- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 19, 2022

The organization founded by disgraced evangelical Christian minister Ravi Zacharias can be sued by donors seeking a refund of their contributions, a federal district judge in Georgia has ruled.

Ravi Zacharias International Ministries, Inc., will confront charges they secured donations “by fraud or deceit” because the ministry did not disclose that gifts were used to allegedly pay off women who said Mr. Zacharias had sexually abused them. The Indian-born Canadian-American minister died in 2020.

Margaret Zacharias, his widow, was dismissed as a defendant in the action, according to the order signed last week by senior Judge Thomas W. Thrash, Jr. of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Georgia.

Mr. Zacharias’s spirited defense of evangelical Christianity drew lecture audiences around the world, spawned numerous best-selling books, and launched a ministry organization that raised $25 million in 2015 — the last year the nonprofit filed information with the IRS. 

Shortly before his death, several women who worked in Atlanta-area massage parlors co-owned by Mr. Zacharias came forward to report he’d sexually abused them. Another woman, Lori Thompson, earlier claimed Mr. Zacharias “groomed” her for online sexual activity. Mr. Zacharias initially sued Ms. Thompson and her husband, but later paid the couple a $250,000 settlement that included a non-disclosure agreement, Religion News Service reported.

The charges rocked the evangelical world and forced RZIM to commission an independent investigation of Mr. Zacharias’s actions. The investigator’s report, released in February 2021, hastened the ministry’s shutdown as it tried to “refocus” on healing for victims of sexual abuse.

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A second report in February said loyalty by RZIM employees “blinded” them to Mr. Zacharias’s misconduct. 

“We were in error in allowing [Ravi] Zacharias’ December 2017 statement to the press that ‘no ministry funds were used’ in connection with his legal action,” RZIM said in a statement after the most recent report by investigative firm Guidepost Associates. “As the report highlights, the ministry did provide money to Zacharias, which was used to pay the settlement and expenses. While the payments were legal and properly accounted for, we were wrong to let this misstatement stand.”

Warren Cole Smith, an investigative journalist who heads MinistryWatch in Matthews, North Carolina, said the Zacharias case illustrates the potential problems unchecked executive power can bring in a ministry organization.

“We’re talking about significant organizational and cultural power, because Ravi [had] a following in the evangelical community,” Mr. Smith said. “That kind of power and influence and money can go to anybody’s head, I don’t care who you are. Ministry leaders should be careful to build those safeguards themselves.”

On Friday, Christopher S. Cohilas told The Washington Times via email: “We are thankful for the ruling which correctly dismissed many of the claims presented by the plaintiffs for being legally insufficient. RZIM looks forward to addressing what few claims remain and will vigorously defend itself against these allegations.”

• Mark A. Kellner can be reached at mkellner@washingtontimes.com.

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