UNHOLY

Prison Chaplain Charged With Rape Studied Minister Accused of Sex Abuse

Bill Gothard’s evangelical teachings found fans in Mike Huckabee and the Duggars, but he and another pastor allegedly used them to take advantage of women.

12.21.15 6:05 AM ET

LITTLE ROCK — Arkansas prison chaplain Kenneth L. Dewitt was charged last week with 50 counts of third-degree sexual assault for allegedly pressuring three inmates at a women’s state prison into providing him sexual favors.

Dewitt based his prison classes on the teachings of Bill Gothard, an influential evangelical minister who is also accused of sexually harassing as many as 30 women under his influence. Gothard has deep ties to former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee, who opened prisons to his teachings, and the Duggar family, who sent their son Josh to be counseled under a Gothard program after he molested two of his sisters.

Gothard, who received a degree in biblical studies from Wheaton College, became popular in the 1970s with a program called Basic Youth Conflicts, which focused on seven life principles based on the Bible. In 1989, he changed the name of the program, which by now had become a profitable business, to Institute in Basic Life Principles (IBLP), based in Oak Brook, Illinois. Over the years, Gothard also created many spinoff ministries and businesses including the Advanced Training Institute (ATI), a popular Christian-based homeschooling program that the Duggars use and promote. In fact, Josh met his wife, Anna, during the Duggars’ annual trip to the ATI conference, and family members appeared at the IBLP conference this year.

The ultra-conservative ministries also include programs on anger control, financial management, prison rehabilitation, and marriage counseling. (Gothard has never married.)

IBLP also runs the International ALERT Academy, a military-style program that focuses on “preparing generations to be followers of Christ.” His teachings often include women not working outside the home, prudish courtship between couples before marriage, conservative dress, and that toys like the Cabbage Patch doll and rock music are evil.

Over the decades, Gothard’s ATI homeschooling program became popular with the politically influential Family Research Council where Josh Duggar worked before his sexual past was revealed and he resigned.

Five women sued the Institute in Basic Life Principles in October, alleging the organization and its board of directors enabled and covered up sexual abuse and harassment of interns, employees, and other participants in its programs. The women cited “sexual abuse, sexual harassment and inappropriate/unauthorized touching.”

While the IBLP denounced Gothard after an internal investigation that made Gothard resign his position, it did not close the door to Gothard returning to the organization.

“We believe God still desires to use Bill Gothard for His work in the Kingdom of God,” it said in a statement, “but we also believe it is important that he be held to the high standards clearly taught in the Scriptures and upheld by this ministry. At this time the Board unanimously agrees that Mr. Gothard is not permitted to serve in any counseling, leadership, or Board role within the IBLP ministry.”

Gothard is not facing criminal allegations at this time.

The allegations were first reported by RecoveringGrace.org, which collects stories from more than 30 women who said they had been sexually “groomed” and inappropriately touched by Gothard over the past three decades.

Recovering Grace produced what they say is a Gothard textbook from 1979 that essentially blames victims of sexual assault and domestic abuse. There is no victim in domestic violence because “if we understand we are called to suffer for righteousness.” The textbook also says there is no victim if that victim has the “proper perspective.” Sex, it appears, is a male right because he is the head of the household and in position of authority.

The allegations against Gothard and his subsequent dismissal show how far he’s fallen.

In 1996, when Huckabee, a former Southern Baptist minister, was the state’s governor, Gothard’s organization started running prison ministries in Arkansas. The IBLP website promotes its involvement in Arkansas and shows a picture of women in orange prison uniforms holding certificates beside this quote: “Governor Mike Huckabee of Arkansas stated, ‘As a person who has actually been through the Basic Seminar, I am confident that these are some of the best programs available for instilling character into the lives of people.’ A warden testified, ‘I would certainly recommend these seminars to any correctional or jail facility.’”

Two years later, in 1998, Dewitt began his program, Principals and Applications for Life.

Get The Beast In Your Inbox!
By clicking "Subscribe," you agree to have read the Terms of Use and Privacy Policy
Thank You!
You are now subscribed to the Daily Digest and Cheat Sheet. We will not share your email with anyone for any reason

Dewitt told the Arkansas Times in 2006 that he based PAL off of the Character Training Institute in Oklahoma City. The CTI taught Gothard’s lessons, just without explicit references to God or Jesus. The Arkansas Department of Correction’s website describes PAL as including “worship services, religious materials, and counseling services, to all inmates within the ADC, by community involvement of outside representation.” Requirements for the program are “appropriate behavior and conduct.”

According to the charges filed against Dewitt, his own behavior was anything but appropriate with female inmates at the McPherson Unit in Newport, Arkansas, about 90 miles northeast of Little Rock.

Last year, Dewitt left the prison after reportedly admitting inappropriate contact with another chaplain, who was also a former inmate. This led the Department of Corrections to contact state police, which opened an investigation into Dewitt that led to charges filed last week.

The case’s prosecuting attorney said in a press release that Dewitt scheduled and initiated sexual encounters with three inmates between January 2013 and September 2014. The Associated Press reported that the women, who were involved in the PAL program, were given specific schedules for sex.

“One inmate was called to his office early Sunday mornings, another early on Monday and the third was called in early on Wednesday,” the AP reported.

In Arkansas, inmates cannot consent to sexual relationships under state law, which classifies such relationships as third-degree sexual assault.

Gothard’s Institute of Basic Life Principles highlights its successful connections to the McPherson Unit.

“Out of 659 women who have completed the voluntary program since 1998, only 125 have returned to prison, making the overall recidivism rate through 2003 only 19%. The Arkansas state average is estimated to be 32—50%.”

IBLP credits the success to “a daily diet of God’s Word.”

It’s unclear if the PAL program will continue in the Arkansas prison system. Cathy Frye, spokeswoman for the Arkansas Department of Correction, did not respond to a request for comment by The Daily Beast.

The entire McPherson Unit is still under scrutiny after the Department of Justice launched its own investigation into allegations of sexual assault. “The department received numerous allegations of sexual abuse and sexual harassment of prisoners by multiple members of McPherson Unit staff,” DOJ said in a press release in June. “Allegations include staff engaging in sexual intercourse and other sexual acts with prisoners; exchanging commissary money for sexual favors; and inappropriately watching prisoners while they shower or change clothes, commenting on their private parts and, at times, taking photos or video for reasons unrelated to correctional goals.”

It is unclear if Dewitt is also the focus of that investigation as DOJ has not released its findings.

As for Gothard, he has resurfaced online, writing obliquely about the allegations:

“My most important priority was to ask forgiveness of the Lord for my neglect of consistent meditation. I know now that He has called me to demonstrate the importance of day and night meditation; and that He had to use something very shocking to get me away from the responsibilities of ministry so I could delight in Him and His Word.”

 

—Additional reporting by Brandy Zadrozny