During an episode of Leah Remini’s TV series about Scientology, a chilling strategy from L. Ron Hubbard is displayed onscreen. “Dominance of others is a control system. We are not looking for pleasant control–we are looking for effective control.”
Sometimes, there is little difference between Scientology and churches that claim to be Christian. Pastors and televangelists have employed the same techniques, using legal threats to control victims. At the heart of this scandal is the use of Non-Disclosure Agreements (NDAs).
However, more victims and whistleblowers are fighting back by exposing the abusive practices on social media with the hashtag #NDAfree. A group of whistleblowers have created the NDAfree website featuring their stories.
Christian journalists are also highlighting the problem. Christianity Today news editor Daniel Silliman reviewed at least 15 confidentiality agreements and concluded on Twitter, “Many are so broad that someone who signs one could be in violation at any time.”
Televangelists Kenneth Copeland and Paula White effectively used NDAs to prevent congressional hearings into financial practices among televangelists.
In 2007, Senator Charles Grassley’s office sent faxes to six TV ministries demanding financial records. Copeland responded defiantly to Grassley, “You can go get a subpoena, and I won’t give it to you.”
Three years later the inquiry came to an end when Grassley decided not to issue subpoenas to the televangelists or former employees of their churches.
A Senate Finance Committee report on Copeland’s ministry stated, “Former employees were sincerely afraid to provide statements for fear of being sued since they signed confidentiality agreements.”
Attorneys for Copeland and White sent letters to former employees reminding them of signing NDAs and threatening to sue employees that would speak to the Senate.
Besides NDAs, televangelists also use spiritual threats to control former employees.
The Senate report on Copeland quoted an informant: “The Copelands employ guerrilla tactics to keep their employees silent. We are flat out told and threatened that if we talk, God will blight our finances, strike our families down, and pretty much afflict us with everything evil and unholy. Rather, God will allow Satan to do those things to us because we have stepped out from under His umbrella of protection, by ‘touching God’s anointed Prophet’. Further, employees are encouraged to shun and treat badly anyone who dares speak out.”
NDAs are often included in out-of-court settlements with the result that victims frequently regret signing them. The late Sylvia Fleener wished she never signed an NDA with Trinity Broadcasting Network (TBN).
Fleener sued TBN for copyright infringement after the network financed the movie The Omega Code which was inspired by her book The Omega Syndrome. As the litigation dragged on, Fleener felt pressured to settle.
Fleener concluded her agreement was a moral compromise that betrayed God. Fleener expressed remorse to Trinity Foundation by saying she should have never allowed TBN to buy her silence.
In an open letter to Ravi Zacharias International Ministries published at The Roys Report, Brad and Lori Anne Thompson expressed regret for signing an NDA. “Together, with Lori Anne, I find the loss of our individual and corporate capacity to defend ourselves via Non-Disclosure Agreement (NDA) dehumanizing.”
When victims reach an out-of-court settlement, an NDA typically prevents them from disclosing how much they were paid by the settlement.
In 1987, Ella Peppard was injured at a Benny Hinn crusade when an attendee was “slain in the spirit.” The Oklahoman newspaper reported, “While next in line for Hinn to talk to her, Hinn pushed the man in front of Peppard so hard the man fell backward into Peppard and knocked her to the floor, causing her to fracture her hip.”
Hinn refused to get Peppard immediate medical help. “When one usher offered to seek medical aid for Peppard, witnesses said Hinn stopped the usher and said, ‘Leave her alone. God will heal her.'”
15 days later Peppard died and her family sued Hinn for $5 million. The lawsuit was resolved with a confidential settlement. Donors to Hinn will never know how much was paid to the family.
Before 2007, Trinity Broadcasting Network listed settlement expenses on the Other Expenses page its Form 990s filed with the Internal Revenue Service (IRS). According to The Christian Sentinel, “TBN spent more than $40 million settling lawsuits from 1998 to 2006.”
With two simple additions to the Form 990, the IRS could bring more transparency to NDAs.
A new line for settlement expenses could be added to the Statement of Expenses page. The 990 could also ask if non-profit organizations require employees to sign NDAs. Currently, 990s ask if non-profit organizations have whistleblower policies.
However, churches, mosques and synagogues are exempt from filing the Form 990, but they are not exempt from the requirement to file the Form 990-T for unrelated business income.
If the IRS created a similar Form 990-S requiring non-profit organizations and churches to disclose settlement expenses above a minimal threshold, there would be court challenges. If victorious in court, transparency would be imposed on the cost of out-of-court settlements.
Postscript: NDAs are not the only legal tool used to silence whistleblowers. Churches and ministries also go to court to seal documents and obtain permanent injunctions to prevent disclosure of critical financial information that would benefit donors. Perhaps we will address this topic in another article.
INFORMANTS WANTED: If you would like to become an informant and have previously signed an NDA, fill out our online questionnaire. We will keep your identity confidential unless you authorize us to contact investigative reporters or government investigators on your behalf.
For Further Research and Reading
Christianity Today: NDAs Kept These Christians Silent. Now They’re Speaking Out Against Them.
The Gospel Coalition: Should Christians Sign Non-Disclosure Agreements?
MinistryWatch: Thou Shalt Not Disclose: How Churches and Ministries Use Legal Agreements to Silence Victims and Conceal Sin
The Roys Report: #NDAfree Launches to End Christian Community‘s Use of Non-Disclosure Agreements
World Magazine: Signed with Silence
World Magazine: Silence of the Sheep