hinting that Zacharias was using the spa to masturbate. A third wondered if another women had been harassed when she quit suddenly and her father came to get her things from the spa.

But the women didn’t speak out. They were afraid they wouldn’t be believed, or they would be blamed and could lose their jobs.

If they had wanted to report Zacharias, they would have had two options. They could have gone to the ministry bearing his name, where both Zacharias’s wife, Margie, and one of his daughters were on the board. Or they could have gone to the Christian and Missionary Alliance (CMA).

Zacharias maintained a license in the denomination, which says it disciplines Christian workers for “moral failure involving sexual misconduct.” The CMA holds that people are disqualified from leadership if their behavior causes “imminent harm to others or to the testimony of Christ.”

The disciplinary process can only start when an accusation is made to an ecclesiastical authority in person or by certified mail, however. The women did not know who held authority over Zacharias—if anyone.

They each stayed at the spas until they couldn’t anymore. They stayed silent long after that.

“I zipped it up and tucked it away,” one of the women said. “But the past is never just the past, and time does not heal all wounds. When you go through something traumatic, it affects your mind, it affects your body, it affects your relationships, it affects your spirit.”

Psychological studies of sexual assault victims find that about 95 percent exhibit symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, including overwhelming feelings of anger, betrayal, and isolation. Depression, anxiety, and self-destructive behavior are common. When the harm is done by a trusted Christian minister, psychologists say victims often suffer additional shame, feelings of personal guilt, and extended periods of spiritual confusion.

One of the women said she stopped believing in God for a while after her encounter with Zacharias but has returned to faith after extensive counseling. Another said she has not been to church since and can’t trust religious institutions. It took her seven years of therapy to come to the conclusion that what Zacharias did to her was not her fault, she said.

The third moved away from Atlanta, changed names, changed careers, and never mentioned what happened—not even to her closest family—until she was contacted by CT.

“I put all of that behind me,” she said. “I don’t want money and don’t want them to even know who I am. The only reason I’m talking is for other women out there who have been hurt by him.”

One of the women said she didn’t even think about coming forward until after news broke in 2017 that Zacharias had allegedly solicited explicit photos from a woman in Canada. She immediately knew Thompson was telling the truth, she said, recalling how after Zacharias had masturbated in front of her, he asked her for explicit photos when he was traveling.

Like that massage therapist, Thompson was also a victim of sexual abuse as a child and, over time, had shared her story with the famous apologist. They communicated by email and cellphone after meeting at two events in Canada in 2014 and 2015, according to an account Thompson wrote and shared with multiple people in December 2016, prior to the non-disclosure agreement (NDA). CT has obtained the written account from a third party.

Thompson writes that she grew to care for and love Zacharias as a father figure, honored by the attention of his regular communication. Then Zacharias began requesting photos of her, clothed and then unclothed, and eventually asked her to engage in sex over the phone, she said.

Wanting to maintain their relationship and care for him—especially after he complained of feeling “profoundly alone” while sacrificing so much to travel for ministry work—Thompson complied.

Zacharias traveled to 70 countries, according to RZIM, speaking to millions about the philosophical foundations and framework of the gospel. The organization that bore his name grew to a global enterprise with 17 separate legal entities and more than 250 employees from Atlanta to Singapore, from Spain to Peru.

“He stated so many times to me that the cost of ministry has been very high, that none of his time is his own, he has no privacy, no personhood left,” Thompson wrote in 2016. She added that Zacharias assured her that the Lord understood what he had sacrificed and implied their sexual exchanges were God’s way of rewarding him.

Thompson felt guilty, blamed herself, broke things off, and began therapy. “I feared that I had caused him to stumble into sexual sin,” she wrote.

The following year, Zacharias sued Thompson and her husband. He told the RZIM board that he had privately corresponded with Thompson, but denied everything else, claiming the explicit messages and photos were unsolicited and part of an extortion scheme.

The lawsuit was moved into private mediation and ended with an NDA. Though both sides agreed to non-disclosure, RZIM released an 800-word statement from Zacharias, explaining his side of the story. Then, Zacharias refused to answer further questions, citing the NDA.

