28 Dec 2010

More U.S. children are abused by Protestant ministers than by Catholic priests

The Huffington Post - September 28, 2010

The Protestant Clergy Sex Abuse Pattern

by Valerie Tarico

One of the most striking aspects of the Protestant clergy sex abuse pattern is that most people don't realize it is a pattern. The Catholic Church has taken a well deserved beating in the courts and in the court of public opinion as former altar boys, orphans and ordinary parishioners come forward with appalling stories of sex abuse. Yet equally egregious violations by Protestant clergy fail to generate the same level of outrage. Why?

You might answer that the problems in the Catholic Church are uniquely widespread, but that would be the wrong answer. Last week's Eddie Long scandal, in which one of the nation's most politically connected and homophobic mega-ministers was accused of strong-arming gay sex out of teens, was just one tip of an enormous Protestant iceberg. The news monthly Freethought Today has a regular feature called "Black Collar Crime Blotter," typically a two-page sampler of fraud, theft, and sexual abuse taken from the media across the country. They just turned their archive over to the Kinsey Institute. A website called ClergyGoneWild.com provides links to recent crime stories, including child abuse (206 articles) and internet solicitation (18).

This problem is nothing new. The first book on clergy sex abuse in this country, Betrayal of Trust, was published in 1988. The perception that Catholic priests are overrepresented among offenders is correct. They do offend at a higher rate. But because this country is predominantly Protestant, more children are abused by Protestant ministers than by Catholic priests. In 1990, the Freedom from Religion Foundation issued a study on pedophilia by clergy. At that time, two clergy per week were being arrested in North America for sex crimes against children. Fifty-eight percent of them were Protestant.

Why do we largely overlook the horrific pattern of Protestant pedophilia and sexual exploitation? Here are a few factors to consider:
  • The Catholic Church is easier to think of as a monolithic entity. That means it is easier for the press to cohere the abuse incidents into a single story and our brains to grok it. The idea of one big conspiracy appeals to us: "The Church" did it and then covered it up.
  • The centralized hierarchy of Catholicism makes Catholic offenders easier to sue and guarantees deep pockets. The lawsuits in turn both generate their own news cycle and bring victims out of the closet.
  • Since most Americans are Protestants, the Catholic sex abuse scandal is a story about "them." Protestant Pedophilia is a story about "us," which makes it less gratifying and more uncomfortable.
  • Most Americans find the idea of celibacy peculiar at best. It makes for a more interesting narrative than a generic story about abuse of authority.

Has the priestly pledge of celibacy contributed to a pattern of inappropriate and exploitative sex by Catholics? Probably. But a look at the behavior of politicians and Protestant ministers -- even just those iceberg tips that actually emerge into daylight -- should tell us that celibacy is a small part of the story. The reality is that power is arousing for many male humans (and that male power and status are arousing for many females). The pattern is plain as day in Hollywood dramas, rape statistics, sexual fantasies, D.C. dramas, and clergy sex abuse. (Where is the university research on the topic?) And yet we continue to delude ourselves that Protestant ministers are somehow exempt from the endemic, that the incidents are isolated. We say that "absolute power corrupts absolutely," and yet we give ministers a level of deference that is unparalleled -- and expect our vulnerable children to do the same.

When Annie Laurie Gaylor wrote Betrayal of Trust 22 years ago, the pattern in Catholic congregations was to huddle the wagons around accused clergy. She quotes one defense witness who described the abuse as "one drop of ink in crystal clear water." Today, after years of repeated exposure, Catholics are less likely to rally to the side of pedophiles, turning potentially devastating ire and scorn on the victims. To Gaylor, the New York Times stories this week of Eddie Long taking the pulpit amidst standing ovations and catcalls of love is déjà vu. "Some Protestants are where Catholics were 20 years ago," she says. "We have a long ways to go."

Valerie Tarico is author of Trusting Doubt (formerly: The Dark Side) and founder, WisdomCommons.org

This article was found at:



More than 260 sex abuse cases reported annually to insurance companies by Protestant churches 

Protestant abuse victims must also be heard

Child protection policies vary from church to church, but spotty compliance continues to endanger children 

Child abuse cases similar yet so different

Lawsuit accuses 2 Calvary Chapel churches in Idaho of concealing and protecting known child sex abuser

More charges filed against rapping Baptist youth pastor in jail for raping girl in his flock

Baptist school teacher charged with sexually assaulting her teen students and members of her father's church

Time ranks SBC rejection of sex-offender database as 'under-reported' story

Southern Baptists reject sex-abuse database

Book by abuse survivor says Southern Baptist Convention lacks system of preventing sexual abuse

Lutheran sect leaders in Finland admit they neglected to protect children from abuse by pastors and members

Finnish Lutheran sect leaders say up to 100 incidents of child sex abuse by members but gives no details

Lutheran bishop of Hamburg resigns after neglecting to protect juveniles from serial pedophile minister

German Protestants pledge to expose child abuse in church-run homes

Church-run homes investigated for abuse

Settlement reached in sex abuse case involving Lutheran pastor

20 N.J. Men Allege Sexual Abuse By Lutheran Pastor

Irish babies – Catholic and Protestant – were killed by people with a deranged view of life 

400 cases of sexual abuse by Dutch clergy since 1995

Vatican downplays report detailing cover-up of widespread abuses by pointing finger at other religions



  1. Sovereign Grace Ministries, Evangelical Church, Hid Child Abuse Claims

    By ERIC TUCKER, Huffington Post October 17, 2012

    WASHINGTON -- Three female plaintiffs claim an evangelical church group covered up allegations of sexual abuse against children, failed to report accusations to the police and discouraged its members from cooperating with law enforcement, according to a lawsuit filed Wednesday.

    The lawsuit was filed in Maryland state court against Sovereign Grace Ministries, a 30-year-old family of churches with more than 80 congregations. Most of its churches are in the U.S., but it also has planted congregations in other countries. The alleged abuse happened in Maryland and northern Virginia in the 1980s and 1990s.

    The plaintiffs allege a conspiracy spanning more than two decades to conceal sexual abuse committed by church members. They accuse 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 said in a statement late Wednesday that it had not been served with the lawsuit and couldn't comment on the allegations. But it said it considered child abuse "reprehensible and criminal."

    "Sovereign Grace Ministries takes seriously the Biblical commands to pursue the protection and well being of all people, especially the most vulnerable in its midst, little children," the statement said.

    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 hadn't seen the suit, and other defendants either did not immediately respond to phone messages or did not appear to have publicly listed phone numbers.

    "Each time a pastor in Sovereign Grace Ministries chose to put the reputation of his church first by using his position to enable a pedophile to avoid appropriate criminal justice, that pastor jeopardized the safety and well-being of all children," the mother of one of the plaintiffs, all identified in the complaint by pseudonyms, said Wednesday.

    The Associated Press does not generally identify possible victims of sexual abuse, and is not naming the mother to avoid identifying her daughter.

    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.

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    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 lawsuit singles out the church's "Home Group" structure, in which children are provided with day care so that their parents can attend services, as fostering a poorly supervised environment that enabled the abuse to occur.

    While the suit deals specifically with alleged abuse in Maryland and northern Virginia, 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 in the case too. And 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 centers on allegations of three female plaintiffs.

    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, was sexually abused as a toddler by a church member, the lawsuit claims. A pastor scolded her parents after they called police and then tipped off the accused that he had been reported, according to the lawsuit. Her parents were instructed to bring her to a meeting with her alleged abuser so they could be "reconciled," but she was "visibly scared and crawled under the chair" after being brought into the same room with him, the suit says.

