Three female plaintiffs claim in a lawsuit that an evangelical church group covered up allegations of sexual abuse against children.
The suit filed Wednesday in state court in Maryland alleges that Sovereign Grace Ministries failed to protect children from being sexually abused by church members.
The alleged incidents date back to the mid-1980s in Maryland and northern Virginia.
The plaintiffs claim church leaders did not report accusations of misconduct to the police and offered legal advice to suspected pedophiles.
The church said in a statement late Wednesday that it had not yet seen the suit and couldn’t comment on the allegations. But it said it considers child abuse “reprehensible and criminal.”
Sovereign Grace Ministries was founded in 1982 and has more than 80 churches around the world.
Three female plaintiffs claim in a lawsuit filed Wednesday that an evangelical church group covered up allegations of sexual abuse against children, failed to report accusations of misconduct to the police and discouraged its members from cooperating with law enforcement.
The lawsuit was filed in Maryland state court against Sovereign Grace Ministries, a 30-year-old family of churches, with about 100 congregations. Most of its churches are in the U.S., but it also has planted churches in about 21 countries.
The plaintiffs allege a conspiracy spanning more than two decades to conceal sexual abuse committed by church members. The alleged abuse happened in Maryland and northern Virginia in the 1980s and 1990s. The lawsuit accuses church representatives of permitting suspected pedophiles to interact with children, supplying them with free legal advice to avoid prosecution and forcing victims to meet with and “forgive” the person that had molested them.
“The facts show that the Church cared more about protecting its financial and institutional standing than about protecting children, its most vulnerable members,” the lawsuit claims.
The church did not immediately respond to a written message or to a phone message left on its general voicemail box. It wasn’t immediately clear if the church had a lawyer. The suit names as defendants about a half-dozen pastors and church officials who plaintiffs say were alerted to the accusations but either failed to take action or actively covered them up. One official said he had not seen the suit and declined comment. Other defendants either did not immediately respond to phone messages or did not have publicly listed phone numbers.
In accusing church leaders of turning a blind eye to sexual molestation, the lawsuit bears parallels to the allegations of priest sex abuse and the resulting cover-up that have rocked the Roman Catholic church over the last decade. But while that scandal centered on sex abuse by priests, the accusations in this case involve molestation by church members instead of clergy.
Sovereign Grace Ministries grew from its mother church in Gaithersburg, Md., in 1982. It moved its headquarters this year to Louisville, Ky., where it’s also planting a new church. The group has struggled in recent years with fractured leadership and criticism over its discipline methods, especially the church’s emphasis on sins, discipline and repentance.
The suit only covers alleged abuse that occurred in Maryland in northern Virginia, but the church has faced scrutiny on other occasions for its handling of sexual abuse claims, and Susan Burke, a lawyer representing the three plaintiffs, said there are other alleged victims prepared to join a class-action suit.
For instance, an April report by a non-profit Lutheran mediation group that studied the church for nine months found that while church leaders showed “care and concern” about sex abuse allegations, a number of people interviewed felt the claims were handled irresponsibly and were left with “disappointments and hurts.”
The lawsuit faults the church’s “Home Group” structure, in which children are provided with day care so their parents can attend services, as fostering a poorly supervised environment that enabled the abuse to occur.
The lawsuit centers on allegations of three female plaintiffs, each identified by pseudonyms to protect their anonymity.
One of the three plaintiffs, a high school student in Virginia, alleges she was sexually assaulted when she was 3 years old and that the mother of the boy who abused her revealed the molestation to the church. But church officials discouraged her family from reporting the allegations to police and, instead, repeatedly interviewed the alleged abuser and worked with him and his mother to determine how best to prevent any prosecution and publicity regarding the abuse.
A second plaintiff, a college student in Maryland, says she was sexually abused as a toddler by a church member. She says the church pastor scolded her parents after they called the police and then tipped off the accused that he had been reported to the police. She says her parents were instructed to bring her to a meeting with her alleged abuser so they could be “reconciled,” but that she was “visibly scared and crawled under the chair” after being brought into the same room with him.