Thompson has repeatedly asked to be released from the terms of the agreement. Victims’ advocates say they fear Christian organizations have in some cases employed NDAs as tools to cover up the truth. Rachael Denhollander, an abuse survivor and lawyer who has become a victims’ advocate, has said Thompsonshould be released from the NDA.

“Ravi's estate needs to release Lori from the NDA they forced on her,” Denhollander tweeted earlier this month “Survivors – your attorney should NEVER allow an NDA. EVER. Leaders – if YOUR attorney wants a survivor or witness to sign an NDA, you aren't getting help doing the right thing. Shame on you, and them.”

According to a statement from the RZIM board last week, the Zacharias family “does not feel it proper” to release Thompson from the confidentiality agreement.

In his 2017 statement, Zacharias spoke of the importance of leaders protecting themselves from “even the appearance of impropriety” and said, “I have long made it my practice not to be alone with a woman other than Margie and our daughters—not in a car, a restaurant, or anywhere else.”

The women at the Johns Creek spas where Zacharias was part-owner told CT that wasn’t the case when they worked for the apologist. He received massages, skin care, and facials in private sessions multiple times per week. The treatments were done in small rooms where Zacharias was alone with women.

‘Sad about all his demons’

Zacharias’s business partner Anurag Sharma did not respond to repeated phone calls, texts, and emails from CT over the course of a month. Sharma has, however, recently spoken with three people about the spas he used to own with Zacharias. They have each recounted their conversations to CT and shared documentation, including screenshots and recordings.

The people who spoke with Sharma said he acknowledges something bad happened at Touch of Eden and Jivan Wellness. He regrets that he failed to intervene but doesn’t go into specifics. He attributes his reticence to Zacharias’s charisma.

“I feel sorry that I followed him blindly,” Sharma wrote in one text to a former employee. “He was just another human.”

Sharma, an IT professional, met Zacharias in the mid-1990s. In one conversation, recorded by someone not associated with the spas, Sharma describes himself as Zacharias’s close friend. Even after the business relationship ended, they continued to talk until the day Zacharias died, he said.

“He had no friends, and he needed somebody talk to,” Sharma said. “He was very sad about all his demons, and he said that was the condition of the human heart.”

According to Sharma, the two men talked about high-profile Christians who had fallen from grace, and Sharma used those conversations to ask probing questions. In a recording, Sharma recalls asking Zacharias why famous ministers of the gospel seem to have more moral problems than regular Christians. Zacharias told him that everyone sins.

“I really never even doubted him, and I don’t know why, because I did feel this is not right,” Sharma said. “I should have understood that ‘all have sinned’ means equal to all, rather than putting people on a pedestal.”

RZIM declined to comment on Zacharias’s relationship to Sharma or the ministry’s relationship to the for-profit businesses.

Spokeswoman Ruth Malhotra said the investigation into the spa allegations will be conducted by a mid-sized law firm in the southeastern United States, and the ministry will not answer any further questions until the investigation is presented to the board.

“We at RZIM remain committed to truth,” Malhotra said. “It is the foundation of what we do and that has not changed.”

RZIM’s primary mission is to reach those who shape culture with the message of “the credibility of the Gospel of Jesus Christ,” and the ministry has continued—despite COVID-19 shutdowns and the loss of its famous namesake—to defend the Christian message.

The organization has 100 events planned for the month of October, from online Zoom conferences to speeches at Asian universities to seminars in Midwest Baptist churches. It enlists more than 50 men and a dozen women to carry on Zacharias’s work and ministry.

When Zacharias died in May, he was widely celebrated by evangelicals.

Two of the women who say he sexually harassed them in the spas agree that Zacharias was a great man who served and sacrificed for the good of the gospel. They even told CT the good he did promoting the cause of Christ may outweigh the pain and trauma that he caused them.

But they insist that that doesn’t mean the inappropriate sexual conduct did not occur. “Even with someone as godly as Ravi,” one said, “you can still be battling with the Devil.”

With reporting by Kate Shellnutt.

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Posted by:
Daniel Silliman
,
2020

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