(RNS) — Ravi Zacharias summed up Ruth Malhotra’s job in two short sentences.
“I do all the wrong things — and she makes them look right.”
The legendary evangelist was speaking to staff in February 2018 at his ministry’s Atlanta headquarters, not long after he’d settled a lawsuit with Lori Anne Thompson, who had accused Zacharias of spiritual abuse and sexting.
He and other leaders at Ravi Zacharias International Ministries assured the staff that Zacharias had done nothing wrong. Malhotra, RZIM’s spokesperson, was charged with promoting that message.
At the time, Malhotra thought her former boss was joking.
Over the next three years, she’d learn how true Zacharias’ words were. And just how much wrongdoing she and other staff members had been asked to cover up.
Within a few months of his death in May 2020, several massage therapists at an Atlanta-area spa he co-owned came forward, alleging that Zacharias had repeatedly demanded sexual favors. A subsequent investigation found a long-term pattern of sexual misconduct, and Zacharias went from being a beloved, sainted figure mourned by celebrity pastors and politicians to a posthumous pariah.
Rather than quit, Malhotra was determined to help make things right for survivors of Zacharias’ abuse. Her best efforts, she now says, were frustrated by Zacharias’ team.
When she raised questions about how the ministry handled allegations against Zacharias, Malhotra said, she was accused of being mentally unstable. When she went public with her concerns, she was labeled as disloyal. In July, Malhotra drove to the ministry’s offices and waited outside as RZIM staff brought out her belongings, since she was no longer allowed in the building.
“I feel the way you feel when someone you love passes away,” she told Religion News Service. “It’s that same type of grief.”
A call from God
Zacharias, a Christian convert who was born in India and later settled in the United States, had been part of Malhotra’s life since she began attending the same school that Zacharias’ children went to. She looked up to “Mr. Ravi,” she said.
From an early age, she had an interest in Christian ministry and conservative politics. At Georgia Tech, she joined a Republican student group and often found herself at odds with other students and campus leaders. With a fellow student she sued the school, arguing its policies violated their free speech and religious expression rights.
Malhotra went to work after graduation in church communications and at Christian political groups. She worked on Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign, but after Romney lost, she felt God was calling her “out of the political arena into something that’s evangelistic, into something that’s focused on a Christian worldview.”
Friends who worked at RZIM put her in touch with Zacharias, who offered her a job. From the beginning, she said, something was not quite right.
In 2013, Malhotra said, she traveled with Zacharias to India on a speaking tour. In his entourage was a young woman who served as his personal masseuse. During some downtime, Zacharias and the woman went off to spend the day together.
“The optics didn’t make sense,” she said.
When she voiced her concerns, it didn’t go over well, Malhotra recalled. “Sweet Grandpa Ravi” was above reproach.
“I just learned to keep my mouth shut,” Malhotra said.
For the most part, she said, her early years at RZIM were incredibly rewarding. She loved the work and made friends with the staff as well as supporters and partners around the world. Revenues grew from $11.5 million in 2010 to $36.8 million in 2019, with net assets of $38.6 million, according to IRS reports and RZIM financial statements compiled by Ministry Watch.
In 2017, RZIM moved into a new office building outside Atlanta, with an art gallery, auditorium, library and onsite television and radio studios. The ministry was expanding into new countries and the future looked bright. “We thought, man, things are just looking up,” she said.
The cost of working at RZIM, however, was absolute loyalty.
‘You will regret ever meeting me’
In July 2017, Malhotra said, Zacharias called her at home on a Saturday morning with an urgent request.
He had been accused of spiritual abuse and sexual misconduct by Thompson, whom he had met at a donor event a few years before and had emailed with since. Thompson claimed that, at Zacharias’ request, she had sent him nude photos of herself. Zacharias told Malhotra, however, that he was a victim and that he would be suing Thompson and her husband. He needed her help in getting that message out.
“Ruth,” she recalls him saying, “you’re my gal.”
In the settlement, Zacharias, while maintaining his innocence, paid Thompson $250,000 and required the couple to sign a nondisclosure agreement that remains in effect.
“Let me state categorically that I never met this woman alone, publicly or privately,” he said in a 2017 statement. “The question is not whether I solicited or sent any illicit photos or messages to another woman — I did not, and there is no evidence to the contrary — but rather, whether I should have been a willing participant in any extended communication with a woman not my wife.”
