Wheaton College Coeds Say Bilezikian Sexually Harassed Them; College Accused of Mishandling Reports

By Julie Roys
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In the mid-1980s, Ellen Maxwell (now Ellie Cowan) was a young and trusting student at the evangelical flagship, Wheaton College. So, when her professor, a well-respected author and near celebrity at the school, invited her to his office to collaborate on a writing project, she was flattered and unsuspecting.

What happened next shocked and deeply disturbed her.

Cowan and another former Wheaton College coed recently told me their stories of alleged sexual abuse and sexual misconduct by Dr. Gilbert Bilezikian, a prominent scholar and professor at Wheaton for more than 25 years.

Bilezikian also is a co-founder of Willow Creek Community Church. And these new allegations come in the wake of revelations last week that Ann Lindberg, a longtime member of Willow Creek, was allegedly abused by Bilezikian over a period of years, beginning in the 1980s.

Willow Creek last week confirmed that Lindberg had reported her abuse to the church 10 years ago. But the church said it failed to enforce a ban it had placed on Bilezikian serving and teaching at Willow Creek.  

Similarly, one of the former students who told me Bilezikian had sexually harassed her, said she reported the misconduct to Wheaton in the 1990s, but the college never responded. Lindberg also says she reported her abuse by Bilezikian to Wheaton College in 2018, but felt the college mishandled her case and dismissed her accusations.

I reached out to Wheaton College for comment last week and Joseph Moore, Wheaton College Director of Communications, said that Wheaton is re-opening an investigation concerning Bilezikian. However, Moore added, “(W)e do not publicly share information on personnel matters.”

When I specifically inquired about a report of misconduct in the 1990s, Moore did not respond.

I also reached out to Bilezikian for comment about these new allegations, but he did not respond.

Despite last week’s revelations, Bilezikian’s faculty profile page remains posted at Wheaton’s website, naming Bilezikian as “Professor of New Testament Emeritus.”

Ellie (Maxwell) Cowan

Ellie (Maxwell) Cowan (B.A. 1984) said she first met Dr. Bilezikian when she took a New Testament class from him in 1983-84. She said that after writing an essay for the class, Bilezikian told Cowan that he liked her writing style and wanted her to write something for a book he was writing.

Cowan said she was flattered and agreed to meet with Bilezikian in his office. She said that when she arrived, Bilezikian immediately got up from behind his desk, closed his office door and locked it. Cowan said she thought that was odd, but dismissed the thought thinking that perhaps “this was a publishing thing—that you couldn’t let the information out.”

Cowan said Bilezikian then directed her to sit in a straight-backed chair and began asking her personal questions, saying that if they were going to work together, they’d need to get to know each other.

Cowan said Bilezikian then put his hand on her shoulder and began kissing her shoulder and neck. Cowan said she responded by saying “no” and pushing Bilezikian away. She said Bilezikian then “started putting his hands all over me,” touching Cowan’s breasts and starting to go under her shirt.

Cowan said she was flustered, but quickly got up, gathered her belongings, and started moving toward the door. She said Bilezikian also got up and moved toward the door. And Cowan said that as she was leaving, Bilezikian said, “This is just getting to know you.”

Cowan said she never reported the incident but instead “blocked it out.” “When you’re this sweet, little, innocent Christian girl at this Christian school and the guy that’s written all the books, and has all the accolades and everything, is just kind of a common perv, it’s just too contradictory,” she said.

Cowan said Bilezikian contacted her a couple of times after the incident and apologized, and even wrote her a note. Cowan said she threw the note away, adding, “It never even crossed my mind for evidence or anything like that.”

I spoke with two of Cowan’s classmates who shared a house with her when she was at Wheaton—Sally Nichols and Pam (Clark) Garringer. Neither say they remember Cowan speaking about the incident, though Cowan said she thought she had told them about it.  

Even so, Nichols said she believes Cowan and “always got a bit of an uncomfortable feeling around Dr. B.” Nichols, who has red hair, added, “(Bilezikian) loved redheads apparently, and he made remarks to that effect to me.”

Similarly, Garringer said she believes Cowan whom she described as “very truthful.” Garringer added, “(Bilezikian) was always touchy feely—creepy touchy feely.”

