The Cult Next Door

For decades, the people of Hinsdale gave little thought to the mysterious brick building in town. Then came a scandal.

Chicago Magazine/June 20, 2016

By Bryan Smith

The building, red bricked, colonnaded, crowned with a white cupola, sits on a grassy knoll in northwest Hinsdale. Unmarked, unremarkable, it barely registers as anything more than a garden-variety administrative headquarters of unknown provenance.

That isn’t to say that the decades-old property, situated on 223 acres in this Shangri-la of a western suburb of multimillion-dollar estates and country club splendor, has escaped notice over the years. The sight of teenage girls walking arm in arm in a nearby park, identically dressed in chaste ankle-length skirts, red scarves knotted around their necks, and modest Mary Janes, and of teen boys seemingly stamped out on a Wonder Bread assembly line—always in dark suits, white shirts, and ties—drew the occasional stare.

“Everyone kind of thought it was very strange. Like, what do they really do there?” says one longtime Hinsdale resident. “They always seemed very secretive.”

Then, in 2014, came a scandal. Some of those same red-scarfed girls accused Bill Gothard, the charismatic leader of the Institute in Basic Life Principles—the ultraconservative Christian organization operating out of that Hinsdale building—of inappropriately touching them. Gothard stepped down after an internal probe. But since then, 18 former staffers, interns, and volunteers have joined in a lawsuit accusing him of “sexually, physically, emotionally, spiritually, and/or psychologically [abusing]” them. In many cases, the plaintiffs were underage at the time and had been recruited to work for the organization by Gothard himself. The suit also takes on IBLP, accusing it of initially covering up Gothard’s actions, which the plaintiffs claim took place “over the course of several decades.”

Whatever the outcome of the case, the shroud of anonymity that once served as a kind of shield for IBLP against unwanted attention has been ripped away. The organization has even tried to make a fresh start by leaving Hinsdale and moving its headquarters to Texas. These days, as more becomes known about Gothard—of what the lawsuit alleges was his almost despotic control over his adherents and of the puritanical, idiosyncratic way of life he prescribed for them—shaken Hinsdale residents regard the benign-looking if somewhat abstruse manor down the street not as just another religious institution but as an organization with a disquieting appellation: the cult in their midst.

In the world beyond IBLP’s doors, news in 2014 that Gothard had resigned caused scarcely more than a ripple—other than in the tight circle of those who track fundamentalist Christian groups. That changed last year after an even bigger scandal, one involving TLC reality show star Josh Duggar. That May, it was revealed that the then-27-year-old Duggar, darling of the Christian right as head of the Family Research Council’s political action committee, had as a teen molested five girls, including four of his sisters.

Of the many unsettling details to emerge, one put IBLP squarely in the spotlight: When Duggar’s parents discovered the teenager’s transgressions, they sent him not to a traditional treatment center but to an IBLP facility in Little Rock, Arkansas. The Duggars had been involved with IBLP for nearly a quarter of a century; specifically, the family belonged to IBLP’s homeschooling arm, the Advanced Training Institute.

Suddenly, a keen interest developed in the brick building in Hinsdale. Just what exactly was that place, and what was going on there?

“I think that the community at large didn’t even really realize that it was there,” says Don Veinot, president of Midwest Christian Outreach, an evangelical group based in Wonder Lake, Illinois, that investigates cults and spiritually oppressive groups. “Unless you have some sort of direct interaction with someone there, you’re not going to think very much about it.”

On IBLP’s website, the nonprofit organization describes itself as “dedicated to giving individuals, families, churches, schools, communities, governments, and businesses clear instruction and training on how to find success by following God’s principles found in Scripture.” The group pushes an authoritarian, patriarchal theology conceived, developed, and thundered from the pulpit by Gothard over the years.

The approach has resonated with conservative evangelicals to the tune of millions of followers, most of whom have become involved with the organization through seminars put on by Gothard around the country. On its website, IBLP boasts that 2.5 million people have attended such events over its five-plus decades. Many of its adherents have enlisted their children in the homeschooling program, serviced by more than a dozen ATI centers sprinkled around the nation and abroad, including in Hinsdale. IBLP’s supporters over the years—many of whom continue to defend it—include such high-profile conservative stalwarts as Mike Huckabee, Sarah Palin, and Rick Perry. (See “IBLP’s Big-Name Supporters,” below.)