The third plaintiff says her adoptive father, a member of the church, sexually abused her older sister for three and a half years. She says the church warned her mother not to pursue a prosecution, then kicked the family out of the church and denied the children reduced tuition to the school. The man was ultimately prosecuted and imprisoned, the lawsuit says.
“We view the case as an important step in holding SGM accountable for its misdeeds,” said Burke, the lawyer who represents the three plaintiffs and is also suing the military on behalf of female service members who say they were raped. “No institution can put its own financial concerns above the needs of vulnerable children.”
Sovereign Grace Ministries has had its share of controversy in recent years. The Courier Journal reports:
…But controversies arose after some former Sovereign Grace members and leaders — including some who worked closely with Mahaney for years — described a pattern of spiritual abuse and cult-like behavior within Sovereign Grace and its churches. The controversies simmered for years on blogs with such names as SGM Survivors and SGM Refuge.
Then, in the summer of 2011, a founding member of the Sovereign Grace board, Brent Detwiler of North Carolina, distributed documents to pastors detailing years of confrontations over what Detwiler termed Mahaney’s abusive, manipulative and dishonest behavior.
Internal church reviews found Mahaney had some culpability, but disputed Detwiler’s sweeping claims.
A separate report by an independent conflict-resolution group, Ambassadors of Reconciliation, did not weigh charges against individuals but confirmed “a number of people have experienced deep hurts and disappointments in SGM churches.”
An “over-emphasis of the teaching about sin without the balance of God’s grace leads people to be judgmental, critical, and at times despondent,” the report said. “At the same time … many thousands of people have been and continue to be richly blessed by their involvement in a SGM church.”
Mahaney apologized in a written statement that “deficiencies in my leadership have contributed to the ministry failures cataloged” in the Ambassadors report.
And in an interview, he denied systemic problems in the denomination.
“All pastors, to differing degrees, make mistakes,” he said. “All pastors also come with their own set of limitations, weaknesses, patterns of sin. … That’s not to minimize in any way where offense has occurred, and scripture is clear about the continuing influence of sin in all of our lives and how we are to humbly pursue reconciliation where offense has occurred.”
Of Detwiler, Mahaney said: “He was a friend, and I pray God has mercy on him.”
Mahaney’s critics contend the denomination never gave their charges a fair hearing or adequately reconciled with those hurt by the church.
“It’s just been a continuing downplay of what’s been happening,” Detwiler said.
Bob Dixon of suburban Richmond, Va., who belonged to Sovereign Grace congregations for 30 years and was a former care-group leader, said those interested in participating with Sovereign Grace Ministries should heed Jesus’ counsel about the biblical Pharisees — to consider actions as well as words.
People should not only “consider what they say and write but consider what they’ve done, in particular to their ex-pastors, and then the members of their churches,” he said.
Joshua Harris — pastor of Covenant Life Church in Gaithersburg and a best-selling author promoting traditional courtship, rather than dating — acknowledged strains in his relationship with Mahaney, his one-time mentor, when he resigned last year.
Of Harris and other pastors whose churches have left the denomination, Mahaney said the most important thing is that “we love the same savior, we preach the same gospel.”
One of Sovereign Grace’s the most high-profile splits involved Larry Tomczak, who pioneered the movement with Mahaney, in 1997.
Accounts vary on the details, but according to a Sovereign Grace report, Mahaney and other board members held out a threat of exposing wrongdoing by Tomczak’s teenage son, which the boy had confessed in confidence to church leaders. “The threat was … wrong. It was coercive. It was sinful,” the report said.
And while the two men had a public reconciliation in 2011, Tomczak said Mahaney and board leaders still hadn’t acknowledged “a pattern that has devastated our immediate and extended families, plus scores of God’s people across the country.”
Bob Kauflin, director of Sovereign Grace Music and a longtime leader in the ministry, said: “We’re thankful for Larry and his ongoing ministry, but have no further comment on the subject.”….