    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 school. The man was ultimately prosecuted and imprisoned, the lawsuit says.

    The lawsuit, filed in Montgomery County, Md., includes claims of intentional infliction of emotional distress, negligence and conspiracy, among others. It says there are other victims, both male and female, who have raised allegations but are not yet identified as named plaintiffs.

    "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."


  3. Sovereign Grace Ministries statement sees First Amendment threat in lawsuit over sexual abuse

    by Peter Smith, Courier-Journal November 27, 2012

    Sovereign Grace Ministries — a church network that moved its headquarters to Louisville earlier this year — says in a recent statement that First Amendment religious-liberty protections would be threatened if a lawsuit succeeds in “allowing courts to second guess pastoral guidance.”

    The church’s statement comes in response to a lawsuit filed Oct. 17 in Maryland — where the denomination was based for its first three decades until this year — on behalf of three plaintiffs the suit describes as victims of sexual abuse by members of Sovereign Grace churches in Virginia and Maryland.

    The lawsuit seeks class-action status on behalf of other victims, citing “a culture in which sexual predators were protected from accountability and victims were silenced.” It alleges elders at Gaithersburg, Md., and Fairfax, Va., churches intervened in cases in which members sexually abused minors. It alleges the pastors sought to minimize criminal penalties against the abusers and pressured victims to forgive their perpetrators.

    The Sovereign Grace statement, issued by Director of Administration Tommy Hill, notes that no pastors are accused of abuse in the lawsuits and that the abuse did not take place on church property. At issue is how the church elders responded.

    “SGM leaders provided biblical and spiritual direction to those who requested this guidance,” the church said. “This care was sought confidentially, as is a right under the First Amendment. We are saddened that lawyers are now, in essence, seeking to violate those rights by asking judges and juries, years after such pastoral assistance was sought, to dictate what sort of biblical counsel they think should have been provided.”

    The church said 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.”

    It added that “child sexual abuse is reprehensible in any circumstance, and a violation of fundamental human dignity. We grieve deeply for any child who has been a victim of abuse.”

    The statement said Sovereign Grace lawyers are preparing a formal response. “It appears the complaint contains a number of misleading allegations, as well as considerable mischaracterizations of intent,” it said.

    Washington lawyer Susan Burke, representing the plaintiffs, declined to comment. The lawsuit alleges there were other cases of mishandled abuse besides those involving the three plaintiffs. The plaintiffs are young women who are not identified by name in the lawsuit. The lawsuit says two of the plaintiffs were sexually abused as young girls and that the third was shunned by her church, as was her family, for refusing to seek leniency for her sister’s assailant.

    An advocate for victims of clergy sexual abuse contended that Sovereign Grace’s defense on First Amendment grounds is built on “sinking sand.”

    Christa Brown of StopBaptistPredators.org, which primarily focuses on abuse in Baptist churches, said courts often give only narrow protections to clergy-penitent confidentiality in cases involving child sexual abuse.

    “The courts typically consider that civil society has a compelling interest in protecting the welfare of children,” she said. “So, even if the counseling provided by Sovereign Grace Ministries were religiously motivated, the privilege would still not be absolute.”

    She added: “Merely because something may be legally possible doesn’t make it morally right.”

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  4. Sovereign Grace’ headquarters — which has about 90 churches worldwide, most in Atlantic coast states — and its longtime president, C.J. Mahaney, came to Louisville after more than a year of controversies that are still playing out in the denomination. Critics, including former pastors, have accused the ministry leaders of probing into members’ personal lives and shaming and sometimes ostracizing them for real or perceived sins while those at the top avoided accountability.

    Sovereign Grace also launched its first congregation in Louisville, meeting at Christian Academy’s English Station campus.

    Mahaney has been prominent in the New Calvinist movement, popular in some Southern Baptist circles and other denominations. Mahaney and Albert Mohler, president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville – itself an epicenter of the Calvinist movement — have regularly shared podiums at conferences linked to the movement. The movement emphasizes God’s all-powerful role in human events, including determining who is saved. Other emphases of the movement include male authority in homes and churches and tightly disciplined congregations where preaching is central.

    Sovereign Grace leaders said one reason for moving to Louisville was to strengthen its bonds with the seminary, and on Nov. 14 Sovereign Grace announced a cooperative agreement in which its pastors-in-training can apply some credits from the denomination’s own Pastor’s College, which also moved to Louisville, toward a master’s of divinity degree from Southern.

    Earlier this year, a report by the independent conflict-resolution group Ambassadors of Reconciliation said that while many had benefited from involvement in Sovereign Grace churches, others had been hurt by the movement’s focus on correcting members’ sinfulness.

    Estranged members saw an “over-emphasis of the teaching about sin without the balance of God’s grace,” leading some to be overly judgmental or despondent, the report said.

    The lawsuit alleges that abuse was able to occur in an insular and authoritarian church culture in which members submitted to pastors’ instructions in how to parent and where to work and live. It was in that submissive environment, the lawsuit said, that that parents would turn to church elders for help when they learned their children were being sexually abused.

    The lawsuit alleges the church taught “members to fear and distrust all secular authorities, and expressly directed members not to contact law enforcement to report sexual assaults.”

    One of the churches identified in the lawsuit — Covenant Life Church in Gaithersburg, Md. — is the former flagship church of the denomination. Mahaney and his successor and one-time protege, Joshua Harris, have acknowledged a growing distance between them during the controversies, and Covenant Life spokesman Don Nalle said it has been evaluating its relationship with Sovereign Grace in a confidential, internal process.


  5. Pedophilia Ring in Evangelical Church? Ministry Accused of Ignoring Sexual Abuse

    Sovereign Grace is not the first church to face cover-up allegations -- and it probably won't be the last.

    By T.F. Charlton Religion Dispatches March 12, 2012

    I was not surprised when Sovereign Grace Ministries (SGM), the church group I grew up in as a teen and young adult, was served with a lawsuit this past October, alleging clergy cover-ups of sexual abuse.

    Sadly, I was even less surprised when the suit was amended in January to include Covenant Life Church (CLC), the congregation I had attended for nine years, and to add new charges of physical and sexual abuse by pastors, as well as allegations of abuse on church property. From what I’d seen inside Sovereign Grace and Covenant Life from 1996–2005, the alleged abuse seemed almost predictable—the result of the group’s toxic teachings on parenting, gender, and sexuality.

    Sovereign Grace is a U.S.-based church-planting network (they say “family”) of predominantly white, suburban, reformed evangelical congregations. C.J. Mahaney, the current president, and Larry Tomczak—today a pastor at Bethel World Outreach Church in Brentwood, Tennessee—co-founded the Gaithersburg, Maryland church that would become Covenant Life in 1977. It was the first in what would become a network of 91 churches across 25 states and 17 countries. And it would launch the careers of several conservative Christian activists, including Lou Engle, whose ministry The Call has played a significant role in exporting American religious homophobia to Uganda, as well as Che Ahn, president of the charismatic Harvest International Ministries. Both men were among Covenant Life’s early leaders.

    Five years after its founding, in 1982, the church launched what would become its overarching ministry, Sovereign Grace, originally called “People of Destiny International.” The grandiose name reflected the group’s aspirations to greater influence as a ministry, a vision that would only begin to be realized as the group shifted away from its charismatic beginnings toward reformed evangelicalism.

