‘Attempt to escape responsibility’: Can IHOPKC dodge legal action by changing its name?

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When an IHOPKC leader told some staff Monday at the troubled ministry that creating a new organization was the way to go, he referenced the threat of future lawsuits.

Isaac Bennett, senior pastor of the International House of Prayer-Kansas City’s Forerunner Church, told the group that the sex abuse allegations involving founder Mike Bickle have put the 24/7 global prayer movement in legal jeopardy, according to a leaked recording of the meeting.

And, Bennett said, the strong push to investigate potential mishandling of abuse allegations and cover-up through the movement’s 24-year history “will produce, inevitably, a contingent of individuals who are wanting to get restitution.

“They’re not gonna go knock on Mike’s door, because he doesn’t have any money,” Bennett said. “But IHOPKC has facilities. We’re the people to sue at the end of the day. So that presents a significant liability there.”

That’s why, he told them, just rebranding IHOPKC wouldn’t be enough. Separating from Bickle, who for nearly 20 years was the ministry’s CEO, operations director and senior pastor, is the best way, he said. Further, in an email to staffers, the leadership of the Prophecy and Healing Department said, “IHOPKC will be closing for good in a staggered fashion ... “

Many, including former followers, say IHOPKC’s move to reorganize and restructure under a new identity smacks of a ploy to protect itself, not to help or comfort those hurt by the organization.

As Erich Verdery posted on X, formerly Twitter: “Sounds like the gist of the message is, ‘We’re not interested in doing the right thing, we are interested in limiting liability.’”

Attorneys familiar with the case or who learned of this week’s announcement say IHOPKC’s actions are unlikely to shield the ministry from legal woes.

“You can’t just go, ‘Oh, well, we’ve got all this liability, potential liability, so we’re gonna shut down and open up under another name, and we’re all good,’” said Boz Tchividjian, an attorney who represents multiple alleged victims of Bickle. “If that was the case, any and every entity out there that’s faced with a potential liability will do the same.”

Mark Schloegel, an attorney with the Popham Law Firm who specializes in injury, employment and sexual assault cases, agrees with Tchividjian.

“Good attorneys should be able to uncover this attempt to escape responsibility,” Schloegel said. “It sounds like the church is going to make an effort to reorganize into a new organization so it can’t be held responsible for the old organization’s conduct. That sounds like what they’re trying to set up. And I don’t think any court or judge will buy that.

“You can’t retitle the church, file some papers and say, ‘Hey, this has nothing to do with that.’”

Schloegel said it’s “wild” that a leader at IHOPKC is saying the ministry is reorganizing to limit liability.

“To me, that’s the basis of a fraudulent reorganization,” Schloegel said, “a fraudulent attempt to escape responsibility. They basically admitted it.”

Tchividjian — grandson of the late Rev. Billy Graham — told The Star that he recently informed IHOPKC about a claim against the ministry involving a minor client. The allegation, he said, does not involve Bickle.

“If they choose to shut everything down and move to a new organization after being put on notice from us that we have this claim,” he said, “that’s going to be a major problem for them.”

A day after Bennett talked with staffers from IHOP University, which is scheduled to cease operations next month at the end of the spring semester, a lawyer for IHOPKC insisted that the ministry is not shutting its doors.

The university will close but the 24-hour prayer room will remain open as the organization moves to “create a ‘bettered’ version of IHOPKC,” said Audrey Manito, the movement’s attorney.

“IHOPKC is in a transition and reorganization process,” Manito said in an email, as she continued to deny the organization is shutting its doors. “We may close some windows of our mission while opening others, but once again, IHOPKC is NOT closing.”

The ministry posted on social media Tuesday afternoon about the future.

“Lord, You know what plans You have in store for this prayer room, and we trust You,” the post said.

The organization has been in turmoil since the allegations against Bickle surfaced in late October. The allegations were presented to IHOPKC leadership on Oct. 24 by former leaders who described the incidents as “clergy sexual abuse” and said they found the allegations “to be credible and long-standing.”

But on Nov. 15, IHOPKC leaders released a report of their initial findings involving the case, discounting some of the allegations.

Bickle, 68, issued his first public statement on Dec. 12, admitting that he had “sinned” and “my moral failures were real.” But he was vague on details. In the lengthy note posted on X, Bickle said his “inappropriate behavior” occurred more than 20 years ago, but he did not admit to engaging in any sexual misconduct.

On Dec. 22, IHOPKC announced that it was “immediately, formally and permanently” separating from Bickle, saying it had confirmed “a level of inappropriate behavior” on his part.

The news of the closure and reorganization is a far cry from what IHOPKC leaders announced they wanted in February, said a statement from former leaders — known as the Advocate Group — who support Bickle’s alleged victims.

The group noted that in February, after a woman came forward and told The Star that Bickle sexually abused her starting in the 1980s when she was 14, IHOPKC leaders said they “wished to enter into a season of repentance and mourning.”

“Key components of repentance have historically been apologizing to those against whom wrongs have been committed, turning from such wrongdoing and making restitution to those so wronged,” the group said.

“Now, it appears in the recent announcements that IHOPKC leadership is taking extraordinary steps to close down the organization in order to avoid any ‘restitution’ to anyone to whom wrongdoing has been done.”

That seems to indicate, the statement said, “that there is no repentance or belief that any wrongdoing has been done.”

“This is troubling in the extreme and reflects a continuation of their position of a dereliction of Christian leadership and opposition towards anyone bringing allegations of wrongdoing,” the group said. “For this, we are heartbroken.”

The group said it plans to announce in the coming days “an independent investigation into wrongdoing committed at IHOPKC.”

“We remain hopeful,” it said, “that IHOPKC leadership will be open to this investigation.”