Sovereign Grace Sexual Abuse Lawsuit Just Got More Complicated

A number of developments in the lawsuit against Sovereign Grace Ministries (SGM) have taken place since I first covered it for RD back in early March.

[The suit] adds three new plaintiffs, making a total of 11. Five plaintiffs are now using their real names, and the rest are pseudonyms. It accuses church leaders of conspiracy, negligence, misrepresentation and intentional infliction of emotional distress.

  • On May 17, however, Maryland Circuit Court Judge Sharon V. Burrell dismissed most of the suit on the grounds of statute of limitations: under state law, civil charges must be brought in many cases of child abuse within three years of the victim turning 18. If Burrell’s ruling stands, only the two remaining plaintiffs who are under 21 (both of whom are from Virginia) will be able to bring suit against SGM. 
  • On May 29, Susan Burke and William O’Neil, lawyers for the plaintiffs, filed a motion for Burrell to reconsider her decision. They plan to appeal if this request is denied. Burke has also stated that “Going forward with a civil lawsuit does not in any way prevent criminal actions—perhaps may even make it more likely.”

The personal and organizational fallout for SGM and in the churches named as defendants—aside from legal consequences—remains to be seen. The second amended lawsuit named well-known, long-time members as well as a former pastor at CLC as perpetrators, and added graphic detail to previous accuasations that Covenant Life Church (CLC) harbored a “pedophilia ring” in which children were passed between perpetrators. In a May 19 sermon responding to the new charges, current CLC senior pastor Joshua Harris informed the congregation that he is also a survivor of child sexual abuse.

In short, SGM’s and CLC’s legal and organization turmoil are far from over. Despite this, evangelical leaders and organizations with close ties to former president C.J. Mahaney have broken the striking silence they had maintained prior to the dismissal of the suit, seizing on Judge Burrell’s ruling as an opportunity to come to Mahaney’s defense

Leaders from “Together for the Gospel” (T4G) a ministry for evangelical pastors co-founded by Mahaney, and The Gospel Coalition (TGC), which counts Mahaney as one of its council members, released statements within a day of each other, both praising Mahaney’s friendship and “personal integrity.” Both dismissed the posibility of any culpability on Mahaney’s part. 

The TGC statement, written by prominent pastors Don Carson, Kevin DeYoung, and Justin Taylor, alleged that Mahaney has been “the object of libel and even a Javert-like obsession by some.” T4G leaders Albert Mohler (president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary), Mark Dever, and Ligon Duncan (who leads the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood) argued that the suit failed to implicate Mahaney in “credible, serious, and direct wrongdoing” which would be reason “to step down from public ministry.” 

This was a revision from their original statement, which inaccurately claimed that “no such accusation of direct wrongdoing was ever made against C. J. Mahaney” and that he was “instead…charged with founding a ministry and for teaching doctrines and principles that are held to be true by vast millions of American evangelicals.”

When SGM was embroiled in a very different sort of scandal over allegations of coercive leadership by Mahaney—and his admitted blackmail of former SGM leader Larry Tomczak—evangelical responses were much the same. Mohler, describing Mahaney as a “visionary Christian leader,” insisted that there was “nothing disqualifying” in the allegations against him. Duncan spoke of his “complete love and respect” for Mahaney and urged followers to “ignore the assaults of wounded people” and avoid the “ugly” and “unbiblical” practice of “adjudicating…[on] the internet.” 

These more recent comments have some questioning why the dozens of allegations of abuse and cover-up leveled in the lawsuit against SGM have done nothing to diminish their estimation of Mahaney and his leadership. David Clohessy, director of the Survivor’s Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP), decried the statements as “mean-spirited” and “dreadfully hurtful to child sex abuse victims. He also criticized the authors as “disingenuous” in choosing to “take sides… while at least two victims’ abuse and cover up suits are pending.”

Both Clohessy and Boz Tchividjian, a grandson of Billy Graham and founder of Godly Response to Abuse in the Christian Environment (GRACE), criticized the authors’ omission of the fact that Mahaney was not only the leader of SGM, but also the senior pastor at CLC during the time that most of the abuses are alleged to have taken place, in direct authority over pastors accused of conspiring to cover-up abuse—in some cases committing abuse themselves. 

Peter Lumpkins, a Baptist pastor and blogger, lambasted T4G and TGC for effectively giving Mahaney a “free-pass [for] his alleged role in the largest sex scandal-cover-up in recorded evangelical history.” In response to the May 14 amended suit, Lumpkins has proposed a “Resolution on Sexual Abuse of Children,” urging Southern Baptist churches to strengthen their policies on sexual abuse and cut ties with any leader or organization who is or has been involved in criminal or civil litigation “for neglecting moral or lgal obligations to protect…little children.” The resolution will be taken up in committee at the 2013 Southern Baptist Convention meeting, in Houston this week, on June 11-12.

T4G and TGC’s defense of Mahaney have left critics asking what it would take for evangelical leaders to consider the possibility that one of their own might be complicit in the coverup of child abuse. These same men have made careers condemning everything from women’s rights to questioning the existence of Hell as grave moral dangers. As Tschividjian and other have pointed out, they have not been silent about child sex abuse scandals in the Catholic Church, nor have they avoided weighing in on pending cases, as evidenced by considerable evangelical commentary on the Gosnell case long before a verdict came down. The T4G statement paraphrases a popular verse that says Christian ministers are to be “above reproach”—implying that Mahaney lives up to this standard. In my time at CLC, Mahaney himself invoked this verse in relieving men of their pastoral duties for inadequate “gifting” or for their children’s “rebellion.”

To many, presiding over a church group where 11 people so far have come forward to allege child abuse and widespread conspiracy to cover it up is at the very least suggestive of being less than “above reproach.” Yet Mohler, Dever, and their fellow reformed evangelical leaders have refused to entertain any questions about Mahaney’s potential complicity—a stance that sits uneasily with their claims that they “side with the victims” in cases of abuse and “are not in a place to adjudicate all of the charges leveled against [SGM] or…specific individuals.” Instead they have vocally defended their friend as a “vast influence for good” who has produced a “fruitful ministry of the gospel over many decades.” Dever recently told Mahaney’s new congregation in Louisville, Kentucky that they should “thank God for [Mahaney]” and that being taught by him is a “privilege” that members “don’t fully grasp.”

This stance reflects not only the lengthy friendships and ministry ties with Mahaney pointedly boasted by the authors of both statements, but also by concerns for evangelical reputation and organizational integrity. Strikingly, both statements express worries that if they were to “[separate] and rush to judgment” in the case of “civil litigation against a Christian ministry or leader…no ministry or minister [would be] safe from destruction at any time” (T4G). The TGC statement suggests that “high profile Christians are sometimes targeted” with such allegations simply “because they are well known” and that there is “much gain…for those who hate the gospel when Christian leaders are unfairly attacked and diminished.” 

In my first report for RD, I expressed skepticism that it would lead to any sustained changes in how evangelical churches and leaders respond to allegations of abuse. The responses from T4G and TGC indicate the willingness of some powerful evangelicals to maintain the status quo around these issues. At the same time, there has been significant pushback from SNAP, GRACE, and evangelical bloggers Rachel Held EvansJulie Anne Smith, and others. In the meantime, however, Mahaney continues to pastor and enjoy the high esteem of fellow evangelical leaders.