Cautionary Stories of Sexual Abuse in Conservative Christian Ministries: ABWE & IBLP

I wrote the following column in the summer of 2017 for the Sep. 2017 issue of Sword & Trumpet, a small conservative Anabaptist monthly magazine for which I am the monthly Newslines columnist. I am publishing it online now because recent events among conservative Anabaptists make it even more urgently relevant. (The only modification made was to invert the two sections to put ABWE first and IBLP second and to make some square bracket explanatory edits.)


I do not have the room to recount the whole incredible story of decades of adultery, rape, and pedophiliac sexual abuse by Donn Ketcham, a missionary doctor in Bangladesh with ABWE (Association of Baptists for World Evangelism). If you are a pastor, Christian leader, or board member (or have influence over any), I strongly suggest you read the whole story: “The Silence of the Lambs” by Kathryn Joyce in The New Republic and “Missionary Donn Ketcham Abused 18 Children. Here’s Why He Wasn’t Stopped.” by Sarah Zylstra in Christianity Today. (For that matter, I highly recommend perusing RecoveringGrace.org in-depth, reading their stories [about IBLP].)

However, in brief, his adultery was well known to ABWE for many years (since 1967) and the mission responded by having him repent and then sending the women missionaries back to the US. It got to the point that veteran missionaries would warn new lady missionaries who arrived to be wary of him and to stay away. However, given fundamentalist culture of not talking about sexual issues with children, no one warned the children. It turns out, the board’s inaction in regards to his adultery gave him the platform to rape and sexually abuse at least 23 young missionary girls in Bangladesh.

When a 14 year old girl came forward to tell about being raped in 1989, ABWE’s response was a strange mix of action and cover-up. They believed the girl, which was good. And they finally removed him from the field, which was good. However, they blamed the victim in some very disgusting ways. They lied by omission to the victim’s parents, who did not find out until decades later the extent of the abuse. They did not investigate further to see if others had been abused. They sent a vaguely worded letter to his sponsoring churches that he had engaged in “immoral conduct” (which is conservative Christian code for adultery, not sexual abuse). They also never told his new pastor back in the US what had happened. But worst of all, as New Republic writes, “Because no one from ABWE alerted police or the state medical board that Ketcham had confessed to sexually abusing a child 45 years his junior, he was able to return to practicing medicine and teaching Sunday school. He would go on to see patients for another 23 years.”

The only way his behavior finally came to public light was his victims began trading stories at a Bangladesh MK (missionary kids) reunion. When they realized they weren’t alone, they confronted ABWE, who did nothing. A few years later, they got together again and disgusted by ABWE’s inaction, launched a blog in 2011 telling their stories. Just as with IBLP, this absolutely opened the floodgates as many more victims came forward with their stories.

Finally ABWE acted, hiring GRACE (Godly Response to Abuse in a Christian Environment) to investigate, but then firing them shortly before they produced their report. ABWE then hired Professional Investigators International (PII) to run the investigation. They were allowed to complete their investigation (after they had ABWE’s in-house lawyer removed who was obstructing the investigation by lying and hiding documents) and issued a 280-page report. All the crimes they detailed occurred outside of U.S. jurisdiction, but some measure of earthly justice may finally be served on Donn Ketcham as a mother of one of his patients in the U.S. (he returned to practicing medicine in the U.S. because ABWE never reported him!) ran across the blog, connected the dots, and Dr. Ketcham is now on trial for molesting her six year old daughter in 1999. [Edited to add: He will not get earthly justice because in July 2018 he has been ruled ineligible to stand trial due to dementia preventing him mounting any defense.] This molestation in the U.S. happened an incredible 32 years after ABWE first knew of his serial adultery (which according to ABWE policies should have removed him from the field for a single instance, much less a recurring pattern) and 10 years after ABWE first knew about his pedophilia. PII’s report identified 23 missionary girls and women he molested or raped (this did not include his consensual affairs with adults). Furthermore, PII encountered evidence that he molested Bangladeshi natives who were his patients, but did not pursue ascertaining details because it was outside of their investigative purview.

More and more stories are emerging of this pattern of abuse and cover-up and further abuse among conservative evangelicals. There have been recent investigations and arrests of missionaries from New Tribes Mission, Bob Jones University, a Christian & Missionary Alliance boarding school in Africa, among others. As we know, we’ve faced similar problems in our conservative Anabaptist churches.

The absolutely essential lesson of both of these stories is that we must take to heart the Bible’s teaching that sin flourishes in darkness, in secrecy. By keeping this sin of abuse hidden (even if it was “confessed” after being caught), it allowed the perpetrators to continue abusing people. We do not want to gossip about sin or engage in public shaming for its own sake, but sins of abuse need to be publicly acknowledged to provide accountability and to open the door for other victims to step forward. Far too often victims feel like they’re the only ones and are scared to come forward. However, in both these cases, as soon as something was said publicly, the floodgates were opened with hundreds of people coming forward to tell their stories. This is something that doesn’t happen if leadership keeps these matters private.

It is also important that church and ministry leaders work with government authorities to report abuse. We are called to obey governmental authorities as they seek to punish the bad and protect the good. And the government has many commonsense protections in place to keep sex offenders from re-offending and damaging more victims, which is for the protection of the offender’s soul, even if he or she has repented. Furthermore, while we forgive and seek to restore someone who has sinned, it is not our place to make the choice whether the law will show them justice or mercy.

