She kept stacks of journals: Bill Hybels drama enters a shocking new #MeToo chapter

Is there any phrase that investigators -- in police departments, newsrooms or even in churches -- fear more than "he said-she said"?

We are talking about accusations in which one person insists that something happened. The only other person with first-person, direct knowledge of what happened is the person on the other side of the alleged incident. This person denies the facts presented by the accuser.

What is the investigator supposed to do?

Here is a hint of where we are going in this post: One of the best editors I ever had would always say something like the following, whenever I brought in a story in which crucial voices disputed what happened behind closed doors. This editor would say: Is there anything on paper? Can we prove that one or more of these people shared this information with others?

Hold that thought.

The big story, in this case, is that there has been another #MeToo development linked to the painful exit of the Rev. Bill Hybels, the founder of the massive Willow Creek Church outside of Chicago -- one of the most influential institutions in "moderate" or even "progressive" evangelicalism. Here is the dramatic double-decker headline at The New York Times:

He’s a Superstar Pastor. She Worked for Him and Says He Groped Her Repeatedly.
Bill Hybels built an iconic evangelical church outside Chicago. A former assistant says that in the 1980s, he sexually harassed her 

The story opens with this anecdote:

SOUTH BARRINGTON, Ill. -- After the pain of watching her marriage fall apart, Pat Baranowski felt that God was suddenly showering her with blessings.
She had a new job at her Chicago-area megachurch, led by a dynamic young pastor named the Rev. Bill Hybels, who in the 1980s was becoming one of the most influential evangelical leaders in the country.
The pay at Willow Creek Community Church was much lower than at her old job, but Ms. Baranowski, then 32, admired Mr. Hybels and the church’s mission so much that it seemed worth it. She felt even more blessed when in 1985 Mr. Hybels and his wife invited her to move into their home, where she shared family dinners and vacations.
Once, while Mr. Hybels’s wife, Lynne, and their children were away, the pastor took Ms. Baranowski out for dinner. When they got home, Mr. Hybels offered her a back rub in front of the fireplace and told her to lie face down.

In front of the fireplace? We will skip a few details here and jump to the summary paragraphs, including the crucial she said-he said reference:

That first back rub in 1986 led to multiple occasions over nearly two years in which he fondled her breasts and rubbed against her. The incidents later escalated to one occasion of oral sex. Ms. Baranowski said she was mortified and determined to stay silent. ....
Mr. Hybels denied her allegations about her time working and living with him. “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.

So, does the accuser have anything on paper that places these events in a timeline of her life? Did she talk to anyone else about these events? 

Veteran Times religion-beat pro Laurie Goodstein has strong several sources to work with, including Baranowski's personal counselor, who was given permission to discuss private sessions. Baranowski also, when she left Willow Creek at the end of the 1980s, shared her experiences with a veteran member of the church staff -- the Rev. Don Cousins. He was asked to help her keep this explosive secret, until now.

What about sources on paper?

Yes, there appears to be a paper trail. Early on, there is this:

Ms. Baranowski kept handwritten notes she received from Mr. Hybels. In one, Mr. Hybels praised her work and said, “I am praying that your new small group” at church “will be a source of much happiness and strength in your life.” Then he added, “P.S. Plus, you are a knockout!”

Later on, there is this crucial detail, as tensions grew in the alleged relationship: 

[Baranowski] grew depressed and poured out her feelings to God, filling 20 spiral-bound journals.

Finally, there is one crucial quote from one of those journals:

Ms. Baranowski said that during the years of harassment, Mr. Hybels never kissed her, and they never had intercourse. She was particularly ashamed about the oral sex. She grew increasingly wracked by guilt and tried to talk with him. One day in his office, she told him that it was unfair to his wife, that it was sin, and that she felt humiliated.
That night she recorded in her journal what he had said in response: “It’s not a big deal. Why can’t you just get over it? You didn’t tell anyone, did you?”

Now, does the existence of this stack of journals prove anything? In a legal sense, no. The fact that someone poured their feelings into journals over a specific period of years doesn't prove the facts recorded there. However, when combined with testimony from her associates, it certainly is an important detail that must be discussed.

So how about the perspective of Hybels and the current leadership at Willow Creek?

Hybels denied the accusations in an email. And that's that?

At the church, there was this crucial response from one of the pastors chosen to replace Hybels, after the superstar's accelerated retirement in the wake of earlier, less explosive, accusations that were first reported by The Chicago Tribune and Christianity Today.

The Times report noted:

On Sunday, one of the church’s two top pastors severed his ties with Willow Creek. After services, the Rev. Steve Carter announced that he was resigning immediately in response to Ms. Baranowski’s “horrifying” allegations about Mr. Hybels.
Mr. Carter said he had a “fundamental difference” with the church’s elders over how they had handled the allegations against Mr. Hybels, and had been planning to resign for some time.

The Tribune covered the Sunday services at Willow Creek, adding this:

“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,” Carter wrote Sunday on his personal blog. “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. 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.”
Carter led the charge in a series of public apologies issued by church leaders in July. He wrote on his personal blog that he told church elders he believed the church had mishandled allegations against Hybels and the subsequent investigation of those claims. He said he had personally apologized to “several of the victims” for the way they and their families have been treated.
Lead pastor Heather Larson followed suit and delivered a separate apology from the pulpit. Willow Creek’s elders later posted a written statement on the church’s website.

So where are we now? In terms of public statements, the ball is now in the court of Willow Creek leaders and Hybels himself.

Meanwhile, its clear that this entire drama has, in part, been shaped by Hybel's fame and stature as a megachurch leader whose progressive leanings -- especially his public support for President Bill Clinton, during tough times -- made him the rare evangelical who consistently received positive mainstream media coverage. 

Thus, let's end -- for now -- with this candid Twitter thread from Goodstein:

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