Malhotra suspected, however, that Zacharias was not telling the whole truth. She was also surprised to learn of the $250,000 payment, as Zacharias initially told her no money changed hands.
At internal task force meetings set up to deal with the crisis, Malhotra began to ask pointed questions and was accused of conspiring against Ravi and the ministry. She was put on paid leave. After seeking help from a counselor, she decided to return to RZIM, saying she still believed in the mission.
She told herself that the Thompson matter was an isolated incident, that Zacharias was embarrassed by it and unwilling to admit his own fault. He, and RZIM, wanted to move on.
By the time Zacharias died of cancer in May of 2020, the Thompson matter had been almost completely forgotten.
Malhotra last saw Zacharias while she was planning his memorial service, when he was at home on hospice care. The two joked a bit, but toward the end of their time together, he turned serious and told her she’d be sorry she ever met him.
She chalked it up to him feeling remorse for his mistakes and tried to reassure him. Working for his ministry was the “honor of my life,” Malhotra recalls telling Zacharias.
No, he said.
“You’re going to regret meeting me someday.”
Malhotra still can’t reconcile the man she knew and the person Zacharias turned out to be.
“This is someone who, you know, very successfully and devastatingly lived a double life and harmed so many people,” she said. “I think we’ve only scratched the surface of the number of victims that he left behind.”
A turning point
Four months after his death, the allegation that Zacharias had abused spa workers had become public. Rather than taking them seriously, the ministry dismissed them out of hand.
Leaders at RZIM wanted her to draft a statement characterizing the allegations as a “he said, she said” matter — or as she recalls them saying, a matter of “she said, he’s dead.”
“When it came to the spa allegations, they were saying that there was nothing they could do,” she said. “That was simply not true.”
Malhotra drafted a resignation letter in September 2020, but before she could send it to her boss, the evangelical magazine Christianity Today published a report detailing the former spa workers’ allegations.
In response, RZIM’s leaders hired the Atlanta law firm of Miller & Martin. The law firm’s report, made public in December 2020, concluded that Zacharias had engaged in a long-term pattern of abuse.
RZIM’s leaders announced that the ministry would shut down its apologetics work and become a grant-making organization supporting Christian ministries and groups that assist victims of abuse.
The RZIM board of directors issued a letter of apology for failing to take Thompson’s allegations seriously.
“We are shocked and grieved by Ravi’s actions. As Ravi Zacharias was the founder of our ministry and the leader of our staff, community, and team, we also feel a deep need for corporate repentance,” the board said in its unsigned letter. (RZIM does not publish the names of board members.)
“We are all shattered and broken by what has happened and continue to learn from our mistakes. Michael Ramsden, Abdu Murray and I have all made individual public and private confessions and apologies for our failures to see and recognize, and lapses of judgment,” Davis told RNS in an email.
Davis also said that the Miller & Martin investigation found no evidence that any staff members had knowledge of Ravi’s abusive behavior.
“We take responsibility for the errors in judgment and recognize the pain this has caused yet remain steadfast that the leadership team was unaware of his behavior,” she said.
Through a spokesperson, Davis declined to discuss future plans for RZIM, saying the ministry is awaiting the results of a further investigation. The group has made some financial restitution to abuse survivors and still plans to reinvent itself as a grant-making organization.
A class-action lawsuit, filed last week, accused RZIM of misleading donors.
“Defendants bilked tens — if not hundreds — of millions of dollars from well-meaning donors who believed RZIM and Zacharias to be faith-filled Christian leaders,” the plaintiffs allege. “In fact, Zacharias was a prolific sexual predator who used his ministry and RZIM funds to perpetrate sexual and spiritual abuse against women.”
Malhotra believes that laying all the blame on Zacharias’ deception downplays the way that RZIM’s leaders defended Zacharias and refused to investigate his conduct in any meaningful way until they were forced to.
“The leadership chose not to act when the evidence was right in front of their eyes,” she said.
In February 2021, she wrote a 26-page letter to RZIM’s board of directors, accusing the leadership of withholding information from the board and begging its members to get involved.