    By 1997, Mahaney had found a new protégé in Joshua Harris, a young evangelical beloved in the conservative homeschooling community for his speaking tours and magazine for religious homeschoolers. Harris’ book I Kissed Dating Goodbye, which promoted parent-supervised “courtships” instead of “secular” dating, was published in the same year. Its popularity—the book was a Christian bestseller—and Harris’ name recognition helped bring SGM to greater prominence among evangelicals. Mahaney eventually appointed Harris as his successor as senior pastor of CLC in 2004.

    The two men now boast ties with some of the biggest names in reformed evangelicalism, including Albert Mohler, president of the country’s largest Southern Baptist seminary, and Seattle’s “cussing pastor,” Mark Driscoll. Harris and Mahaney are also board members of influential, staunchly conservative organizations like The Gospel Coalition and the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood.

    Alongside these powerful partnerships has come strife. In its short history, SGM has been shaken by several high-profile departures and church splits. Co-founder Tomczak left in 1997 over theological disagreements with Mahaney’s increasingly Calvinist-inspired preaching, and his objection to how the church “disciplined” him after one of his sons fell into unspecified “teenage rebellion.”

    In July 2011, another former church leader, Brent Detwiler, released documents criticizing his own ouster, recording perceived slights and internal conflicts in painstaking detail, portraying CLC and SGM’s leadership as fractious and dysfunctional and Mahaney as a narcissistic, passive-aggressive bully. It also charged that in 1997, Mahaney had attempted to blackmail Tomczak out of voicing doctrinal disagreements by threatening to reveal his son’s unspecified “sins.”

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  6. After Mahaney publicly confessed to this attempted blackmail, and to “deficiencies” in his leadership that seemed to confirm Detwiler’s unflattering account, he was forced to take a leave of absence as president of SGM. But his absence was short-lived; SGM’s board quickly restored him, over the objections of Harris and others, and SGM moved its headquarters to Louisville, Kentucky in April 2012. Since then, several churches have voted to leave SGM,including CLC and Sovereign Grace Church of Fairfax, the other church named in the lawsuit.

    The Lawsuit

    This rocky history is a fitting prelude to the controversies surrounding the ministry in recent years.

    Perhaps the biggest thorn in SGM’s side has been the spate of former members’ blogs that have cropped up since 2007, starting with SGM Survivors—a site where ex-members have shared numerous accounts of SGM’s cult-like atmosphere, including cover-ups of spousal abuse and sexual abuse of children as young as two.

    And in October 2012, three people whose stories were first shared on SGM Survivors formalized their complaints by becoming the first plaintiffs in the current class action lawsuit, charging the ministry and its past and present clergy for complicity in the abuse.

    The original lawsuit listed SGM, Mahaney, Tomczak, and six other pastors from CLC and Sovereign Grace Church as defendants. The amended filing added five new plaintiffs and CLC, as well as CLC’s day school, the Fairfax church, and two more pastors as defendants. One new plaintiff, “Paula Poe,” alleged that a pastor and church volunteer together operated a “pedophilia ring” at CLC and its school, and that one of their suspected victims, a pastor’s son, went on to molest a seven-year-old boy in the Fairfax church.

    The suit has been filed not only on behalf of the individual plaintiffs, but also on behalf of a much larger class of people allegedly abused as minors in SGM, who do not wish to come forward with their stories. The suit alleges that the potential additional victims are too many to be included as individual plaintiffs in the suit because SGM’s leaders have cultivated an “environment conducive to and protective of physical and sexual abuse of children.”

    The stories from plaintiffs who are included describe a church culture where pastors’ sympathies routinely lay with male perpetrators of sexual abuse, particulary married fathers, who were allowed continued access to victims and other children in the church. Victims’ families were deliberately misled to keep them out of legal proceedings, while pastors provided perpetrators with legal support. And families were pressured not to report abuse and to “forgive” perpetrators, with even children as young as three being forced to meet their abusers for “reconciliation.”

    Women and children who came forward were threatened and ostracized if they resisted efforts to “restore” their abusive husbands and fathers to a position of “leadership” in the family. One plaintiff, “Robin Roe,” whose sister was sexually abused by their adoptive father, reports that their mother was advised by CLC pastors to send the victim away so the abuser could return as “head of the household.” When Roe’s mother refused to submit to this and other pastoral “attempt[s] to obstruct justice,” the family was kicked out of the church.

    An anonymous adult witness mentioned in the lawsuit (who originally shared her story as “Taylor” on SGM Survivors) further alleges that church leaders told her her husband had been “tempted” to molest their 10-year-old daughter because Taylor hadn’t “met [her] husband’s needs physically.” Fairfax pastors instructed her to allow her husband to move back into the home and “make sure [she] had physical relations with him regularly,” and to lock their daughter’s bedroom at night.

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  7. The abuse allegations include physical as well as sexual abuse. Larry Tomczak, the only defendant explicitly named as a perpetrator in the suit, is alleged to have physically abused “Carla Coe,” a child under his care for over 25 years. (The suit doesn’t specify their relationship, but Tomczak has said that he believes the charges relate to a “family member.”) The abuses are said to include forcing her to undress so Tomczak could beat her “on her bare buttocks”—assaults that allegedly continued well into adulthood. In another account, a plaintiff charges that she and her siblings were sexually abused by their father, and that she had been beaten by him so severely that she bled and bruised. When the siblings reported the abuse to CLC leaders, these pastors informed the father, which they charge “led to further abuse.”

    Adding weight to these allegations is the December 2012 indictment of Nathaniel Morales, a CLC children’s ministry volunteer, for sexually abusing four boys between 1985 and 1990. According to media reports, the victim whose account sparked the investigation of Morales alleges that pastors didn’t inform police when the victims’ parents first informed them of the abuse, out of concern for the church’s reputation. Pastors at CLC, including Grant Layman, one of the defendants in the lawsuit, have confirmed that they were aware that Morales had a history of sexual predation.

    Another pastor, Ernest Boisvert, says that Morales had shown “contrition” when confronted, and that he “took his cues from [victims’] families” in deciding not to go to the police. These accounts seem to confirm that at least some pastors at CLC were inclined to respond to sexual abuse as “sin” belonging to the jurisdiction of pastors and not necessarily as criminal offenses that required reporting.

    A Perfect Storm of Doctrine

    It’s no accident that so many allegations of serious abuse have arisen across SGM’s churches. The combination of patriarchal gender roles, purity culture, and authoritarian clergy that characterizes Sovereign Grace’s teachings on parenting, marriage, and sexuality creates an environment where women and children—especially girls—are uniquely vulnerable to abuse.

    Critics of evangelical sexual mores have noted the connections between demands for female modesty and chastity and a culture where these same bodies are constantly exposed to sexual violence and abuse. As E.J. Graff put it her analysis of the global implications of the gang rape and murder of Indian medical student Jyoti Singh Pandey, purity culture, whether in India or America, casts “women’s bodies [as]…primarily for procreation or male pleasure… a culture in which women must cover up or be threatened is a rape culture.” [Emphasis mine]

    If, as Graff writes, purity culture is rape culture, then the submission culture that exists in many conservative evangelical churches is abuse culture. The level of deference and obedience that children are expected to pay to parents, wives to husbands, and girls and women to an exclusively male leadership is so extreme that it encourages—and sometimes outright demands—submission to men who use their power to abuse.

    At Sovereign Grace, abuse culture was literally a part of the teachings. The allegations against CLC co-founder Larry Tomczak bring to mind his bizarrely titled 1982 book God, the Rod, and Your Child’s Bod, a parenting guide that was in heavy use at SGM before his departure. In it, he advises parents to keep multiple instruments for beatings in handy locations so they can “apply loving correction immediately.”

