The Ravi Zacharias scandal demonstrates why smartphone accountability is important
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February 24, 2021 (LifeSiteNews) — By now, most of you will be familiar with the script: A prominent Christian figure gets accused of sexual misconduct; the allegations are denied; eventually, they are proven. In many instances, victims previously ignored or even maligned as persecutors of their predators are given apologies, which do little to repair the shambles of their lives created by the abuse and the cover-up.
From the abuse scandals that have rocked the Catholic Church to the high-profile implosion of Jerry Falwell Jr. to the recent evidence that late evangelical apologist Ravi Zacharias was a sexual predator, the revelations seem at times relentless.
The fallout from the reports detailing Ravi Zacharias’ decades-long abuse of women is still ongoing, as global affiliates staffed with world-class Christian apologists shut down or disaffiliate from the mother ship, slowly being borne down under the weight of the name that was once the gold standard in apologetics. The Canadian branch of RZIM will be closing down entirely.
Family, friends, and legions of fans have been stunned to discover that Zacharias perpetrated abuse in the U.S., Thailand, India, Malaysia, and elsewhere; had hundreds of photos of young women, some naked, on his phones; that he solicited and received photos up until mere months before his death from cancer last May.
One woman even told the investigators hired by RZIM that Zacharias arranged for her to receive funds from the ministry, and then demanded sex from her in return. She referred to it as rape. She also said that Zacharias made her pray with him after the abuse, and even “called her his ‘reward’ for living life of service to God,” warning her that if she revealed what had taken place, millions of souls could go lost as a result of damage to his reputation.
The man so many revered as one of his generation’s best defenders of mere Christianity, a man lauded by leaders and luminaries everywhere — Mike Pence spoke at his funeral — used demonic spiritual blackmail and blasphemy to coerce his victims into sex and silence.
Despite Ravi Zacharias’s defence of the pro-life position, it appears that this, too, was likely hypocrisy. A former partner of Ravi’s younger brother Ramesh, Shirley Steward, has come forward to tell her story. In 1974, she says, she became pregnant with Ramesh Zacharias’s child — Ravi’s niece or nephew. The couple were scared, and asked Ravi for advice.
Zacharias was then a preacher of growing popularity in Toronto, and also happened to be their pastor. She was stunned when Ravi pressured her to get an abortion. Since then, Steward says that she has “lived not only with the devastating consequences of her decision, but with the shame of being called a liar when she’s tried to expose Ravi for what he did.”
Much has been written since Zacharias has been outed as predator — about how many churches and ministries protect predators and silence victims; about the failure of accountability for those who achieve celebrity status; about the inherent dangers of celebrity status; about the duty of religious leaders to address the sex abuse crisis head-on. In many ways, these ugly and horrifying revelations appear to be triggering something of a reckoning. Perhaps these discussions will lead to productive change. They have certainly been eye-opening for many.
I have only one observation to add. Sex abuse scandals in religious organizations or communities aren’t new; neither are revelations about high-profile religious leaders. The term “televangelist” carries with it a whiff of slime for this very reason.
But there is something particularly modern about how Zacharias carried on what appears to be the bulk of his victim grooming and his sexual interactions: his smartphone devices. Zacharias was 74 when he died, but phones with the ability to send and receive photos are a relatively recent phenomenon, as is the practice of “sexting.” I’m 32, and my first cell phone couldn’t send or receive pictures; I didn’t hear about sexting until university.
Many have been asking how someone who lived so much in the public eye could have kept things so secret. Aside from his serial abuse of massage therapists, it appears that Zacharias did this primarily through his smartphones, which he kept private, unaccountable, and used to amass large collections of explicit photographs.
How could he have been still soliciting pictures from women while suffering from cancer, near death, and surrounded constantly by his family? By using his smartphones. Long after he was incapable of carrying on physical affairs — and even when he could — sexting and amassing personalized pornography appears to be one of his preferred modus operandi.
The problem of sexting and porn use has swamped the church over the past decade. Every time I speak to high school students — most recently, last week — I get endless stories about boys soliciting photos, girls sending them, students exchanging them.
At one Christian school, the daughter of a staff member was blackmailed into sex after sending photos one night and then having them used against her — the boy told her he’d send them to her parents if she didn’t do what he told her to. This story — the sexual blackmail — is a common one even among high school students. Sexting has gone from non-existent to norm since I left high school, and it has opened up another avenue of possible sin and — as in the case of Ravi Zacharias and countless others — of predation.
Smartphones give people privacy — or the illusion thereof — wherever they are, and allow them to groom victims, carry on affairs, and engage in conduct that would have been too dangerous to risk a short time ago.
We are seeing what these opportunities are bringing about. Many organizations and individuals have policies to avoid sinful situations that do not take into account the fact that smartphones are by far one of the most dangerous factors. The ugly, tragic story of Ravi Zacharias and his many victims are another clear example of why smartphone accountability should be considered by ministries, religious organizations and, above all, individuals.