The lawsuit, however, alleges a less heavenly place for the plaintiffs, who worked at the Hinsdale headquarters. At its peak, in the 1990s and early 2000s, IBLP had 200 to 300 staffers there, living several at a time in nearby houses or a dormitory-style apartment building the organization owned. Gothard, the lawsuit contends, acted as “the boss, the landlord, and the controller of all aspects of their lives.” He kept his “victims blamed, shamed, silent, compliant,” the suit alleges, and “cut off from the normal world entirely.” (Gothard’s attorney wouldn’t comment on specific allegations in the lawsuit but did say, “This is about an underlying agenda.” A lawyer for IBLP declined to be interviewed for this story. The defendants are seeking to have the suit dismissed on technical grounds, primarily that the statute of limitations on the allegations has passed.)

“You never think you are in a cult when you are in a cult,” Micah J. Murray, who was a student in the ATI program and later worked for IBLP in the mid-2000s, wrote on his website. “We talked about how it was a cult, joking at first. … But as I spiraled closer and closer to the center, the realization began to sink in. The jokes became real.”

The seeds of Gothard’s rise to power were sown not far from where he would build and rule his empire. He was born in Hinsdale, in fact, the son of William Gothard Sr., executive director at Gideons International, the evangelical ministry known for leaving Bibles in hotel rooms. The third of six children, Gothard was, by his teenage years, deeply religious. According to his bio on the IBLP website, he “began working with inner-city gangs in Chicago” and “families in crisis” to help them “make wise choices.”

The organization that would become IBLP derived from a master’s thesis Gothard wrote in 1961 while at Wheaton College. Gothard set up a program called Campus Teams, run out of his La Grange home, for resolving conflicts between teens and their families. In 1974, the fledgling organization changed its name to the Institute in Basic Youth Conflicts. In the years that followed, it would expand far beyond teen issues, prompting yet another name change, to the Institute in Basic Life Principles, in 1989.

According to the lawsuit, IBLP developed an extravagantly detailed “purity culture” that provided guidelines on “marriage, women, children, medicine, and ways to take back and fix the nation.” Its philosophy included everything from the general (what children should study, from kindergarten through high school) to the granular (exactly how young men and women should dress, style their hair, and comport themselves to avoid attracting sinful attention). ATI’s homeschooling curriculum consists of 54 “wisdom booklets,” which teach subjects including geography, math, science, law, and government, tying each lesson to Gothard’s interpretation of a corresponding biblical passage.

Virtually all of IBLP’s teachings are viewed through the prism of male superiority and female obedience. In marriage, for example, the husband is the undisputed leader of the family and his word is final. Elsewhere, women defer to men in almost every circumstance, on almost every level, including in the workplace. This belief system, the lawsuit says, “considers women to primarily exist for the purposes of producing children, caring for the men, and rearing the children. Females in the patriarchal movement are discouraged from attaining higher education of any kind and are told that their sole purpose is to marry a man within the movement.”

Strict, sometimes draconian, moral codes find purchase in virtually all fundamentalist Christian groups. In the case of IBLP, however, some of the tenets seem downright bizarre: Cabbage Patch Kids are idolatrous, syncopated music is “the antithesis of what God desires in the life of a Christian,” blue jeans are ungodly, circumcised men are morally purer than uncircumcised men. One IBLP article suggests that failing to “render to the Lord” can lead to miscarriage. Another, titled “How Are Eyelids Used for Seductive Purposes?,” rails against the “whoredom” of the female wink: Such an act by “an attractive, but immoral woman” can be used to “communicate lustful desires and sensual entrapments.”

IBLP’s other teachings could be straight out of Footloose. Rock music, even Christian rock, is unthinkable. Dancing, of course, is out of the question. So, too, are television, movies, romance novels, and drinking. Boys are not allowed to talk to girls in the lobby of the IBLP headquarters. Dating is forbidden. Instead, a boy and girl whose fathers believe might make a good pair must follow a highly circumscribed courting ritual, every aspect of which is monitored by their parents.

When it comes to appearance, girls in particular face a long list of rules. For instance, they must avoid an “eye-trap”—that is, anything that draws attention to their bodies. “So it could be a neckline that shows anything other than your collarbone, a necklace that was longer than 16 inches,” explains Charis Barker, one of the plaintiffs in the case, who was involved with IBLP from 1986 to 2000, first as a child homeschooled under its tenets, then as a staffer.

The lawsuit claims that Gothard, who holds no medical degree, provided therapeutic counseling according to his own whims. One of its most dramatic allegations involves a young woman on staff who asked for guidance on dealing with the emotional fallout of having been raped at age 11 (by someone not in the organization). The suit alleges Gothard discouraged the staffer from seeking outside psychological treatment. “No, a professional counselor would ruin you and all your potential to serve the Lord,” the lawsuit alleges Gothard told the woman. “Professional counselors do not know how to work with abused girls, only I do.” Gothard decided not to report the rape to authorities based on the flip of a coin, the suit claims.

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