Willow Creek Community Church near Chicago announced on Monday that it plans to launch a new independent investigation into allegations that the Rev. Bill Hybels, the church’s influential founding pastor, sexually harassed female co-workers and a congregant over many years.
The announcement came one day after The New York Times reported on accusations from Pat Baranowski, Mr. Hybels’s former executive assistant. She said that Mr. Hybels had sexually and emotionally abused her while she worked at the church and lived with him and his family in the 1980s.
Heather Larson, one of two top pastors at Willow Creek, said in a statement: “It was heartbreaking yesterday to read about the new allegation against Bill Hybels in The New York Times. We have deep sadness for Ms. Baranowski. The behavior that she has described is reprehensible.”
The church’s other top pastor, the Rev. Steve Carter, resigned on Sunday. He said he could no longer work at Willow Creek in good conscience.
Mr. Hybels, 66, is known as the father of the modern megachurch movement. His ideas for drawing secular “seekers” into church have been adopted around the world.
As many as nine other women have accused Mr. Hybels of sexually harassing them with prolonged hugs, inappropriate comments about their looks or invitations to his hotel rooms. Ms. Baranowski said that Mr. Hybels gradually groomed her for a sexual relationship, then molested her at his home, at his lake house and at a pastors’ conference.
Mr. Hybels denied Ms. Baranowski’s allegations to The Times. He has also denied allegations from the other women, whose stories were detailed in articles by The Chicago Tribune in March. He responded to those earlier reports by saying that some of the allegations were misleading and others were “flat-out lies.”
In April, Mr. Hybels announced to the congregation that he would accelerate his planned retirement by six months and step aside immediately for the good of the church. But the church’s leadership has faced criticism for its handling of the accusations against its founding pastor.
As early as four years ago, women began approaching the church’s board of elders with accusations of misconduct by Mr. Hybels. The elders secretly conducted an investigation themselves and later commissioned another by an outside lawyer that was completed last year.
Both investigations found no wrongdoing by Mr. Hybels. Frustrated, the women making the accusations told their stories in The Chicago Tribune and Christianity Today.
When those reports emerged in March, the church’s board of elders, which includes Ms. Larson, the pastor, initially took the side of Mr. Hybels.
With the church in crisis this spring, the elders convened an emotional series of meetings with the congregation in an attempt at transparency. Mr. Hybels was allowed to go on stage and forcefully rebut each accusation. The elders’ remarks made it clear that they believed Mr. Hybels and doubted the women.
The meetings only inflamed the situation, and evangelicals across the country began accusing Willow Creek’s leaders of a cover-up.
In a hastily convened meeting in April, Mr. Hybels announced he was stepping down. He admitted only that he had been naïve to put himself too often “in situations that would have been far wiser to avoid.”
Finally, breaking ranks, one of the pastors, Mr. Carter, issued a strong apology to the women, and Ms. Larson followed suit with her own statement of regret.
Ms. Larson told church members on Monday that the new investigation will be overseen by an advisory council made up of “external Christian leaders from across the United States.” She did not name any members of the council but said they will have “full autonomy.”
She also said the investigation would be funded entirely by an anonymous donor “to ensure there is no undue influence on the process and the conclusions.”
But Scot McKnight, a prominent Christian author who used to preach at Willow Creek and has called for an investigation, said he doubted this inquiry would be truly independent if the megachurch’s leaders were choosing the council.
“Their track record on investigations and independence contaminates the whole story,” said Mr. McKnight, a New Testament professor at Northern Seminary in Illinois.
Ms. Baranowski said that she would need to know a lot more before she would agree to be interviewed by these investigators. “They might all be friends of Bill’s, as far as we know. So I’m a little skeptical.”
“Based on how this has all played out to this point I don’t have any reason to believe that things are going to change,” she said.
The church is rushing to act ahead of a major international gathering of evangelical pastors and lay leaders, The Global Leadership Summit, which will be held later this week at Willow Creek’s main campus in South Barrington, Ill. The summit is sponsored by an affiliate, the Willow Creek Association, and is expected to be watched live by thousands of churches around the world.
The association’s president, Tom DeVries, released his own statement on Monday, telling participants that the summit “completely severed” its ties to Mr. Hybels in April, “and there is no path for him to return.”
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