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  8. Writing about “disciplining” children who disobey multiple times in a day, Tomczak winkingly describes beatings as “posterior protoplasmic stimulation,” assuring parents that any resulting marks or redness are “nothing to get upset about.” He also recounts giving his 18-month-old son “a series of repeated spankings (with explanation and abundant display of affection between each one)” in a motel parking lot, until the boy “realized that Daddy always wins and wins decisively!” [emphasis his] Tomczak denies physically abusing anyone, but his defense that the current lawsuit’s allegations concern a “disciplinary parental issue” over a “troubled family member” only raises more concerns.

    SGM’s teachings on corporal punishment are virtually unchanged since Tomczak’ days as pastor. They continue to promote evangelical parenting manuals like Ted Tripp’s controversial Shepherding a Child’s Heart, which has sparked controversy over its endorsement of spankings for babies as young as eight months old. Application of this teaching can lead to kids being spanked multiple times a day (far more often than I was, as the daughter of very strict immigrant parents, or many other children who grow up in families where corporal punishment is used).

    The ultimate goal of discipline, corporal or otherwise, is to instill in children the importance of immediate, complete, and cheerful obedience to authority. Discipline in this context becomes a systematic ritual of physical assault and emotional manipulation. Children are expected to willingly lean over the parent’s knees or a bed, stay still during beatings with a “sturdy but flexible instrument,” not to scream, and not to criticize or express anger towards parents. Parents are to conclude beatings by holding children until they stop crying and apologize, then showing them “lavish affection.” Children must reciprocate this affection and be “peaceful” in order for the ritual to conclude.

    A child’s failure to be affectionate and peaceful after a beating is interpreted to mean that they need more discipline. What children learn from these teachings is that corporal punishment is an expression of parental love.

    A Lifelong Attitude of Submission

    The larger context for corporal punishment is the belief that Christians must cultivate a lifelong attitude of submission to God-given authority. Parents are one such authority; male leadership over women in the family, church, and society is another.

    Both women and children are taught that submission is part of a divine plan that should be embraced joyfully, and that even submitting to abusive men is noble and Christ-like. CLC pastor Joshua Harris quotes 1 Peter on this score, praising slaves who obeyed the masters who beat them as following Jesus’ example. Harris interprets this to mean that all Christians are called to submit, even when “suffering” under “unjust” leadership. Therefore wives are called to resist the “sinful” impulse to “fight back” against or even criticize husbands who misuse their “authority.”

    These teachings are not unique to SGM. Evangelical leader John Piper—a friend to SGM—has taught that women must maintain attitudes of submission even toward abusive husbands. Wives may, he says, have to,“endure… being smacked one night” if abuse is “simply hurting [them]” and “not requiring [them] to sin” in some way like “group sex.”

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  9. It’s such a romanticization of saintly submission in the face of violence that Harris’ exceedingly brief disclaimer that “this isn’t a call [for wives] to be on the receiving end of abuse and violence” (like Piper’s recent clarification of his remarks) comes across as hollow.

    If children are taught that assault is divinely sanctioned, and that their bodies belong to adults, girls in particular are trained to see their bodies as male property, starting with their fathers. These lessons come from the top. C.J. Mahaney and his wife Carolyn, herself a popular writer on “biblical femininity,” teach that every piece of clothing girls and married women purchase should be inspected for “modesty” by fathers. And Mahaney encourages his followers to confront girls and women in their congregations whose clothing they find immodest.

    Girls grow up under the sexualizing gaze of men who are free to comment on the sexual response female bodies “provoke” in them. This early training in feminine responsibility for the sexual response of men makes it difficult to recognize and name abuse, and causes further trauma with the implication that being a victim of sexual violence makes a woman “impure.”

    Beyond Sovereign Grace

    The submission theology at the root of the abuses alleged in the lawsuit is not unique to SGM. These teachings have led to similar cases of abuse in entirely unaffiliated churches, and to the proliferation of watchdog blogs like SGM Survivors for similar church groups—includingMark Driscoll’s Mars Hill Church.

    At its root, abuse is the harmful exercise of power over others. Submission theology protects the privileges of the powerful; as a result, abuse survivors in submission cultures are not able to fight effectively for support or accountability. It is possible that victim advocacy is inherently impossible in a culture like SGM’s.

    Some former Sovereign Grace members hold out hope that exposing these abuses will substantially change the cultures of the church, or at least damage their reputation and influence. Judging from recent scandals in both Catholic and Protestant churches, I’m skeptical.

    Indeed, SGM’s own current crisis has so far had little to do with accountability for perpetrators or justice for victims. Rather, it’s the culmination of longstanding power struggles and grudges between the influential men who have led SGM—some of the same men accused of covering up for abusers or being abusers themselves.

    What is clear, though, is that the same scrutiny that has been focused on Catholic abuse scandals is needed to understand the factors that contribute to similar scandals in Protestant congregations. The less-centralized nature of many Protestant organizations and the greater difficulty in obtaining data about the scope of sexual abuse in Protestant churches makes this a challenge. But it is important to understand how the theology of such groups can engender cultures of abuse—sexual abuse compounded by religious abuse of authority—and with this understanding, work to create specialized support for victims.


  10. Evangelicals decry silence on sexual abuse

    Adelle M. Banks, Religion News Service July 23, 2013

    More than 1,200 people have signed an online petition decrying the “silence” and “inattention” of evangelical leaders to sexual abuse in their churches.

    The statement was prompted by recent child abuse allegations against Sovereign Grace Ministries, an umbrella group of 80 Reformed evangelical churches based in Louisville, Ky.

    “Recent allegations of sexual abuse and cover-up within a well known international ministry and subsequent public statements by several evangelical leaders have angered and distressed many, both inside and outside of the Church,” reads the three-page statement spearheaded by GRACE (Godly Response to Abuse in the Christian Environment).

    “These events expose the troubling reality that, far too often, the Church’s instincts are no different than from those of many other institutions, responding to such allegations by moving to protect her structures rather than her children.”

    In May, a judge dismissed many of the charges against Sovereign Grace, but lawyers for the victims appealed the verdict. Board members of Sovereign Grace have said they “abhor sexual abuse of any kind” and said they have not found evidence of a cover-up.

    Basyle “Boz” Tchividjian, the executive director of GRACE and a Liberty University law professor, said Christians should be able to work together to protect children and care for victims despite theological differences.

    Tchividjian, a grandson of evangelist Billy Graham, previously criticized leaders who spoke out in support of C.J. Mahaney, who had been named as a defendant in the SGM suit.

    Signatories on the statement, which was released on July 17 but has attracted additional signers, include Tim Clinton, president of the American Association of Christian Counselors; Michael Reagan, son of President Ronald Reagan; Paul Young, author of “The Shack”; and Jonathan Merritt, evangelical writer and senior columnist for Religion News Service.


  11. Billy Graham’s grandson: evangelicals ‘worse’ than Catholics on sex abuse

    by Sarah Pulliam Bailey Religion News Service September 26, 2013

    AUSTIN, Texas (RNS) The Christian mission field is a “magnet” for sexual abusers, Boz Tchividjian, a Liberty University law professor who investigates abuse said Thursday (Sept. 26) to a room of journalists.

    While comparing evangelicals to Catholics on abuse response, ”I think we are worse,” he said at the Religion Newswriters Association conference, saying too many evangelicals had “sacrificed the souls” of young victims.

    “Protestants can be very arrogant when pointing to Catholics,” said Tchividjian, a grandson of evangelist Billy Graham and executive director of Godly Response to Abuse in the Christian Environment (GRACE), which has investigated sex abuse allegations.

