The leadership of Willow Creek Community Church announced Monday it will conduct an independent investigation into the sexual harassment allegations against founding pastor Bill Hybels.
Heather Larson, the lead pastor of the Chicago-area church, announced the investigation Monday in an email to members. Larson’s email revealed the investigation will be conducted by an advisory council of Christian leaders from across the country.
Teaching Pastor Steve Carter stepped down from his position at Willow Creek Church Sunday after one of Hybels’ former assistants became the tenth woman to accuse Hybels of sexual harassment and misconduct.
The New York Times reports that Pat Baranowski said Hybels allegedly touched her inappropriately on several occasions while she was working for him in 1986. Baranowski says his behavior progressed over time. She accuses Hybels of asking her to watch porn with him as a research project and eventually having oral sex with her on one occasion.
She told the Times she “did not want to hurt the church” so she kept the incidents a secret.
“I felt like if this was exposed, this fantastic place would blow up, and I loved the church,” Baranowski said. “I loved the people there. I loved the family. I didn’t want to hurt anybody. And I was ashamed.”
The new allegations were the last straw for Steve Carter who is leaving after five years at Willow Creek and a nearly 15-year mentoring relationship with Hybels.
“The new facts and allegations that came to light this morning are horrifying, and my heart goes out to Ms. Baranowski and her family for the pain they have lived with,” Carter wrote on his blog. “These most recent revelations have also compelled me to make public my decision to leave, as much as it grieves me to go.”
Carter was originally chosen as Hybels’ replacement following his planned retirement in October 2018. After Hybels retired early due to claims of inappropriate conduct, Carter stepped in to replace him, until now.
Carter writes, “Since the first women came forward with their stories, I have been gravely concerned about our church’s official response, and its ongoing approach to these painful issues. After many frank conversations with our elders, it became clear that there is a fundamental difference in judgment between what I believe is necessary for Willow Creek to move in a positive direction, and what they think is best.”
He continues, “That is not to say that I am right and they are wrong. But I must follow the path that I believe God has laid out for me to live with integrity, and that path now diverges from Willow Creek. At this point, however, I cannot, in good conscience, appear before you as your Lead Teaching Pastor when my soul is so at odds with the institution.”
Hybel’s has admitted to placing himself “in situations that would have been far wiser to avoid,” but he maintains his innocence, denying all allegations.
“I never had an inappropriate physical or emotional relationship with her before that time, during that time or after that time,” Hybels told the Times in an email.
The church’s annual Global Leadership Summit is planned to start Friday. However, Christianity Today reports that 111 host sites have already canceled the planned simulcast. The magazine also reported actor Denzel Washington and author and speaker Lisa Bodell had also canceled their appearances.
According to the Religion News Service, several publishers have also stopped the publication of Hybels books.