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Willow Creek pastor resigns after new sexual misconduct allegations surface against predecessor

Outgoing Steve Carter calls details in New York Times report ‘horrifying’

Willow Creek Community Church Senior Pastor Bill Hybels stands before his congregation, Tuesday, April 10, 2018, in South Barrington, Ill.
Willow Creek Community Church Senior Pastor Bill Hybels stands before his congregation, Tuesday, April 10, 2018, in South Barrington, Ill.

A lead teaching pastor at Willow Creek Community Church in South Barrington has resigned after a New York Times report detailing sexual misconduct allegations against his predecessor, Rev. Bill Hybels, who retired from the church in April after accusations that he touched and made lewd comments to female congregants.

In a blog post published Sunday, Steve Carter announced his resignation, calling the new allegations in the Sunday New York Times story “horrifying.”

The Sunday piece shares an account from Hybels’ former executive assistant, Pat Baranowski, who now is 65. 

She told the New York Times that Hybels sexually harassed her for two years. 

The first incident, she told the newspaper, happened in 1986, when he allegedly offered to rub her back and instead straddled her, unhooked her bra and touched her near her breasts. Baranowski, who lived with Hybels’ family in the 1980s, said the pastor’s wife and children were away when the alleged incident unfolded.

Hybels touched Baranowski inappropriately and rubbed against her multiple times over the following several months, she told the New York Times.

“The incidents later escalated to one occasion of oral sex,” New York Times reporter Laurie Goodstein wrote. “Ms. Baranowski said she was mortified and determined to stay silent.”

Hybels denied the allegations.

“I never had an inappropriate physical or emotional relationship with her before that time, during that time or after that time,” he said in an email to the New York Times.

In his blog post, Carter said he tried to resign “many weeks” before the New York Times article landed, but church leadership asked him to stay until they could determine “how to make the decision public.” 

The allegations in the article left him no choice but to leave the church immediately. 

“I cannot, in good conscience, appear before you as your lead teaching pastor when my soul is so at odds with the institution,” he wrote.

Hybels founded the Chicago-area evangelical church that grew to become one of the largest in the nation.

In March, the Chicago Tribune reported details of the misconduct allegations against Hybels stretching back to the 1990s.

An initial church inquiry cleared Hybels, but elders renewed their investigation after new allegations surfaced in Christianity Today.

In a letter posted on Willow Creek’s website, the elders said their work to resolve any shadow of doubt in the trustworthiness of Willow Creek Community Church and its elders isn’t done.

Hybels called the allegations against him “flat-out lies” and said they had become a distraction from the church’s mission and work. He apologized for choices that put him in situations that could be misconstrued, and for reacting in anger when the accusations were made public.

“I realize now that in certain settings and circumstances in the past, I communicated things that were perceived in ways I did not intend, at times making people feel uncomfortable,” Hybels said.

Hybels started the church in Palatine in 1975. There now are eight churches in the Chicago area; two are located in McHenry County, in Crystal Lake and Huntley.

The former pastor said the decision to step down now “was mine and mine alone after a lot of prayer.”

• The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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