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Ianphilpot/Wikimedia Commons

Ianphilpot/Wikimedia Commons

In a public statement, Willow Creek elders apologized for casting doubt on women’s allegations against founder Bill Hybels.

“We apologize and ask for forgiveness that the tone of our initial response was not one of humility and deep concern for all the women involved. It takes courage for a woman to step forward and share her story,” the elders of the evangelical megachurch wrote in a statement.

“We are grieved that we let Bill’s statement stand for as long as we did that the women were lying and colluding. We now believe Bill entered into areas of sin related to the allegations that have been brought forth.”

Hybels founded Willow Creek in 1975 was the highest-ranking elder of the church. He stepped down last month following a Chicago Tribune investigation that revealed allegations of misconduct with women – including church employees that spanned decades.

The Chicago Tribune investigation found that Hybels behavior included suggestive comments, extended hugs, and unwanted kiss and invitations to hotel rooms. It also included an allegation of a prolonged consensual affair with a married woman who later said her claim about the affair was not true, the newspaper found.

Will Creek Community Church’s elder board carried out their own internal and external investigation into the allegations, both of which cleared Hybels of misconduct. In addition, they held “family” meetings with the congregation where Hybels denied each woman’s accusation.

Hybels retired in April, while still stating his innocence, saying the controversy had become a distraction to the ministry. At the same time, newer allegations of misconduct were made.

Pam Orr, then chair of the elder board, admitted that they failed to hold Hybels “accountable to specific boundaries” and not all of the women’s stories were lies.

Willow Creek Lead Pastor Heather Larson also spoke in a statement noting that she and Lead Teach Pastor Steve Carter are looking to acknowledge mistakes that have been made in the past few excruciating months.

“I need to publicly apologize to the women who raised concerns about Bill,” Larson wrote. “To the women directly, I can’t imagine how painful the past months have been for you, and I am so sorry for my part in that.”

Larson said that she did not agree with Willow Creek’s initial decision to character the women’s stories as lies. She also said she should have made that known right away.

Lead Teaching Pastor Steve Carter acknowledges that Willow Creek has lost decades of trust with the church handled the allegations. Carter said he’s reached out to and connected with several of the victims and listened to their experiences.

“I have made private apologies to several of the women and their families for the way they have been treated,” Carter said. “I thank God for the opportunity to seek grace and forgiveness from these individuals.”