Donna Ray

Today, Donna Ray is senior lecturer at the University of New Mexico with an impressive resumé, including an M. Div. from Princeton Theological Seminary, a master of sacred theology from Yale University, and a Ph.D. from the University of New Mexico. But in the mid-1980s, Ray was a naïve college student, and Bilezikian was “royalty.”

Ray said that in 1986, she stayed after a class of Bilezikian’s and was in the room alone with him. (Ray said she couldn’t remember why she stayed late, maybe to ask Bilezikian a question.) Ray said Bilezikian came up behind her while she was sitting and began rubbing her shoulders.

“I was taken aback, but I let him continue,” Ray said, noting that in the 80s, “good, evangelical girls” weren’t encouraged to speak up. “(Bilezikian) apparently thought I was enjoying it,” Ray added, “and he said something along the lines of, ‘If you like this, I could do more to you that would really make you feel like a woman.’”

“(Bilezikian) apparently thought I was enjoying it . . . and he said something along the lines of, ‘If you like this, I could do more to you that would really make you feel like a woman.’”

Ray said at that point, she tried to “wriggle from under his grip and leave,” which she did.

For years, Ray said she didn’t report the incident to anyone at Wheaton because she didn’t think anyone would believe her word over the word of a star professor like Bilezikian. “He literally wrote the book on egalitarianism,” Ray said, referring to Bilezikian’s 1985 best-selling book, Beyond Sex Roles.

However, five to 10 years after graduating, Ray said she got a questionnaire in the mail from Wheaton College, inviting graduates to share prior experiences they had with their professors.

Ray said she wrote a two- to three-page response, documenting what Bilezikian had done to her, and returned the survey by mail, which she believes was addressed to either a dean or the chairman of the Bible department. Ray said she never received a response from Wheaton College.

I talked to one of Ray’s colleagues at the University of New Mexico, Sharon Erickson Nepstad, about Ray’s allegations. (Ray and I connected because Nepstad had reached out to Ray and encouraged her to tell me her story.) According to Nepstad, Ray told her about Bilezikian’s alleged sexual misconduct sometime between 2004—2011. However, Nepstad said Ray didn’t give her details about what Bilezikian had done to her.

Lindberg Says Wheaton College Mishandled Her Case

Ann Lindberg said she contacted Wheaton College to report her abuse in advance of the GC2 Summit on Responding to Sexual Violence in December 2018, whic was sponsored by the Billy Graham Center at Wheaton College and led by Ed Stetzer. “I wanted to know, since (Wheaton College) is going to be talking about sexual abuse and survivors, are you going to be talking about what happened on your own campus?” Lindberg said. She added that she was hoping for evidence showing, “Here’s why (Wheaton) is reputable enough to have this conference.”

Lindberg said she called the college and asked to speak with President Philip Ryken or Provost Margaret Diddams but was referred instead to Karen Tucker, director of human resources.

Lindberg said that at the beginning of her phone appointment with Tucker, Tucker told Lindberg that “Diane” would be on the call to take notes. (Lindberg said Tucker had previously promised her that the call would just be between the two of them.) Lindberg said she later learned that “Diane” was Diane Padilla, an attorney and Wheaton’s Title IX Coordinator.

Lindberg said that during the call, Padilla asked a lot of probing questions and even suggested that Lindberg had enticed Bilezikian into sexual situations. Lindberg said Padilla also suggested that the relationship was fueled by Lindberg’s “craving for approval” and “need to be around a powerful person.”

“It seemed like she kept twisting anything I said,” Lindberg said. “I was really shocked . . . I thought, ‘What the heck did I say that would give her that impression?’ and ‘What secretary asks questions like this?’”

“It seemed like she kept twisting anything I said . . . I thought, ‘What the heck did I say that would give her that impression?’ and ‘What secretary asks questions like this?’”

At the end of the call, Lindberg said she asked Padilla if she believed her account and Padilla responded that it was an “interesting story.”  

I reached out to Wheaton College and asked specifically about the phone call with Lindberg, but Wheaton said it could not discuss personnel issues.

Lindberg said Tucker and Padilla denied on the December 2018 call that they had any knowledge of any other victims of Bilezikian.

However, according to a letter Wheaton sent to Bilezikian in the fall of 2019 (and Bilezikian recently forwarded to me), Wheaton opened an inquiry concerning Bilezikian in August 2018, following allegations made by an “anonymous blogger.”

