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.
Stunned, she remembered feeling unable to say no to her boss and pastor as he straddled her, unhooked her bra and touched her near her breasts. She remembered feeling his hands shake.
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.
Ms. Baranowski is not the first to accuse Mr. Hybels of wrongdoing, though her charges are more serious than what has been reported before.
In March, The Chicago Tribune and Christianity Today reported that Mr. Hybels had been accused by several other women, including co-workers and a congregant, of inappropriate behavior that dated back decades. The allegations included lingering hugs, invitations to hotel rooms, comments about looks and an unwanted kiss.
The accusations did not immediately result in consequences for Mr. Hybels. At a churchwide meeting where Mr. Hybels denied the allegations, he received a standing ovation from the congregation.
The church’s elders conducted their own investigation of the allegations when they first surfaced four years ago and commissioned a second inquiry by an outside lawyer, completed in 2017. Both investigations cleared Mr. Hybels, though the church’s two lead pastors have since issued public apologies, saying that they believe the women.
Mene, mene, tekel upharsin: “You have been weighed in the balance and found wanting.” That was the handwriting on the wall at Belshazzar’s feast. It is a warning for every church — Catholic, Protestant, and Orthodox. Be ready. This is the handwriting on the wall for all of us. This is what divine judgment looks like.
I was talking to an East Coast broadcast journalist today about a political matter. He had not been following the church scandals. He’s not a believer, but it audibly grieved him to hear this news. He said, “Are there any institutions left with authority? It seems like they’re all falling apart.”
I’ve been having to have some stark talks with my children these last couple of weeks, about the church and trust. What a humiliation, as a believer, to have to do this. But that’s reality.