Sources: The New Republic, Christianity Today, “ABWE and Donn Ketcham Investigations – Final Report, March 11, 2016” by PII, WoodTV.com, BangladeshMKsSpeak.WordPress.com


When I began writing the [ABWE] piece [prior] to this, I thought I had already written about the Bill Gothard sexual harassment cases, but a number of searches through the Newslines archives reveal I had not. I apologize for the oversight. Many of us are familiar with the Advanced Training Institute (ATI) curriculum and the Institute for Basic Life Principles (IBLP) headed by Bill Gothard. They were popular for many years among conservative Anabaptists. In my early grades in school, I was taught using some of their curriculum for a few years. However, over the past decade, I began to be concerned over some of the misplaced emphases in his teaching. And then the sexual harassment emerged. The website RecoveringGrace.org has been at the forefront of documenting it. They offer a summary of their own journey:

When we launched our website in July of 2011, we did so with the express mission of helping people whose lives have been impacted by the teachings of Bill Gothard through the Institute in Basic Life Principles (IBLP) seminars and the Advanced Training Institute (ATI) homeschool program. We have attempted to fulfill that mission through regularly posted articles primarily written by former students of ATI—articles that have covered a wide variety of issues such as theological discussions of IBLP teachings, personal stories of discovering grace, and bringing to light some of the darker aspects of working at an IBLP Training Center. What we truthfully did not realize at the time of our launch was the strong undercurrent of depravity displayed for decades at the highest levels of IBLP leadership. Our thought at the time was that the most viscerally damaging effects of Gothardism were spiritual, and that Bill Gothard’s worst flaws were theological and hermeneutical. As such, most of our attention for the first year of our website was focused on these areas.

In early 2012, this all changed for us when a young lady shared with us her experiences working for Bill Gothard at Headquarters. While it has long been widely known by anyone who worked there that Bill had his favorites, this young lady opened our eyes to what being a ‘favorite’ meant: unwanted and unwarranted emotional and physical attention from a man in a position of authority to young women who could not refuse it. In other words, it was textbook sexual harassment.

So, on April 20, 2012, we published Lizzie’s story. And as soon as we did, we discovered that we had opened Pandora’s box. The emails and comments poured in like a flood, and we knew that we had stumbled across something bigger than we could have ever anticipated. A few weeks later, we published Annette’s story; a year later, Grace’s. Over the past two weeks, Meg has shared with us her very painful personal journey. And, later this week, we will share yet another account.

Since the time that Lizzie’s story was published, we have identified by name at least 34 different women who have experienced the same harassment, and we have sufficient evidence to believe that there are dozens more. We have had men and women who served in IBLP leadership confirm that the allegations are true, although they felt (and often were) powerless to do anything at the time. In fact, we have learned that the IBLP Board of Directors has on more than one occasion addressed this behavior with Bill Gothard, but to no lasting avail.

http://www.recoveringgrace.org/2014/02/the-gothard-files-a-case-for-disqualification-x2/

RecoveringGrace.org goes on to detail how they wrote an article in June of 2013 calling on Gothard to repent. How he refused. How further emails from former senior IBLP staff revealed that this had been a problem as early as 1980 with him being forced to resign because of it, only to forcefully return, force most of the senior staff and board out of IBLP, and bring in a new, more pliant group of people. They go on to write:

As our database of troubling information has grown, our team has struggled over what to do with what we know. We have always tried to demonstrate a grace-based approach to our work and ministry, even towards the one man we believe to be the originator of the greatest damage. However, we also know that God desires both justice and mercy, and that grace does not preclude justice or truth. Every time we hear of another young person struggling with their faith in God, or dealing with chronic health issues because of physical mistreatment and exhaustion while working at a training center, or fighting depression and confusion because they were sexually harassed by Bill Gothard, an inescapable question confronts us: What can we do with this information to ensure that the abuse does not continue to happen?

We based our decision on a passage of Scripture familiar to most ex-ATIers: Matthew 18—wherein Christ teaches us how to deal with a sinning brother. We know that Bill Gothard has been confronted one-on-one many times about his sin, as well as in groups of two and three, so our team believes that it is time for us to engage in the final phase of this process which is found in Matthew 18:17: ‘If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.’

http://www.recoveringgrace.org/2014/02/the-gothard-files-a-case-for-disqualification-x2/

As a result of the full release of all the stories and information RecoveringGrace had gathered, the IBLP board finally took action in March of 2014, accepting Gothard’s resignation and barring him from serving in any capacity with IBLP.

Sources: RecoveringGrace.org, IBLP.org


Edited to add: It has been brought to my attention that one of the authors of RecoveringGrace is an extremely anti-Christian person. This does not necessarily cast doubt upon the stories of the many victims of sexual harassment at the hands of Bill Gothard (in fact, I’ve received second-hand friend-of-a-friend testimony that the harassment was quite real), but it does remind us to never swallow whole anyone’s writings or opinions as they are inevitably colored by our beliefs. And not everyone is as honest as we try to be. I welcome any further, well-sourced comments on the veracity of the IBLP narrative.

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2 Comments

  1. guess I never got as deeply involved in the IBLP program as some families did. I attended seminars when they were in the area and felt they were some help to me in processing some areas in my life. I have wondered whether maybe Mr Gothard started out right, but power went to his head over the years. He seemed be getting further and further off base. I didn’t always agree with everything he taught so maybe I was able to filter out some of the more harmful stuff. I think the real break for me was when someone from outside our church put extreme pressure on our pastor to screen the Jim Sammons series of videos. Mr Sammons had very little to say that would relate to the common person. He was always talking from a position of wealth and how God blesses those who follow him. I saw very little difference from that than most of the health and wealth preachers like Mr Osteen and others. The IBLP and Mr Gothard pretty well faded from favor in our congregation after that.

    I weep with those whose lives have been wrecked by becoming victims of sexual predators whoever they are.

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