Doug Phillips, the former head of Vision Forum Ministries, is being sued by a former follower who claims he used her as his "personal sex slave." Photo by Vision Forum via Facebook
Last fall, Douglas Phillips, a fundamentalist Christian homeschooling guru and leading proponent of the “Biblical Patriarchy” movement, shocked his followers by publicly admitting that he had a relationship with a woman other than his wife, and subsequently shuttered his popular—and lucrative—Vision Forum ministries. Given that philandering religious leaders are a dime a dozen, the story seemed pretty unremarkable at the time. Sure, it was sad news for Phillips and his fundamentalist friends, an illustrious circle that included Kirk Cameron, Creationist talking head Ken Ham, and the Duggar vagina militia. But mostly, it just looked like another minister getting a taste of forbidden fruit.
“There has been serious sin in my life for which God has graciously brought me to repentance,” Phillips said in a statement posted to Vision Forum’s website. “I engaged in a lengthy, inappropriate relationship with a woman. While we did not 'know' each other in a Biblical sense, it was nevertheless inappropriately romantic and affectionate.”
Then, last week, the bomb dropped. The woman with whom Phillips was involved, 29-year-old Lourdes Torres, slapped both him and Vision Forum with a lawsuit that indicates Phillips dramatically understated the nature of their “inappropriate relationship”—not least by implying that it was consensual. In the suit, Torres accuses him of sexual battery, exploitation, assault, and fraud, among other charges, and claims he used her as a “personal sex object” over the course of several years, including while she was working as a nanny in Phillips’s home. Torres is also suing Phillips’s now-defunct Vision Forum Ministries, and its for-profit arm, for negligent supervision and retention—in other words, for knowing about the abuse and not doing anything to stop it or remove Phillips from his leadership roles.
According to the lawsuit, Phillips met Torres and her family at a homeschooling conference in 1999, when Torres was just 15. It claims that Phillips then proceeded to “methodically groom” the teenage girl, inviting Torres on family vacations, taking her on as a nanny for his kids, and showering her with compliments, money, and spiritual advice, until eventually she moved into the Phillips’s home as a nanny in 2007.
That’s when the allegations get gross:
While Ms. Torres was living with Douglas Phillips and his family in October of 2007, Douglas Phillips entered Ms. Torres’s bedroom and without her consent began touching her breasts, stomach, back, neck, and waist. Phillips then began to masturbate and ejaculated on her. Ms. Torres asked Phillips to stop and broke down crying. Despite Ms. Torres’s repeated requests for Phillips to stop masturbating and ejaculating on her, Phillips proceeded to return and repeat this perverse and offensive conduct. Each night that Phillips returned, Ms. Torres requested that he stop. Defendant blatantly disregarded her requests but continued to masturbate and ejaculate on her each night.
The 30-page complaint goes on to sketch a devastating picture of Phillips and his ministry, offering a glimpse into the darker side of the Biblical Patriarchy movement that has taken root in some corners of Christian fundamentalism. In the belief system advocated by Phillips and Vision Forum, men have spiritual authority and dominion over church and family, while women are expected to submit absolutely to their fathers and husbands in all aspects of life.
According to the lawsuit, Phillips allegedly continued to grope and masturbate on Torres for the next five years, and even promised to marry her when his wife died—setting up an abusive Catch-22, in which Torres was compelled to submit to Phillips’s spiritual authority, even though doing so made her “damaged goods” in a community that puts an outsize premium on sexual purity. In the meantime, the suit claims he had become Torres's "spiritual father" and the "dominant authority figure" in her life. "Phillips was the pastor of her church, her boss, her landlord, and the controller of all aspects of her life—obedience to Phillips was as obedience to God in this total institution," the complaint reads.
What makes the lawsuit against Phillips remarkable—and a bombshell for the Christian Right—is that it is an indictment of the Biblical Patriarchy movement and fundamentalism writ large, casting blame not just on Phillips but also on the conservative doctrine that he has promoted across the country. As an icon in the homeschooling movement, Phillips was a major proponent of the idea that Evangelicals should remove themselves and their families from threat of encroaching secular government and culture.