That’s the same time that anonymous blogger, E.S. Martin, began publishing multiple accounts of Bilezikian’s alleged misconduct on her blog. I spoke with the author of the E.S. Martin blog, who asked that I identify her as someone who was a “well known volunteer leader at both Willow Creek Community Church and Christians for Biblical Equality International.”

I asked this person if Wheaton College ever contacted her through her blog or otherwise. She said the college did not.

According to the letter from Wheaton, the college closed its inquiry concerning Bilezikian on September 19, 2019, because it “did not find sufficient evidence to conclude that misconduct occurred.” At that time, Wheaton said it also reinstated Bilezikian’s faculty page on Wheaton.edu.

Lindberg said neither Tucker nor Padilla contacted her after the call to report the results of their inquiry.

However, last week, after Lindberg’s story of abuse made national news, Lindberg said Tucker left a voicemail asking to speak with her. Lindberg said she responded by telling Tucker that she’d be willing to talk with her under the condition that I be on the call and Lindberg be allowed to record. Lindberg said Tucker never called back.

Student at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary Reports Misconduct

One other woman, Kristin Tremba, reached out to me with a story of sexual misconduct involving Bilezikian. Tremba said she got to know Dr. Bilezikian when he spoke at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in 2004. At the time, Tremba was a student at Gordon-Conwell and the Boston chapter president for Christians for Biblical Equality International (CBEI)—an organization Bilezikian helped found.

Tremba said she and another seminary student went out to dinner with Bilezikian during his visit. Tremba said that a couple weeks later, Bilezikian, who was married, sent her a short email, professing his love for her.

Tremba said she was surprised, especially given Bilezikian’s standing in the Christian community and his age. (Bilezikian was 77 at the time.) Yet Tremba said she never reported Bilezikian, deleted the email, and responded with something like, “Thank you so much. I have great admiration for you too.”

“Sadly, and to my shame, when I covered for him, I was covering for myself, too,” Tremba told me, noting that her CBE chapter was trying to convince people that God had a place for women’s leadership and preaching in the church.

“The knowledge that Bilezikian was using his platform to proposition women put a huge stain on what we were trying to do. It would have shamed and embarrassed us and we would have had to hear . . . ‘See, women are prone to deception and have no place in leadership, etc.’”

Tremba added that she had a good friend who once reported abuse by a seminary professor to a dean, but her concerns were never taken seriously.

Below is the letter Wheaton College sent Dr. Bilezikian regarding its inquiry into alleged misconduct:

WheatonCollegeToBilezikianClsgInvest_Redacted

Correction: The original article incorrectly stated that Bilezikian had sent the email to Tremba the day after they had dinner, rather than a couple weeks later. 

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25 thoughts on “Wheaton College Coeds Say Bilezikian Sexually Harassed Them; College Accused of Mishandling Reports”

  1. What is wrong with this man?! Has he no boundaries? Has he no accountability? What a disgrace to the name of Jesus Christ. It is unfathomable that he was allowed to lead and influence people for years and years with this kind of unconfessed sin in his life.

    1. And what is wrong with Wheaton College? Faculty, parents, students, and alumni need to get on the phone or send emails and demand answers to why and how the institution and individuals within it covered for this man.

      1. I’m willing to bet they are not the only ones ans Wheaton college has been covering a long time in this and many other areas. Just a hunch of course. Not making false accusations but I think we need to fully vet what is going on here.

    2. Paul,
      Sadly this seems to be an epidemic everywhere in the Christian community, churches, schools, etc. I am grieved for what is going on and how so many seem to have had their consciences seered with a hot iron. It is a sign of the times. This is evil I never thought I would see or hear in my life. God’s house has turned into a den of thieves and has many imposters in leadership roles. My heart breaks for what this has done to the name of Jesus Christ as well as those abused. May God bring all this to light and healing!

  2. I’ve found myself in the same situation as some of the women talked about in this article. I had filed formal sexual harassment complaint against a well known and well respected professor at the Christian University I was attending back in 2016. After the complaint was filed and it was found that there was in fact some sort of misconduct that took place, this professor “retired” but was still allowed to be on campus whenever he pleased and attend any extracurricular events he wanted. I found myself becoming very anxious whenever I would see him around and even found myself hiding behind a door when he showed up where I worked on campus to pick up some paper work. I can’t help but think that I wasn’t the only one who became a victim of his unwanted and very inappropriate comments and interactions. I’m not sure if the university could have actually “banned” him from being on campus, but the feeling I would get in the pit of my stomach that came from seeing him is something I won’t ever forget. It’s sad to think that colleges and universities who claim to be Christian have failed so many young women who have come forward.