“I believe there is still a window for RZIM to do the right thing in responding to the devastating reality of Ravi’s abuse — which would include a posture of repentance from all of us and possibly resignations by members of the senior leadership — but that window is narrowing,” she wrote.
A week later, her concerns were published in Christian commentator David French’s Substack newsletter, including allegations that leaders had harassed and intimidated her.
“Our practice is to not comment on personnel issues, but since Ruth has made it public, we would like to clarify that some of our staff expressed serious concerns about being recorded and then having their statements mischaracterized to the public,” Davis said.
Malhotra’s final day as an RZIM employee was July 16. The final details of her separation are still being negotiated, including a request from RZIM that she sign severance paperwork including nondisclosure language, according to paperwork obtained by RNS.
Davis told RNS that no staff who leave RZIM “are asked to sign non-disclosure or non-disparagement agreements.”
“The organization is in the process of notifying all staff who were let go prior to 2021 that they are released of any such agreement that they may have signed when they were let go from RZIM,” she said.
The nondisclosure agreement that Thompson signed as part of the lawsuit settlements remains in place and is with Zacharias’ estate.
Asked why she stayed for so long, Malhotra said she felt complicit in a culture that enabled abusive behavior and wanted to advocate for survivors. “For so long I was used to advance Ravi’s platform, his megaphone, by his voice. I still lament that,” she said. “I wanted to use that same platform … to give victims a voice and to point to truth.”
French, who has known Malhotra since serving as her attorney in her suit against Georgia Tech, described her as “a person of extreme integrity.” Christian groups like RZIM, he said, often take a “disingenuous victim posture” when dealing with sex abuse accusations. Rather than taking responsibility for their actions, all the blame is placed on the abuser.
“It creates a campaign to deflect blame,” he said.
Nancy French, a bestselling author who has written about abuse at a prominent Christian camp and is married to David French, said Christian groups that have seen abuse allegations are more concerned about their reputation than about finding out the truth.
She called Malhotra a hero.
“There’s a high cost to being a whistleblower,” she said. “I think we should celebrate people like Ruth instead of stigmatizing them.”
In recent months, Malhotra found an unexpected source of grace.
For years, she’d felt guilt over how Lori Anne Thompson had been treated by RZIM and her own part in the ministry’s response to Thompson. She hoped to someday be able to apologize for the pain Thompson had experienced.
Not long after the Miller & Martin report was issued, a mutual acquaintance connected them.
During a late-night phone call, Thompson and her husband prayed for Malhotra, read Scripture to her and told her that she was forgiven — an experience that left her in tears. She called the experience “a beautiful picture of the gospel.”
In a phone interview, Thompson told RNS that she could tell Malhotra was “brokenhearted and contrite over what happened.”
“I have a lot of compassion for people who have done things under duress that they are later profoundly ashamed of,” Thompson said. “That is every victim’s reality.”
While the Zacharias lawsuit was ongoing, Thompson said she had enrolled in a graduate program in child advocacy and public policy, where she learned about what’s known as “betrayal blindness.”
The phrase, coined by Jennifer Freyd, a professor of psychology at the University of Oregon, refers to what happens when a person is abused and betrayed by someone they trust and depend on, such as a spouse, parent or boss. That betrayal leaves them in what Freyd calls “a bind between two needs” — the need to stop the abuse and to preserve the relationship.
People become unable to see what is directly in front of their eyes, because acknowledging the truth could put them at risk.
Learning about betrayal blindness helped her see Malhotra and some of her colleagues in a different light.
“It’s easy to understand how someone could be blind to betrayal in their midst and also be victimized,” she said. “I don’t have a lot of difficulty extending compassion to people who are genuinely working through betrayal blindness.”
Thompson described Malholtra as “desperate to go back and make things right,” she said. “But you can’t make a situation like that right.”
Malhotra, who is Baptist, said her faith remains strong, despite the struggles of the past three years. Those struggles had made her more empathetic to those who have been hurt by the church. But she worries about the culture that creates celebrity Christians like Zacharias.
“I have less faith in Christian institutions— particularly when these institutions become breeding grounds for Christian celebrity culture — because I’ve seen firsthand how elements of entitlement, fame and fortune harm our own people and hinder our gospel witness to a watching world.”