    Earlier this summer, GRACE spearheaded an online petition decrying the “silence” and “inattention” of evangelical leaders to sexual abuse in their churches.

    Mission agencies, “where abuse is most prevalent,” often don’t report abuse because they fear being barred from working in foreign countries, he said. Abusers will get sent home and might join another agency. Of known data from abuse cases, 25 percent are repeat cases, he said.

    Still, he says, he sees some positive movements among some Protestants. Bob Jones University has hired GRACE to investigate abuse allegations, a move that encourages Tchividjian, a former Florida prosecutor. ”That’s like the mothership of fundamentalism,” he said. His grandfather split with Bob Jones in a fundamentalist and evangelical division.

    “The Protestant culture is defined by independence,” Tchividjian said. Evangelicals often frown upon transparency and accountability, he said, as many Protestants rely on Scripture more than religious leaders, compared to Catholics.

    Abusers discourage whistle-blowing by condemning gossip to try to keep people from reporting abuse, he said. Victims are also told to protect the reputation of Jesus.

    Too many Protestant institutions have sacrificed souls in order to protect their institutions, he said. ”We’ve got the Gospels backwards,” he said.

    Tchividjian said he is speaking with Pepperdine University, a Church of Christ-affiliated school in California, about creating a national GRACE center.


  12. Megachurch pastors leave Reformed evangelical network amid child abuse scandal

    by Sarah Pulliam Bailey, Religion News Service May 18, 2014

    (RNS) Two pastors have left a Reformed evangelical group after a pastor from the Maryland megachurch they oversaw confessed to covering up sex abuse claims, the latest chapter in a public struggle over evangelicals coming to terms with abuse within their ranks.

    Pastors Joshua Harris and C.J. Mahaney left the leadership council of The Gospel Coalition, a central hub for the Reformed evangelical movement, after a trial involving child abuse at Covenant Life Church in Gaithersburg, Md., which both men have overseen.

    A criminal trial that concluded last week raised questions about what pastors at Covenant Life knew about the abuse and why steps weren’t taken to stop it.

    Nathaniel Morales, 56, was convicted Thursday (May 15) of sexually abusing three young boys between 1983 and 1991 when he was a youth leader at Covenant Life.

    During testimony, former Covenant Life pastor Grant Layman suggested that he withheld information from the police about the abuse allegations against Morales.

    “Did you have an obligation to report the alleged abuse?” public defender Alan Drew, who represented Morales, asked during cross-examination. “I believe so,” Layman said. “And you didn’t,” Drew responded. “No,” Layman said.

    Layman, who is Mahaney’s brother-in-law, stepped down from his role at Covenant Life in March.

    Mahaney and Harris are among a coterie of evangelical leaders who are trying to push the movement toward an embrace of Reformed theology, which has traditionally been the domain of Presbyterians and other followers of John Calvin, the 16th-century French theologian.

    Reformed theology differs from traditional evangelicals theology in key aspects, particularly on the question of salvation, and it has roiled life within the Southern Baptist Convention, where 30 percent of pastors now consider themselves Calvinists, or Reformed.

    The abuse allegations that have dogged Mahaney’s leadership — he was never personally accused of abuse — in recent years have also cast unwanted attention on the Reformed network he helped start, and has sent leading Reformed pastors rushing to his defense.

    Mahaney founded Covenant Life in 1977, and now leads Sovereign Grace Church of Louisville, which is also the home of Sovereign Grace Ministries, a national association of 80 Reformed evangelical churches.

    continued below

  13. Mahaney could not be reached for comment, but Harris tweeted Monday that he needed to focus on repairing the Maryland megachurch, which he inherited from Mahaney in 2004:

    “I resigned the @TGC Council because I don’t want the present challenges at my church to distract from this terrific ministry. Godspeed, TGC!”

    Mahaney and Harris are no longer listed on The Gospel Coalition website, which boasts of leaders such as Al Mohler, president of Louisville’s Southern Baptist Theological Seminary; Tim Keller, pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City; and Mark Dever, pastor of Capitol Hill Baptist Church in Washington, D.C.

    An employee at The Gospel Coalition said no further comment was expected.

    Harris said in a tearful sermon on Sunday (May 18) that he has asked the church’s board to consider placing him on administrative leave while the church continues to investigate the issue. “We have a zero tolerance policy of abuse of any kind,” Harris said, urging people to go to the police if they know of any abuse.

    Harris said that because of a separate civil lawsuit, church leaders are unable to speak openly about what pastors who knew what when. “Right now, we’re still getting conflicting information,” Harris said.

    In a statement released last year, Covenant Life leaders said they didn’t know about the abuse until “many years later.”

    Nearly a year ago, Mohler, Keller and other came to Mahaney’s defense after he was accused in a lawsuit for covering up sexual abuse of children. Mahaney announced that he would pull out of a conference called Together 4 the Gospel due to ongoing lawsuits, though he was seated in the front of the audience with conference leaders.

    Mahaney took a leave of absence from Sovereign Grace Ministries in 2011 after other pastors in the network charged him with “expressions of pride, unentreatability, deceit, sinful judgment and hypocrisy.” Six months later, the group reinstated Mahaney, declaring full confidence in him.

    In October 2012, the same month that a lawsuit was filed, Mahaney stepped down from Sovereign Grace Ministries to focus on pastoral ministry. Two months later, Harris’ Maryland church voted to leave the Sovereign Grace network.

    In a sermon a year ago, Harris acknowledged that he had been sexually abused as a child, telling the congregation amid the ongoing lawsuit, “Please don’t allow the circumstance to draw you away from faith in Jesus.”


  14. Ohio Pastor Forced Vasectomies, Abortions Because Kids Divert Money Away From Church: Report

    By David Edwards, Raw Story October 13, 2014

    An ex-member of Grace Cathedral said televangelist Ernest Angley advised a friend to think of the fetus inside her as “a tumor.”

    Former members of Grace Cathedral have accused televangelist Ernest Angley of forcing them to have abortions, and vasectomies. And they said that he sexually abused boys in the church, which he has denied.

    In the first part of a six-part series on Sunday, the Akron Beacon Journal said that church members had provided it with a recording of a recent church service where 93-year-old televangelist Ernest Angley addressed accusations that he had inappropriately touched a former pastor.

    “I’m not a homosexual. God wouldn’t use a homosexual like he uses me. He calls me his prophet, and indeed I am,” Angley explained. “They called Jesus a homosexual, did you know that? And still do. Because he was with men.”

    As for the claim that Angley encouraged men in the church to have vasectomies, he said that he had “helped so many of the boys down through the years.”

    “They had their misgivings,” he recalled. “Sure, I’d have them uncover themselves, but I did not handle them at all.”

    “And I would tell them how that would work. And they’d have to watch it. I’d have some of them come back to me that I felt needed to. And I would tell them, I would look at them, their privates — I, so I could tell how they were swelling,” the pastor told the congregation. “I was a farm boy. We thought nothing about undressing. We didn’t know about homosexuals. We talked about women.”

    Becky Roadman, who left the church last year and moved to Georgia, told the paper that “none of us have kids because he makes all the men get fixed.”

    “You’re not allowed to have babies there,” she insisted.

    Angley also pushed women to have abortions, according to multiple former members. One of those who left, Angelia Oborne, said that Angley advised a friend to think of the fetus inside her as “a tumor.”

    “She was four months pregnant and she sat in the [abortion clinic] waiting room and told her baby that she was so sorry that she was doing this,” Oborne said. “I know another girl — she won’t come forward — but she was forced into having four abortions.”