    1. Dear Anonymous, so sorry you endured this with the pained addition of no real follow up from the leadership of that institution. Maddening. I pray you have trusted friends, and perhaps a counselor (?) to walk you through this stuff. Anyway, God’s peace to you, and thank you for entering a difficult digital conversation. I appreciated your account. You are brave, Sister.

  3. Just so you know, the large secular university I spend 33 years working for, would have taken a much harsher stand against faculty behaving like we are hearing on this blog, likely the professor would have been fired, and may also have faced a large sexual harassment lawsuit. Why are churches and Christian colleges not taking action? Our churches and ministries simply do not have adequate checks and balances for behavior, finances, or anything else. At the university I retired from, and the school where I now work, behavior like this towards students or coworkers would be a very fast path to the unemployment line. Sadly, we have been blinded by power and celebrity.

    1. I can relate this to the corporate world where, in the ’80s, women were in similar situations as Dr. B’s victims: they likely would not have been believed or would have been placated if they brought these behaviors to light. Boys’ club behavior was rampant. Fast forward and I can say that I can’t recall hearing any sexual innuendo in the workplace in at least 15 years or more. As a matter of fact, at a company holiday party last year, a coworker was fired the following day for making another coworker uncomfortable when he “came on” to her. You would think a church or Christian college would be way ahead of culture in this area. Not only did Dr. B abuse his power but the young women were probably even less guarded than usual by assuming they were safe in the presence of Christian.

    1. Or the Donald Trump. I’m not a Democrat or a Republican so I couldn’t care less about either. However, it’s time to start calling all sexual predators out and not just the ones we don’t personally like.

  4. It seems Wheaton College has lost its spiritual and moral compass allowing anyone to be admitted and teach without abiding to their code of conduct. We find examples in (1.) Wheaton grad Dennis Hastert who as a boys wrestling coach used that guise to groom his male victims. (2.) FIVE football player hazing another team member who was kidnapped, physically assaulted and left partially nude on a baseball field in Wheaton. (3.) former tenure professor Larycia Hawkins who stated on social media that Christians and Muslims share the same God. (4.) Then staff and students who protested her dismissal from Wheaton College. It seems that the world has infiltrate both the Christian schools and the church. A false teacher like Dr. B has succeeded in discipling and mentoring his prize student Bill Hybel to be like him in word and deed.

    1. David Jankowski

      You have mentioned some stinging indictments of Wheaton’s bad behavior. As an alumnus, I’m embarrassed by these realities. You didn’t mention the atheist professor who maligned Christians in his talk, and professors and students defended him, and not just out of freedom of speech concerns.

  5. The provost at Wheaton College has since resigned as well amidst all these allegations; Julie, thank you for your bold journalism and seeing truth, even when and where it hurts, sin can only hide so long, what is done in secret will come to light. Praying for these poor women who are taken advantage of and then covered up like they don’t matter to protect face. Pride is sin! I’m so sorry to read the comment also by the anonymous person above, but not surprised this has happened before. No accountability to these people that work there, for far too long. Look at what Ed Stetzer is doing at the BGC and the speakers the college has let him bring in. These people need to get a grip over there!

  6. Their head of HR and Title IX Coordinators/Discrimination Complaint Officers should re-familiarize themselves with the below statement.

    The goal of campus life at Wheaton College is to live, work, serve, and worship together as an educational community centered around the Lord Jesus Christ. Along with the privileges and blessings of membership in such a community come responsibilities. The members of the Wheaton College campus community take these responsibilities seriously (see the Wheaton College Community Covenant).

    One of these responsibilities is to establish and maintain a safe and healthy social environment for all members of the community that honors the Lord Jesus Christ and God’s vision for human sexuality. God’s vision for sexuality affirms the dignity and purity of all persons. Sexual harassment and assault are behaviors outside of God’s vision for human sexuality that cause pain and suffering. They are also unacceptable behaviors that grieve God’s heart and members of the Wheaton College community.

