(RNS) — Evangelical apologist, author and speaker Ravi Zacharias engaged in a pattern of sexual misconduct — including groping spa workers and asking them to massage his genitals, according to a new report commissioned by Ravi Zacharias International Ministries to investigate allegations of sexual misconduct by its founder, who died in May 2020.
Among the report’s other findings were romantic emails Zacharias sent to a woman in South Korea and a massage therapist in Thailand whom he called his “angel” and a collection of more than 200 selfies — some of them explicit — from younger women.
A number of massage therapists, including at least one who worked at a spa co-owned by Zacharias, told investigators that the evangelist often tried for “more than a massage.” Four massage therapists told investigators that Zacharias masturbated or asked them to touch his genitals during massages. Five said he “touched or rubbed them inappropriately.”
One therapist reported that after Zacharias “arranged for the ministry to provide her with financial support, he required sex from her,” according to the report. She said that Zacharias made her pray with him and that he saw her as “a reward” for his long service to God.
“She said he warned her never to speak out against him or she would be responsible for the ‘millions of souls’ whose salvation would be lost if his reputation was damaged,” according to the report.
In a statement, the board of RZIM said that it was “shocked and grieved by Ravi’s actions” and said the organization needed to repent. The board also said it now believes that witnesses who spoke about Zacharias’ conduct are telling the truth.
“It must have been deeply painful for the victims of Ravi’s abuse and misconduct to tell their stories and to relive their terrible experiences as they participated in this investigation,” the board said in a statement. “To you we say directly: Words cannot come close to expressing the sorrow that we feel for what you have been through or the gratitude we feel for the bravery with which you have responded. We are so thankful to you, and we are so sorry.”
Investigators from Miller and Martin, an Atlanta law firm hired to produce the report, suggested that there are more cases they did not identify. Their report warns that they only “sought to speak with those we thought most likely to have relevant information or who otherwise reached out to us.”
They note in the report that they found contact information for more than 200 massage therapists in Zacharias’ cellphone, including many from overseas.
According to the report, Zacharias used ministry funds to pay for some of his massages, including for a therapist who traveled with him. He also arranged for massages at the hotels where he stayed. While a member of his staff often traveled with Zacharias for “accountability,” the evangelist frequently would spend long periods of time alone on work trips.
He also often traveled to a pair of apartments he owed in Bangkok in order to work on his writing. The report cites texts from 2016 showing Zacharias “spent his days writing and his nights receiving massages.”
“All of the massage therapists we interviewed now live in the United States and we have little insight into whether Mr. Zacharias engaged in inappropriate massage behavior when in Asia,” the report states.
According to the report, Zacharias spent 256 days at one of the apartments between 2010 and 2014 and asked the ministry to reimburse him for rent.
This past fall, RZIM’s board announced that it would launch an investigation into Zacharias’ conduct after allegations about misconduct by him.
When the allegations first were reported, RZIM denied them.
“We, the family and ministry teammates of the late Ravi Zacharias, can say the allegations now being made against Ravi do not in any way comport with the man we knew for decades — we believe them to be false,” the ministry told Religion News Service in a statement.
In December, the ministry issued an update on the investigation, which confirmed the late evangelist had engaged in sexual misconduct.
“This misconduct is deeply troubling and wholly inconsistent with the man Ravi Zacharias presented both publicly and privately to so many over more than four decades of public ministry,” the ministry said in its December statement.
The board now says its statement in February was a mistake.
Zacharias, who was born in India to a churchgoing Anglican family, immigrated to Canada in his early 20s, where he attended a Bible college in Toronto. He later attended Trinity International University and became an evangelist for the Christian and Missionary Alliance in the 1970s. He eventually became an ordained CMA minister.
He first came to fame in 1983, when he preached at an international conference for traveling evangelists, sponsored by the Rev. Billy Graham. A year later, Zacharias founded RZIM and dedicated his career to Christian apologetics. Based in Atlanta, the organization trained and employed about 70 traveling evangelists around the world.
For decades Zacharias traveled the globe making polished, precise and emotionally compelling arguments for the truth of the Christian faith. His preaching was charming rather than hostile to those outside the faith, and was seen as a model on how to engage in civil discourse. That approach “transformed evangelism,” according to author and theologian Timothy Keller.
“For Zacharias, it was not about winning the argument, but engaging the person,” Keller, founder of Redeemer Presbyterian Church, wrote after Zacharias’ death. “Even in today’s ‘cancel culture,’ where disagreement typically leads to polarization and vitriol, Zacharias had a unique gift for disarming hostility with gentleness, humor and respect.”
Zacharias was also a prolific writer, authoring about two dozen books. He also hosted a syndicated radio show and twice served as honorary chairman of the National Day of Prayer, according to the RZIM website.
“Those are moments that I never ever dreamed would be part of God’s program for me,” Zacharias said in 2018, reflecting on praying at the White House during the administration of George W. Bush. “Prayer is what takes place when God is making you His dream. I think to me God was unfolding His dream in my life as He was unfolding it for a whole nation.”
In March 2020, he announced on social media that he had been diagnosed with cancer, which was found during surgery on his back. A few months later, cancer took his life. News of his death was met with tributes on Twitter, inspiring the hashtag ThankYouRavi.
His August funeral, which was livestreamed, was a star-studded affair, with Tim Tebow, megachurch pastor Louis Giglio and then-Vice President Mike Pence among the speakers.
“In Ravi Zacharias, God gave us the greatest Christian apologist of this century. He was the C.S. Lewis of our day,” Pence told mourners.
Late in life, Zacharias’ reputation started to fray. For years, he had claimed to have studied at both Oxford and Cambridge and that he had several doctorates. After bloggers questioned his credentials, his official bio was amended to mention that he held several honorary doctorates and to say that he studied at schools that were related to Oxford and Cambridge.
In 2017, he settled a lawsuit with Lori Anne and Brad Thompson, a Canadian couple who had supported his ministry. Lori Anne Thompson claimed that Zacharias had groomed her for online spiritual and sexual abuse by earning her trust and then asking her to send him intimate photos. He denied the allegations, saying Thompson had sent him unwanted sexually explicit photos. Zacharias eventually sued the couple, claiming they tried to extort money from him.
As part of the settlement, Lori Anne Thompson signed a nondisclosure agreement. She would later ask the ministry and Zacharias’ family to release her from the NDA. So far that has not happened.
This week, Lori Anne Thompson published a “victim impact statement” on her webpage, describing her contact with Zacharias as the “most traumatizing, soul destroying, faith crushing seasons in my life.”
“I knew the world to be an unsafe place before I met Ravi Zacharias — but I yet had hope that there were some safe and sacred spaces,” she said in a video of the statement. “I no longer live with that hope. I trusted him. I trusted Christendom. That trust is irreparably and catastrophically shattered.”
In their statement, the board of RZIM apologized to the Thompsons.
“We believe Lori Anne Thompson has told the truth about the nature of her relationship with Ravi Zacharias,” the board said. “It is with profound grief that we recognize that because we did not believe the Thompsons and both privately and publicly perpetuated a false narrative, they were slandered for years and their suffering was greatly prolonged and intensified. This leaves us heartbroken and ashamed.”