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  15. Greg Mulkey was a prominent member of the church, and featured on Angley’s TV broadcasts as a singer in the Hallelujahs. He said that Angley had a selfish motive for discouraging children.

    “He doesn’t want people to have kids because it would take their time and money away from [the church],” Mulkey pointed out. “He really forced people into abortions through scare tactics, as if he were a medical doctor. It turns my stomach.”

    In the second part of the series published on Monday, the Beacon Journal talked to Shane McCabe, who said he was molested by Angley.

    “I was sexually abused there,” McCabe said, recalling that Angley “basically blew me off” when he confronted him about it years later.

    “He asked if I had told anybody. I said no. He said, ‘Let’s keep it a secret. This is the way we need to handle it because God’s mercy is great.’?”

    The paper asked Angley why he counseled church members to keep quiet about abuse by him or others: “They shouldn’t talk about it, but they can do something about it. But they ought not to spread it abroad, you know, because that hurts others.”

    “If it’s somebody that, you know, makes a habit of that,” he said. “We get ’em out. We get them out. We just let them know they have to go.”

    Click here http://www.rawstory.com/rs/2014/10/ohio-pastor-forced-vasectomies-abortions-because-kids-divert-money-away-from-church-report/
    to listen to WKSU’s Kabir Bhatia speak with Beacon Journal Managing Editor Doug Oplinger about the six-part series on Ernest Angley. http://www.wksu.org/news/story/40712

    Other options:
    Windows Media / MP3 Download (1:39) http://www.wksu.org/news/daily/2014/10/12/42361.mp3

    Watch a video clip below from Ernest Angley Ministries.


  16. My pastor was my rapist

    Alabama preacher accused of sexual torture, abuse of multiple children

    By Jeremy Gray, Alabama AL.com September 21, 2015

    Jane said she lost her virginity to her pastor on her father's grave when she was just 9 years old.

    It was, she said, the culmination of two years of "grooming" at the hands of Mack Charles Andrews, pastor of the strictly conservative United Pentecostal Church in Thomasville. Jane is a pseudonym to protect the identity of the victim.

    "He told me if I didn't say anything, he would come back and put flowers on the grave," Jane said. "If I did, he said demons would come and get me from my bed."

    Jane hopes 55-year-old Andrews, jailed for nearly two years on multiple sex offenses involving multiple minors, will spend the rest of his life in prison.

    "My ex-pastor is my rapist," she told AL.com.

    Court records show Andrews is set for a settlement docket Tuesday at 9 a.m. At a settlement docket, judges typically ask whether a defendant wants to enter into a plea agreement.

    Efforts to reach Andrews' court appointed attorney, Jan Jones, were not immediately successful Friday.

    Andrews was arrested on Oct. 3, 2013 on multiple counts of rape, sexual abuse, attempted rape, sodomy and sexual torture, according to court records. He is being held at the Clarke County Jail on $500,000 bond.

    Warrants filed by Thomasville police at the time of the arrest outline charges involving multiple minors in the late 80s and into the 90s. District Attorney Spencer Walker said he is aware of nine victims.

    "I don't have any indication there are others, but it is possible," the DA said.

    If convicted, Andrews faces life in prison.

    Andrews has not been affiliated with the church for several years, according to the district attorney. Efforts to reach the church, which has changed its name, were not successful Friday.

    One warrant states Jane was subjected to sexual torture in September 1988 when Andrews allegedly violated her with drumsticks, pens, letter openers, a figurine (she said it was the talons of a brass eagle) and even a flashlight, the warrant states.

    Jane said that was to prepare her for the rape she would endure two years later.

    "A 7-year-old girl isn't ready to take a full grown man," Jane said. Andrews "started grooming these girls early," she said.

    Warrants filed in 2013 tell of four victims.

    In January 1990, Andrews allegedly raped another girl, then 13, another warrant states. Andrews allegedly attempted to rape another 13-year-old girl in March 1990, yet another record states. In summer of 1994, Andrews allegedly sexually abused a 16-year-old girl.

    She herself was victimized from age 7 until she was 12 and left the church – which had a regular attendance of about 40-50 people when she attended -- at age 13.

    "A lot of the victims continued to stay," Jane said.

    Although she physically left, Jane said she was scarred by the years of abuse and a hard life of poverty. She did some time in jail.

    "I made a lot of wrong decisions. It took me a long time to straighten out," Jane said.

    Jane said she doesn't know how many victims exist but believes it was a great many.

    "It was like a cult," she said of the church that forbids girls from wearing make-up or pants and required females to wear floor length dresses.

    "He was the leader, and we were the sacrifices," Jane said. "I think there were a lot of people who were ashamed to come forward."


  17. Protestants can no longer dismiss abuse as a Catholic problem

    by Symon Hill, The Guardian May 29, 2015

    The Methodist church deserves credit for conducting such an open review of historical abuse, but the real test is whether attitudes can change

    Last month, I moved out of a residential Christian community attached to a Methodist church in London. I moved for several reasons. One was the way that the church had handled an allegation of sexual abuse. The victim in that case was interviewed as part of the Methodist church’s Past Cases Review into abuse allegations. She had no advance notice of Thursday’s announcement by the Methodist church, which has formally apologised for 1,885 cases of abuse over the past 60 years. Despite media references to “historical abuse”, some of the cases are very recent.

    This should be a wake-up call for all Christians in Britain. It is time for Protestants who have complacently dismissed church abuse as a “Catholic problem” to face the reality that abuse is endemic across denominations. As a Christian, and as someone who writes and teaches about religion and sexuality, I have heard far more stories of sexual abuse than I can count – along with stories of cover-ups, sexist responses, victim-blaming and repeated failures to take allegations seriously.

    In terms of abuse in British churches, the 1,885 cases announced by the Methodists are undoubtedly the tip of the iceberg.

    Only a few years after the Catholic child abuse scandals, we are on the brink of a new scandal. This time it will be about abuse across churches, probably mostly of adults. It can no longer be blamed simply on Catholic doctrine or clerical celibacy.

    Sexual abuse is about power. If the victim has the courage to complain, the abuser often uses their higher status to discredit the victim – perhaps because they are a respected individual who will be believed, or perhaps because the victim is vulnerable and will not be. Abusers can, implicitly or explicitly, appeal to the self-interest of church leaders not to cause trouble or bad PR by taking action to deal with allegations.

    The Methodist church deserves credit for being the first British church to have the courage to conduct this sort of review and publish the findings. As Jesus said, “By their fruits you shall know them.” But the real test for the Methodist church is what happens now.

    The report includes welcome recommendations for new procedures and training. It is more vague when it comes to challenging or removing ministers who have ignored abuse in the past. Some of the cases they investigated had been previously reported to Methodist ministers who are still in a post. Some such ministers ignored or dismissed them. A Methodist spokesperson tells me that victims have been encouraged to make complaints about ministers who behaved in this way. It seems to me unfair to expect abuse survivors, who have already been interviewed in the Past Cases Review, to initiate another procedure. One victim interviewed for the review tells me that she was not in fact advised to make such a complaint. I suspect that neither new procedures nor the removal of guilty parties is likely to achieve much without a change in church culture.

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  18. When it comes to issues of sex and violence, most churches are, to put it bluntly, messed up. There are churches that ignore sexual violence while refusing to marry loving couples who happen to be of the same gender. I know clergy who preach of God’s love for the vulnerable, but dismiss the vulnerable when they make allegations of abuse. Biblical passages condemning men who abuse boys are routinely torn from their context and used to attack adult same-sex relationships.

