While the Christian blogosphere was absorbed in the conclusion to the horrific Gosnell abortion trial last week, a sex abuse scandal that hits close to home for Evangelicals was developing under the radar. Christians, particularly those who follow various “Young, Restless, and Reformed” leaders, should be aware of and informed about the disturbing allegations brought against Sovereign Grace Ministries (SGM).
On May 14, eleven plaintiffs filed an amended class action civil lawsuit alleging church leaders of covering up child sex abuse crimes through the 1980s and 90s, and requesting about $50 million dollars in damages against SGM. SGM is a network of about 80 evangelical Neo-Calvinist churches that recently relocated their headquarters from Maryland to Louisville, KY. The original lawsuit was filed with only three plaintiffs in October 2012 in Montgomery County, MD, and has now been amended twice and includes eleven plaintiffs. SGM officially denounced child abuse of all forms and denies knowledge of the alleged crimes and any conspiracy to hide them. In response to the first amended lawsuit filed in January 2013, the church’s attorneys said the allegations were too vague to consider seriously in court.
The recently amended lawsuit is sickeningly detailed. It is available online, but please be warned, it gives a very detailed and disturbing account of the alleged sexual abuse of children as young as three years old. The lawsuit identifies 11 plaintiffs and 14 defendants including SGM Inc., Covenant Life Church (which in December 2012 disassociated with SGM), Covenant Life School, SGM co-founders C.J. Mahaney and Larry Tomczak, and other churches and pastors in the network.
At point 29 in the amended lawsuit, plaintiffs charge Mahaney and other SGM leaders with “[participating] in a conspiracy to permit sexual deviants to have unfettered access to children for purposes of predation and to obstruct justice from occurring with respect to past and ongoing predation. Defendants covered up ongoing sexual and physical abuse of minors and repeatedly and routinely violated the mandatory reporting laws designed to keep children safe from predation.”
On Friday, May 17 the Montgomery Court judge dismissed nine of the eleven plaintiffs based on an expired statute of limitations, and the other two on a question of jurisdiction. But this is not the end of the matter, as there are criminal investigations ongoing as there is no statute of limitations for felonies in Maryland. Further, the plaintiffs’ attorney plans to appeal the ruling. These are very serious allegations that still merit our attention.
Although this case has not been widely discussed openly in evangelical circles, it appears the silence may be receding. While discussing the lawsuit and its effect on his congregants during a May 19 sermon, Joshua Harris (best known as the author of I Kissed Dating Goodbye and pastor of Covenant Life Church, which was until recently associated with SGM) announced that he was sexually abused as a child. He urged those who are experiencing physical and/or sexual abuse to seek help and go to the police.
Regardless of the final outcome, it is absolutely essential to declare unequivocally and without qualification that child abuse, sexual or otherwise, is evil and ought to be punished. This should go without saying, but we must be clear that no institution–not even a Christian one–is exempt from the threat of this atrocity. All churches, schools, clubs, and other organizations involving children are obliged to take every precaution to protect children – the most vulnerable among us – from harm. This means keeping known predators away from children and seeking justice through the appropriate channels in cases of abuse. Sheltering abusers and keeping this sin in darkness is wrong and profoundly unbiblical.
Further, we all, especially clergy as the “shepherds” of the church, have a duty to protect the innocent, which includes ensuring predators are kept away from children. The charges brought against SGM are grave, and (though we must hold our conclusions until the legal system does its work to find truth and deliver justice) we ought to pay attention to the allegations and take them seriously. There are two specific areas of concern I see in this situation.
Submitting to Civil Authority
In November 2012 SGM requested the lawsuit be dismissed on First Amendment grounds, stating: “SGM believes that allowing courts to second guess pastoral guidance would represent a blow to the First Amendment, that would hinder, not help, families seeking spiritual direction among other resources in dealing with the trauma related to any sin including child sexual abuse.”
Pastoral guidance is important, but it does not replace submitting to the proper rule of law. In the same November 2012 statement, SGM affirmed it believes in “respecting civil authority to help restrain evil and promote righteousness as Romans 13 instructs.” In a situation involving criminal activity such as child abuse, the pastoral role involves reporting perpetrators to civil authorities and doing all everything possible to protect children from harm. To act otherwise is a dangerous misunderstanding of the biblical roles of Church and state. Our status as citizens of Christ’s kingdom does not exempt us from submitting to the lawful civil government (Romans 13:1). I hope and pray SGM abides by its professed commitment to respecting the God-ordained authority of government as the investigation proceeds.
Last week SGM released a statement reporting that their internal “review of the allegations to date has not produced any evidence of any cover-up or conspiracy. If we discover otherwise, our Board will immediately report it to the authorities and see that it is prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.” The board members and the defendants in the lawsuit are closely connected, making real accountability and oversight challenging. One of the defendants, John Loftness, was chairman of the SGM Board until February 2013. Further, Mahaney resigned from his role as SGM president just last month, citing personal incompatibility with new polity structures as a primary reason.
SGM describes itself as a “family of churches,” which are “separately organized and constituted in their respective communities.” The network and its leaders are closely tied with various para-church organizations and denominations, none of which have commented on the lawsuit. Mahaney continues to be featured prominently at conferences alongside notable Neo-Calvinist leaders as recently as last month.
Para-church organizations, though often effective in uniting believers across denominational lines for the work of Christ, can lack oversight and governance while often promoting a handful of leading individuals with no accountability. This combination makes confronting issues such as the lawsuit at hand difficult, as there is no source of authority to pause the status quo while the case is fully resolved.
Although it is important to investigate the charges thoroughly before drawing conclusions, I question the wisdom of putting these men in prominent and influential positions while these grave allegations hang heavy and unresolved. Further, I wonder why, in the seven months since the lawsuit was originally filed, we have heard little to nothing from those who have close ties with Mahaney and SGM concerning the severity of what is potentially the largest sex abuse scandal in American evangelical history.
The silence surrounding the SGM lawsuit is disconcerting. Regardless of what happens through the appeal and criminal investigations, these allegations weigh heavily on the evangelical community. Child sex abuse is not a uniquely Catholic problem, university athletics problem, or public school problem. It is an evil that creeps into the darkness of our fallen world, indiscriminate of religious affiliation and demands our constant vigilance. Conservative, orthodox Christians must pay attention and be the most prominent, prudent voices seeking the truth and condemning heinous actions even while also awaiting results from the legal system.
Amended lawsuit filed against Sovereign Grace Ministries ***WARNING: Explicit descriptions of physical and sexual abuse of children.***