Willow Creek Community Church senior pastor Bill Hybels is categorically denying misconduct allegations involving women in his congregation detailed in a Chicago Tribune report.
"I have a wife I've been married to for 44 years, and she has to read this junk," an emotional Hybels told a gathering of about 3,000 church members Friday night. "I respect women. I have never been unfaithful to my wife."
The leader of the church elders -- responsible for governance of the South Barrington megachurch -- also said Friday they concluded there was no evidence Hybels engaged in misconduct, after internal and external investigations.
In a video statement posted to Willow Creek's website Friday morning, Hybels in turn accused a group of former church members of dredging up and assembling the allegations in an effort to damage his reputation, months before his planned retirement in October.
"The lies you read about in the Tribune article are the tools this group is using to try to keep me from ending my tenure here at Willow with my reputation intact," Hybels said in the video. "Let me be clear: None of these allegations are true."
The open gathering of church members Friday night was intended merely to provide them with the elders' understanding of the sequence of events that began on April 1, 2014, when they say a couple first approached them about "potentially inappropriate conduct" on Hybels' part, and why they believed no evidence of inappropriate behavior by Hybels existed.
But the meeting demonstrated a strong show of support for Hybels and his version of events. Though the church members initially were advised not to demonstrate their feelings for or against any of the individuals in the complicated narrative, there were several bursts of applause after Hybels' statements before the nearly two-hour meeting ended with a standing ovation for him.
"I was not afraid to come to this meeting tonight," Hybels told the congregation. "I know the heart of this church."
Pam Orr, chairman of the church's Elder Board, said the interrelated investigations began with a woman who later recanted her account. But further accusations were later made by others when some former staff members began asking other past and present female employees whether Hybels had ever said or done anything to make them uncomfortable, without revealing that the original allegation had been recanted, Orr said.
The Tribune report, released online Thursday night, details allegations that include inappropriate conversations, extended hugs, an unwanted kiss and invitations to hotel rooms, along with the allegation of a consensual affair with a married woman, who later said her claim was untrue.
The Tribune report references allegations of five women, two identified by name, including a one-time teaching pastor at the church who said Hybels gave her a long embrace and asked her personal questions during a trip to Spain in 1999. Another former employee accused Hybels of putting his hands on her waist, caressing her stomach and kissing her in his hotel room during a trip to Sweden in 1998, according to the Tribune.
Three former board members of the Willow Creek Association, the nonprofit Christian leadership organization Hybels founded, resigned in 2015 after they deemed the church elders' investigation to be inadequate, the Tribune reported.
The former church members and the two women named in the article couldn't be reached Friday. The attorney who investigated the allegations didn't return phone calls.
Hybels and Orr on Friday night reiterated their and the elders' different interpretations of the investigation, including that Hybels was actually fending off one woman's advances.
Orr said in the video statement the board first learned of an allegation against Hybels involving a woman in April 2014. Orr said the board conducted a "comprehensive" internal investigation that included numerous personal interviews, a forensic check of Hybels' personal technology devices, phone records, church and personal financial documents, and travel records. The board also had a law firm conduct a probe. In the end, the elders concluded there was no evidence of misconduct, Orr said.
The board also recently hired a law firm to conduct another investigation -- this one involving interviews with 29 people and bringing in an IT forensics firm to search the church's computer server. Orr said that probe found no evidence to support any charges of inappropriate behavior, leading the elders to close the case.
Orr said initial allegations brought to the board four years ago -- which the Tribune reported involved the consensual affair with a woman -- came from a couple who had worked at Willow Creek. Orr said that woman later told church elders she lied.
Like Hybels, Orr accused that couple and another couple who worked at Willow of engaging "in a coordinated effort to undermine" Hybels' reputation. Both couples denied that charge to the Tribune.
But Orr said one woman's allegation of being invited to Hybels' hotel suite for a glass of wine during an overseas trip that led to an uncomfortable embrace is specifically contradicted by an email exchange between the two.
In it, it is the woman who suggests a late-night meeting for a glass of wine several times and is repeatedly rebuffed by Hybels, Orr said.
Though the evidence of that email exchange was provided to the Tribune, it does not appear in the article, Orr said.
The Tribune article does say it was provided with emails that Hybels said showed he discouraged the woman's suggestions.
Hybels also addressed another allegation about a woman who jumped into the water naked near his boat one night in 2014 when no one else was around.
He said it was after a gathering on the boat, when everyone else had apparently left and he was washing the dishes below deck. He heard a splash outside and feared that a possibly inebriated person had fallen off the dock.
It was a woman who been at the gathering but returned without his knowledge, he said. She declined to get out of the water and leave when he asked because she was undressed, Hybels said.
"I was furious," he related. "I said you're in a dangerous situation and now you've put me in a terrible situation. I was absolutely stunned that anyone would do that. She apologized profusely for that. That's the truth, gang."
If there were any questions or issues from the Tribune article that were avoided Friday night, 40-year Willow Creek member Melanie Hoeffner of Hoffman Estates said she couldn't think of what they were.
"I couldn't believe it," Hoeffner said of her reaction to the article. "I thought, Our Bill? Are you sure you have the right person?"
Fellow church member Tracey "Truce" Taylor of East Dundee said she never read the article and didn't intend to but wanted to attend Friday's meeting, where she said she was moved by Hybels' response.
"I have been falsely accused," she said of an unrelated incident in her own life. "It's a very hard road to go down."
Taylor said she saw the meeting as proof the church was behind Hybels "100 percent."
Hybels, who founded the nondenominational, evangelical Christian church 43 years ago in Palatine, announced last October his plans to retire. Beginning this October, Heather Larson will become the church's lead pastor and Steve Carter will be the lead teaching pastor.
• Daily Herald staff writer Lee Filas contributed to this report.