Sex scandal at American ‘megachurch’ causes leaders to quit after ten women accuse founder

One of America’s largest "megachurches" has been rocked by a sex scandal which has seen its entire senior leadership team quit.

Willow Creek Church’s founder, Bill Hybels, was accused of sexual misconduct several years ago but was privately cleared of wrongdoing by the church elders.

He was forced to step down earlier this year when the historical allegations became public.

Mr Hybels has denied any wrongdoing but said he had become a distraction from the church.

Since then, more women have come forward to claim they were harassed by the church founder.  

The new revelations over the weekend led the church’s leaders to admit they had failed to handle the claims appropriately.

In a statement, the church elders announced they would all be standing down, saying a "new start" was needed.

“We trusted Bill, and this clouded our judgment,” one elder, Missy Rasmussen, told the congregation.

Church leaders did not move quickly enough to secure Mr Hybels’ electronic devices, she said. 

Ms Rasmussen said the church elders had "no reason not to believe" the ten women who have accused the church founder of sexual misconduct.

Willow Creek is thought to be the fifth largest "megachurch" in the US with more than 25,000 members and locations across Chicago. 

"Megachurches" are defined as congregations with at least 2,000 people in regular weekly attendance.

The allegations against Mr Hybels by a string of women date back to the 1990s but only became public when The Chicago Tribune and Christianity Today broke the story earlier this year.

The papers detailed claims of unwanted advances and suggestive comments to church members.  The church’s leaders were reportedly told four years ago that Mr Hybels was having an affair with one woman and was accused of harassment by others.

An internal investigation cleared him of wrongdoing.

But in April, after the allegations came to light, Mr Hybels announced he would step down months ahead of his planned retirement in October. His announcement brought gasps from his congregation.

New allegations emerged in recent days, with Mr Hybels’ former assistant alleging he groped her repeatedly.

The church’s entire leadership have now quit over the church’s handling of the misconduct allegations.

In their statement, church elders said investigations had been "flawed" and that their trust in Willow Creek’s founder had "clouded our judgement".

"We, as a board, know Willow needs and deserves a fresh start, and the entire board will step down to create room for a new board," it said.

The church’s lead pastor, Heather Larson. who also stepped down, said trust in the church’s leadership had been broken and urgently needed to "move in a better direction".

The megachurch had been due to host a summit of hundreds of churches, but dozens have pulled out since the announcement on Wednesday.

Willow Creek’s new lead pastor, Steve Gillen, has pledged to commission an independent review of the church’s leadership.

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