    No procedure in the world will change this if, as Christians, we do not change our attitudes. Jesus’s message was a challenge to the powerful. Loyalty to God’s kingdom, the kingdom of love, means we shouldn’t allow churches or governments to demand our loyalty and suppress our consciences.

    Christian communities need to be more questioning, less hierarchical and composed of people determined to treat all others as equals, not to be impressed by status. Otherwise, we’ll be back here in another 10 years, with another church apology for thousands of new cases of abuse.


  19. Family: Tennessee Church Hid Bathroom Rape of 3-Year-Old, Lied to Parents and Urged Against Prosecution

    The church later 'urged the [family] not to pursue criminal charges against the perpetrator,' the lawsuit stated.

    By David Edwards / Raw Story December 1, 2015

    A family filed a lawsuit this week against a church in Brentwood, Tennessee for allegedly covering up the rape of their 3-year-old child.

    The lawsuit, which was obtained by WTVF, indicates that the family left their 3-year-old-boy in the care of the church’s Children’s Ministry on the Sunday of August 24, 2014.

    When the boy said that he did not want to go back to church the next week, the family discovered that a teenage volunteer had raped the child in one of the church’s bathrooms.

    The family explained in the lawsuit that they confronted church leaders, who initially claimed that the child was lying about the incident.

    The church later “urged the [family] not to pursue criminal charges against the perpetrator,” the lawsuit stated.

    After the volunteer pleaded guilty to aggravated sexual assault, the lawsuit said that the church “sought to hide the truth about the perpetrator pedophile and about the rape of [the 3-year-old child] from other families.”

    “We want justice for this family,” attorney Kathryn Barnett of Morgan & Morgan told WTVF. “But also we want to make sure that every child at this church and every church is safe.”

    “It’s not okay to wait until a child is raped before you start to take youth protection seriously.” she added.

    A Fellowship Baptist Church training video that was created earlier this year explains that the Children’s Ministry has a strict bathroom policy.

    “In all cases, no one should be alone with a child,” the video says. “Two adults are required to escort a child to the bathroom.”

    Watch the video report below from WTVF, broadcast Nov. 30, 2015.




    The Sex Scandal That Devastated a Suburban Megachurch

    Inside the rise and fall of Sovereign Grace Ministries.

    By Tiffany Stanley, WASHINGTONIAN February 14, 2016

    Pam Palmer was at a barbecue when she heard the news.

    It was 2011, five years after her family had left Covenant Life Church. But the Gaithersburg congregation and its founder, C.J. Mahaney, remained on her mind. Now one of her relatives was telling her that amid controversy Mahaney had surrendered the top post at the organization he had built into an international empire. “Literally,” Pam says, “that moment changed my life.”

    Pam had been one of the church’s early followers back in the 1980s. And she’d given 22 years of her life to the megachurch, in the all-in manner that many members embraced. Early on, her husband, Dominic Palmer, whom she’d met there, led one of the small fellowship groups that underscore church life, and she dutifully assisted him. When the couple had children, Pam homeschooled them, as so many women in the church did. Every step of the way, a foundational principle of the church was reinforced—that Christian men knew best.

    But in the years since the Palmers left Covenant Life, Pam had come to see its culture as toxic.

    After the barbecue, she went online to find out more about the revolt inside Sovereign Grace Ministries, the religious conglomerate that Covenant Life had grown into. A few years earlier, a pair of disillusioned followers had launched a blog called SGM Survivors. It was like a public square, and an increasingly crowded one at that, where former congregants of Sovereign Grace churches—there were roughly 90 at the time—gathered to vent.

    Pam had visited the blog before. But this time, she encountered a whole new narrative. Parents were reporting that their children had been sexually abused by other church members. And they were sharing stories, saying they were mistreated by churches when they spoke up. Until that moment, Pam had no idea there were other families out there just like hers.
    • • •
    The origins of Sovereign Grace go back to the early 1970s.

    Mahaney, a shaggy-haired hippie from Takoma Park who was getting stoned when he was reborn as a Christian, had just joined the Jesus movement and wandered into a weeknight prayer meeting, full of raised hands and speaking in tongues. He struck up a friendship with one of its leaders, Larry Tomczak, and the men began to collaborate. Wander into one of their services at Christ Church on Massachusetts Avenue, Northwest, in the 1970s and you could find nearly 2,000 people captivated by the music and their preaching.

    Barely in their twenties, the founders made a dynamic team. Before long, they were holding Sunday services, too, forming what would become Covenant Life Church. By 1982, they’d launched their overarching ministry to “plant” new congregations, and they soon adopted what’s now known as Sovereign Grace Church of Fairfax. Over the years, the ministry expanded to Ashburn, Fredericksburg, and Germantown; Cleveland, Jacksonville, and Pasadena; and on to the Philippines, Mexico, and the UK, until it had some 28,000 adherents around the globe.

    SGM churches typically have a lead pastor and a staff of deputy pastors to oversee different spheres of church life. The business has been a family affair. Over the years, many of Mahaney’s friends and relatives have held the upper rungs of power. “People were the best of friends, the closest of friends,” says Brent Detwiler, an early leader. “That continued for many, many years.”

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  21. By 1997, Tomczak had left the movement. Mahaney, by contrast, was pinnacled upon a kingdom of his own making. He was also ensconced among the country’s evangelical elite. A college dropout with no formal training, he became an in-demand public speaker and author and befriended influential New Calvinist leaders—a group that included prominent Baptist minister John Piper; Albert Mohler, president of the powerful Southern Baptist Theological Seminary; and Mark Dever, leader of the Capitol Hill Baptist Church, a go-to place of worship for evangelical Hill staffers.

    Young Christian men around the country began flocking to Gaithersburg for mentoring. Among them was Joshua Harris, scion of an influential homeschooling family and newly minted author of I Kissed Dating Goodbye, an abstinence-until-marriage manifesto he wrote at age 21 that today is an evangelical cult classic. Dozens of other men enlisted in SGM’s Pastors College. Its graduates were known to imitate Mahaney’s exuberant preaching style, with its clipped cadences and hands waving in the air, and to shave their heads as if to be like the pastor, who had long ago gone bald.

    By 2002, Covenant Life Church occupied a sprawling complex on Muncaster Mill Road with stadium seating for thousands. The larger movement, meanwhile, would come to flourish in 26 states, with partnerships in 21 countries, a model for other organizations. As Wayne Grudem, a renowned evangelical theologian with degrees from Harvard and Cambridge, once told the Washington Times, “I know of churches around the United States who are looking to Sovereign Grace Ministries as an example of the way churches ought to work.”
    • • •
    The first person to speak up was a woman I’ll call Kate.

    In the late ’90s, her husband was a care group leader at SGM’s Fairfax Church, a job that involved regular meetings for both husband and wife. When the couple attended, they sometimes left their children with the teenage son of another member. Entrusting their kids with fellow congregants was typical for Kate and Edward (his middle name). Like most within SGM, the family lived a life that revolved around the community.

    By March of 1999, though, it became clear that something had gone disastrously wrong. The couple’s only daughter, Ann (her middle name), started having night terrors and became frightened of the bathroom. Down the street, Jacob, the 15-year-old babysitter, was acting out so intensely that his mother confided to Kate about how worried she was. Kate says she pressed the mom to ask Jacob (not his real name) about his behavior. Eventually, he did what the church had taught him: He confessed an awful transgression. According to Kate, he told his mother he had been “inappropriate” with Ann, who was three when the abuse occurred; it had happened while he was changing Ann’s diaper—she was asleep, he claimed, and hadn’t woken up.