    Wheaton College takes sexual assault very seriously, and has developed a comprehensive definition and policy related to sexual harassment and assault. We provide resources for prevention, support, education, as well as a fair conduct process to care for the members of our community.

  7. Apostasy can hit anywhere in the Christian community. Therefore we need to be in Christ all the time. Never let Him go. The Holy Spirit is our guide. Take time to listen to His guidance. Allow the Lord to teach us to be strong in a world that is watching our examples. Satan will take anyone down no matter how Christian you may think you are. We are not any better than the world around us. Only Jesus can lift us out of the muck. These institutions that do not punish this individuals for their harassment will also be judged. Shame on Wheaton college for letting these major issues slide.

    1. well said! and Apostasy seems to be more rampant even now. Yes, in CHRIST abiding; some people can and will let us down sadly enough :(

  8. Women: Report these types of allegations. You are not to blame. All Christian institutions (including churches) should enforce a zero tolerance policy, no matter who the perpetrator.

  9. My daughter was also in a similar situation as these women at the Christian University she attended in Deerfield, IL. In 2016 she filed a formal complaint against her professor and later received a letter stating that incidents described in her complaint did occur and that they violated the Title IX prohibition against sexual harassment, as well as the University Policy P-52 Harassment and Relationship Violence Policy. It also stated that “the University deeply regrets these things occurred and wants to ensure, as much as the University is able, that she feel welcome and safe on the campus”. The professor suddenly retired and even though they found that these incidents did occur he was still allowed on campus to visit and attend extracurricular events. Although the letter stated the college wanted my daughter to feel safe I’m not sure how that could possibly happen if he was allowed to be on campus of this small Christian college and attend the same sporting and other events as my daughter. She found herself hiding whenever she would see him. The Dean of Students wrote in an email “please know that none of the current or former faculty during my tenure have ever had a finding of sexual harassment filed against them. This has been confirmed by the University’s Title IX Coordinator”. After asking several questions about this my daughter was told by the Title IX Coordinator “The events that were the subject of the 2016 letter were subjected to an investigation, which was closed upon the retirement of the professor”. So since he retired they basically acted like it never happened. Looking back I wish I would have done more for my daughter. It was bad enough when she was asking about filing a complaint she got the run around and it wasn’t until I made a call to the college that she was given the information on how to go about filing the complaint. I get so angry when I read how churches and colleges fail these young women all to protect their own reputations.

    1. So sorry to hear this. This sounds like Trinity. My wife was speaking with Mayna Brachear at the Chicago Tribune before she left and she said she was working with a group of former students that had negative experiences with a certain professor at Trinity. By the way that was where Bill Hybels first met Dr. Gil Bilezikian, who was a professor at Trinity.

    2. Anonymous, Sorry to hear that your daughter did not get the support that she needed. Could you give the name of this prof and expose who this coward was? Looks like he retired to save face and TIU’s reputation to sweep it under the rug. The Christian community should know so he doesnt have the opportunity to prey on others. Thanks

  10. Thank you, Julie, for reporting our stories, including mine (Kristin Tremba). It provides an opportunity for people to repent and find healing if they are willing. Thank you, Sam Petitfils, for what you wrote. I wish I had trusted my gut that Bilezikian’s words were, indeed, inappropriate, and shown someone the email. I didn’t want to believe that this leader who supported the gifting of women in the Church would take advantage of them at the same time. The thought that Bilezikian could use his platform to proposition women was a betrayal to me and to the Christian women he claimed to support and encourage. I am grateful to Ann Lindberg and also to the women who came forward to report abuses against Bill Hybels, Bilezikian’s protege. When I heard about Hybels a year ago, I was then certain that the email I received from Bilezikian in 2004 was inappropriate and sexual. It was healing for me to know that I wasn’t crazy. However, I regret not letting anyone know in 2004. Perhaps if I had, it could have helped other women, like Ann.

  11. Kristin, thank you for telling your story and for your courageous and vulnerable reflection on what occurred 16 years ago. Hindsight is 20/20 for all of us. But speaking now was so important. And my prayer is that hearing these stories will encourage others to identify and report sexual harassment and misconduct when it occurs. I also hope Christian institutions will start taking these reports more seriously and treating victims with the love and care they deserve.

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