This weekend, evangelist Ravi Zacharias released a statement about allegations in a sexting scandal that prompted an extortion lawsuit. A woman claims he used his position to solicit nude photos from her, but he claims she used the photos to extort payments from him in return for her silence.
“I have learned a difficult and painful lesson through this ordeal,” Zecharias said in the statement. “As a husband, father, grandfather, and leader of a Christian ministry I should not have engaged in ongoing communication with a woman other than my wife.”
The evangelist confessed, “I failed to exercise wise caution and to protect myself from even the appearance of impropriety, and for that I am profoundly sorry. I have acknowledged this to my Lord, my wife, my children, our ministry board, and my colleagues.”
Even so, Zacharias insisted that he did not request the nude photos and that they were sent as part of an attempt to extort money from him.
Zacharias has become one of the best-known living evangelists, and has authored dozens of books on faith (most recently Jesus Among Secular Gods: The Countercultural Claims of Christ). He is particularly well-known for giving reasons to defend Christianity in brief videos, many of them available on YouTube.
Born in India but now a Canadian and American citizen, Zacharias is the president and founder of Ravi Zacharias International Ministries (RZIM), which sponsors dozens of itinerant preachers and apologists (defenders of the faith) such as the late former Muslim Nabeel Qureshi. RZIM also hosts conferences for Christian leaders and holds debates on college campuses.
Last month, Zacharias agreed to drop a lawsuit he filed against a Canadian couple, Bradley and Lori Anne Thompson, who allegedly attempted to extort money from him. According to the lawsuit, previously reported by Christianity Today, Lori Anne Thompson sent nude photos of herself to Zacharias in order to extort him to send her hush money.
The apologist charged that the wife escalated their text conversations from “friendly correspondence” to sending “unwanted, offensive, sexually explicit language and photographs.”
In April 2017, the couple sent a letter through their attorney demanding $5 million in hush money. “In the alternative of protracted and public litigation,” the couple promised to “sign a release of you and your church and ministry in exchange for a certified check in the amount of $5 million.”
Zacharias’ lawyers pointed out that Bradley Thompson sued his former pastor in 2008, alleging that the pastor abused his position of influence in counseling to further his own business interests. The suit was dropped in 2011, and while the pastor was temporarily suspended, he was later reinstated.
The Thompsons argued that Zacharias used his “spiritual authority” to make advances on the wife.
“As a result of your actions, she eventually opened up her life to you to the point where you exercised a controlling influence over her as one with spiritual authority,” Mark P. Bryant, the Thompsons’ attorney, wrote in the letter demanding $5 million. “Armed with that information and your excellent grooming skills, you chose to exploit her vulnerability to satisfy your own sexual desires.”
Zacharias’ lawsuit countered that “there was no confidential and/or fiduciary relationship” between him and the woman, as between a counselor and a client. Lawyers stressed that Zacharias is neither a pastor nor a counselor, and that RZIM does not provide counseling or therapy.
Under Georgia state law, it is a crime for a psychotherapist to use a “counseling relationship to facilitate sexual contact,” even if the victim consents.
On Friday, blogger Julie Ann Smith published emails from Lori Anne Thompson given to her in February. Smith lamented that “a victim’s voice is silenced” while Zacharias was “able to give his narrative.” She further claimed that “nothing is preventing this from happening again.”
Smith published a message from Thompson telling Zacharias she intended to reveal their “secret and its soul-searing shame” to her husband,” and one image in which the apologist appears to threaten committing suicide.
“If you betray me here, I will have no option but to bid this world goodbye, I promise,” Zacharias allegedly wrote. Smith removed the posts the next day, at Thompson’s request.
Zacharias’ lawyers claimed that the woman’s husband was in on the scheme from the beginning. “Conspiring together, [they] labored relentlessly to foster a relationship with [Zacharias] in hopes of manipulating him into a compromising situation,” according to the lawsuit.
The suit alleged that the Thompsons “decided that evidence depicting an inappropriate relationship (in person, online, or otherwise) between [the wife] and a prominent, pious individual like [Zacharias] would enable them to force the individual to pay an exorbitant sum of money under the threat of the disclosure of such a relationship to the individual’s employer, wife, and the public.”
In his statement on Sunday, Zacharias laid out his side of the story. He met Mrs. Thompson at a conference in Canada in October 2014, and she asked him to reach out to her husband because he had questions about Christianity. He met the husband at another event in Canada and the Thompsons invited the apologist and his wife out to dinner.
“That was the second and last time I was ever in the same room with either of them,” Zecharias said.
Later, the wife “began to contact me via the email address I had used to contact her husband after first meeting them. My responses were usually brief. Then, last year, she shockingly sent me extremely inappropriate pictures of herself unsolicited. I clearly instructed her to stop contacting me in any form; I blocked her messages, and I resolved to terminate all contact with her.”
Late last year, she threatened to reveal the texts to her husband, claiming Zacharias had asked for the nude photos. In April 2017, they sent him a letter demanding money. The RZIM board advised the apologist to get legal counsel.
Zacharias recalled filing the lawsuit and dismissing it last month after reaching an agreement. “All communication with both of them has concluded, and the legal matters have been resolved. However, at this time, unfortunately I am legally prevented from answering or even discussing the questions and claims being made by some, other than to say that each side paid for their own legal expenses and no ministry funds were used.”
“Let me state categorically that I never met this woman alone, publicly or privately,” Zacharias declared. “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.”
“In my 45 years of marriage to Margie, I have never engaged in any inappropriate behavior of any kind,” the apologist said. “I love my wife with all my heart and have been absolutely faithful to her these more than 16,000 days of marriage, and have exercised extreme caution in my daily life and travels, as everyone who knows me is aware.”
Zacharias said he applies the “Billy Graham rule,” for which Vice President Mike Pence is famous. “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.”
“Upon reflection, I now realize that the physical safeguards I have long practiced to protect my integrity should have extended to include digital communications safeguards,” the apologist noted. “I believe—and indeed would counsel others—that the standards of personal conduct are necessarily higher for Christian leaders.”
In a final statement, Zacharias explained, “My life is not my own, it belongs to God.” He promised to continue following God’s calling to “leave no stone unturned in my pursuit of truth.”
“I bear no ill will toward anybody,” the apologist concluded. “God is the God of healing, and He promises a new day. May that be true by His grace.”
RZIM did not respond to a request for evidence to counteract Lori Anne Thompson’s claims, although such evidence may be unavailable due to the non-disclosure agreement.
The photos purporting to show Zacharias’ suicide threats are the weakest parts of his account. That said, it seems extremely unlikely that a man who follows the Billy Graham rule actually asked for nude photos, and the Thompsons’ history of suing a pastor suggests Zacharias’ lawyers may be right about this being a mere attempt at extortion.
This case seems to demonstrate the effectiveness of the Billy Graham rule. While Zacharias lamented that he did carry on a conversation with this woman, his moral probity seems to have shielded him from this ugly attack, allowing him to refuse to send $5 million and instead to file a lawsuit against the couple and force them to settle it.
The full details of that settlement may never be known, but it appears Zacharias has successfully defended his reputation against this powerful attack.