At his own church, the suit argues, the result was an insular, almost cultish community that actively discouraged outside contact, and made it impossible for Torres to confront or escape her abuse:
There is a pervasive sense within Phillips’s tight circle of people that they are engaged in a cosmic war, and that they avoid contact with the government and other outside groups that might hold them accountable or ask questions. Phillips used his training as a lawyer to help foster an unregulated community that operated as a "total institution" where Ms. Torres would have limited access to outside support as she came to see her situation as abusive.
It gets worse:
Douglas Phillips’s community had its own church-court system. Disputes were brought before a board of all male elders in what resembled a legal proceeding without any of the rights of the accused in secular courts. For Ms. Torres, this system would force her to go up against Phillips—the most powerful man in the extended community—who is a trained attorney known for his skills at argument and intimidation. If Ms. Torres were to lose, she likely would be excommunicated from her church and all other churches that are legitimate in the eyes of her community. Seeking advice from others would have been labeled as gossip and treated as a very serious sin. One could be excommunicated for this, a practice that very much protects the men in power.
Torres finally cut ties with Phillips in the end of 2012, precipitating a downward spiral for the Christian homeschool icon that ended with the shuttering of Vision Forum. Although Phillips has not denied having a relationship with Torres, in statement posted to Vision Forum’s Facebook page, his lawyer claims that their contact was “consensual and often initiated, encouraged, and aggressively perpetrated” by Torres, and that she “repeatedly requested money, trips, jewelry, and numerous special favors.” World magazine also reported earlier this month that Phillips has been sending out letters to former Vision Forum board members accusing them of trying to “destroy” him.
The scandal is the latest in a series of recent sexual abuse crises that have rocked Christian fundamentalists and destabilized the biblical patriarchy movement. Last month, Bill Gothard, the 79-year-old head of the Institute of Basic Life Principles and one of the earliest leaders of the Biblical Patriarchy and Quiverfull movements, was forced to resign after at least 34 women, most of them former employees, accused him of sexual harassment. Fundamentalist Bible colleges, often the higher-ed of choice for children of Quiverfull families—have also struggled with the issue of sexual abuse. At Bob Jones University, a bastion of fundamentalist academia, an investigation is currently underway to look into accusations that the school mishandled abuse victims, and covered up sexual assault incidents that occurred on campus. Patrick Henry College, in Virginia, has been dealing with similar allegations.
The wave of sexual abuse issue is partly the result of the Christian Right’s push to extract evangelical Christians and their children from the encroaching threat of secular government and culture in schools, courts, and other parts of civic life, said Cynthia Kunsman, an author and nurse who has written extensively about abuse in the Biblical Patriarchy movement. Absent secular governance, she said, fundamentalist groups “rely upon authoritarian systems and strict hierarchies to tightly govern followers, and they control dissent through direct and indirect or subtle punishment.”
When combined with the Patriarchy movement’s gender hierarchy and extensive focus on sexuality and fertility, she added, “the culmination of these factors fosters the potential for abuse of anyone who is inferior, and women just happen to occupy the lowest positions.” But given that the entire pitch for Biblical Patriarchy is that it is better for women, children, and families, “dealing with sexual abuse is tantamount to admitting that the system is flawed.”
But there are signs that the movement is starting to crack from the stress. In the wake of the lawsuit filing against Phillips, several prominent homeschoolers—including his former colleagues at the Home School Legal Defense Association—have publicly broken with Biblical Patriarchy doctrine, openly criticizing Phillips’s conservative ideas about gender and sexuality for the first time.
“I wish I had spoken up sooner,” Michael Farris, the head of the HSLDA who also founded Patrick Henry College, wrote in a Facebook post. “There was no way that I could have known that Doug was involved in sexual misconduct, but I knew that he was involved in unscriptural views about women in his teaching."
“He was teaching that girls should never go to college. I started a college where half the student body is female," he added. "I thought my actions would speak louder than his words. I wish I had used words too."