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Willow Creek Community Church to launch new pastor investigation

Bill Hybels
Bill Hybels

Willow Creek Community Church in South Barrington announced Monday that it will launch a new investigation into accusations that the Rev. Bill Hybels sexually harassed women he worked with and a congregant over many years, according to the New York Times.

The announcement followed a Sunday New York Times report detailing new accusations from Hybels’ former executive assistant, Pat Baranowski. Now 65, she told The New York Times that Hybels sexually harassed her for two years. 

Heather Larson, one of the two top pastors at the evangelical megachurch, said this in a statement, according to a follow-up report from The New York Times: “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.”

Larson announced Monday to church members that an advisory council of “external Christian leaders from across the United States” would launch a new and independent investigation of the allegations against Hybels.

Baranowski’s account in The New York Times piece pushed Steve Carter, a lead teaching pastor at Willow Creek, to resign.

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.

The first incident, Baranowski told the newspaper, happened in 1986, when Hybels allegedly offered to rub her back and instead straddled her, unhooked her bra and touched her near her breasts. Hybels touched Baranowski inappropriately and rubbed against her multiple times over the next several months, she told The New York Times.

Baranowski, who lived with Hybels’ family in the 1980s, said the pastor’s wife and children were away when the alleged incident unfolded.

“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.

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 have 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 1975 in Palatine. There now are eight churches in the Chicago area, including 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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