    Distraught, Jacob’s mother confessed her son’s sin to church pastors, and they arranged a meeting so she could admit the wrongdoing to Kate and Edward and request their forgiveness. At the meeting, the parents recall, one of the pastors paraphrased the Bible, telling them, “You shouldn’t bring a Christian to court.” The church leaders, they say, wanted to mediate. Sovereign Grace Church of Fairfax denies discouraging the family from going to the authorities and says they recommended reporting the matter.

    But Kate was unsettled—she felt in her gut that Jacob’s story was lacking. Ann wore pull-ups: Why would he change her while she slept? How would he not have woken her up?

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  22. She and Edward decided to call a doctor and social services. An inquiry found evidence of sexual abuse, and that triggered a police investigation. Although it was more than 15 years ago, Kate can still picture the day a detective interviewed Ann, wearing a sundress with daisies on it, her blond hair in pigtails. Kate remembers being so thankful for the detective, how kind he was when he told Ann to point to a doll and asked her, “Has anyone ever hurt you?”

    By the end of the ordeal, Jacob was charged with “object penetration” and “aggravated sexual battery,” according to court records. He pleaded guilty to one count of sexual battery and received probation and counseling.

    But while the legal system was at work, a different kind of justice was being meted out at church. Kate says the pastors at SGC Fairfax seemed angry at her. She felt bullied into skipping court hearings. Once when Edward spoke with a pastor about an upcoming court date, he says, the pastor berated him for his “carnal desire” to see Jacob suffer.

    Kate and Edward were angry, and struggling to forgive Jacob, but church leaders kept pushing the families to move on. According to Kate, the Fairfax pastors reminded her that everyone was a sinner—Jacob had done wrong, but so had Kate and Edward by not letting go of their bitterness.

    “The pastors refused to listen to what happened to [Ann], and they kept telling me I was making a big deal out of nothing,” Kate recalls. “I told them I will not speak to you about this at all, any longer, unless you refer to this as when my daughter was raped, and if you can’t say ‘when my daughter was raped,’ then you’re saying she wasn’t.”

    For more than two years, four pastors held multiple meetings with the two families. The church’s new senior pastor intervened when little progress was made.

    Eventually, a pastor from the ministry’s flagship in Gaithersburg was consulted and another meeting called. The ministers issued a blanket apology for not being more supportive, but it was too late. “I was done with the whole thing,” Kate says. “It was a farce. It was insincere.”

    After 12 years in its cloistered community, Kate left SGC Fairfax and the family moved from their street full of church members.
    The couple enrolled their five children in public school, and Kate got a job outside the home. In the world beyond SGM, the family thrived, including Ann, who loved theater and dance and made the high-school cheerleading team. “We had gotten into a healthier place,” Kate says.

    Then one day in December 2008, it all came back when an old friend from church told her about the year-old blog SGM Survivors. At the time, the site was full of gripes about ministry culture, impassioned but all relatively minor. When Kate typed her family’s 9,000-word saga into the comments section, that changed.

    “To SGM,” Kate wrote, “yes it’s me and I’m talking.”
    • • •
    It’s all too common, these days, to see an organization caught up in a sex-abuse scandal.

    Whether it’s the military, a school, or a church, there tend to be some parallels: a culture that’s at least somewhat separate from the outside world, a self-policing elite, a rank-and-file conditioned to revere its leaders.

    In the ministry Mahaney built, some of these features were readily apparent. SGM represented a society unto itself, one that functioned parallel to mainstream culture and that distrusted that wider, secular world. “They believe God’s law comes before civil law,” as one former member says.

    Mahaney’s ministry wrote and licensed its own music, stocked its own bookstores, and supported Christian education. “The top tier was homeschooling. The second tier was Covenant Life School,” says Anne Ehlers, a Montgomery County teacher who attended CLC for 21 years. “To have kids in public school, that was like sending your kids to hell.”

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  23. When it came to the most mundane matters of life, almost any need could seemingly be met in-house: There were members who were lawyers and small-business owners and financial advisers. If you needed your car repaired, there was a mechanic in the next row.
    Ellen Klatt, an executive assistant in Virginia and a former member of SGM’s Fairfax congregation, says she once heard a woman lament, “ ‘I just wish we had a good plumber in the church.’ And it was because it was frowned upon to go outside the network. You wanted a sanctified plumber.”

    Families moved from across the country to be a part of an SGM church family. Members often bought houses in the same neighborhood. It was not unusual for families to put up unwed church members in their basements and spare rooms.

    “Covenant Life Church had a reputation of being really isolating,” says Tope Fadiran, a writer in the Boston area who attended as a teen. “Other conservative evangelicals thought it was a cult because of how intensely people in the church had their entire lives consumed.”

    Beneath Mahaney, some members felt that the social hierarchy was clearly delineated, with pastors ranking above all, then men, then women, and children. SGM churches practice complementarian theology, which follows a biblical mandate that “wives should submit in everything to their husbands” and encourages many women to be stay-at-home mothers.

    Parents were guided toward books such as Tomczak’s God, the Rod, and Your Child’s Bod, which recommended spanking children and taught that kids were to comply with orders willingly, completely, and immediately.

    Even for adults, questioning leaders was not always tolerated—it meant you weren’t willing to submit to spiritual authority. Members were held accountable for virtually all areas of their lives. And the ministry’s increasingly Calvinist focus on sin at times became an excuse for members to scrutinize one another’s behavior, calling fellow congregants out if they were prideful, if their children were unruly, if their house was unkempt.

    These confrontations often happened during small-group meetings—“care groups,” in church parlance. Although meant to be supportive circles, care groups could morph into harsh examinations, in which followers were goaded into confessing faults and transgressions. “It was coded in positive language, as a growth thing,” says Hännah Ettinger, a Peace Corps volunteer who grew up in an SGM church outside Richmond. “But it actually was very nitpicking, negative, self-esteem-destroying kind of stuff.”

    This was the framework in which Kate first sought justice. Indeed, it had its basis in scripture: Matthew, chapter 18. “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone,” the verse reads. If the member won’t listen, “take one or two others along with you” to confront the accused.

    Matthew 18, which other churches also deploy for discipline, was practically a mantra inside SGM communities. Whenever disputes arose between members, reconciliation was considered the primary way to settle the matter and, in the process, one’s relationship with the church.

    At first blush, it seems so gentle: The rest of our litigious society was busy dragging one another to court. Members of a loving, godly community could work things out for themselves. In real life, though, it doesn’t take a Calvinist to know that when you combine built-in power imbalances with a skepticism of outside authorities, all manner of chaos can follow.
    • • •
    When Kate first raised alarms about abuse, Mahaney was already fueling a slow burn inside his ministry.

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  24. His young protégé, Joshua Harris, had taken the reins of CLC a few years earlier while Mahaney switched his focus to the SGM network at large. Subordinates were increasingly unhappy with Mahaney’s leadership. Pastors had begun confronting him on character flaws such as pride and stubbornness. Many felt ignored—a critical fault line for a church that prized accountability, even for seemingly minor sins.

    In 2011, the crisis ignited: Brent Detwiler, a former SGM board member, sent the denomination’s pastors 600 pages of ministry e-mails and documents that put the backbiting on full display. “The Documents,” as they came to be called, were later posted online and read by tens of thousands of people.

    Among other things, Detwiler accused Mahaney of deceit, abuse of authority, and hypocrisy, and castigated him for sparring with cofounder Larry Tomczak before he left the ministry. SGM members were stunned to learn that when it came to their founders’ personal failings, Mahaney and Tomczak had spurned full reconciliation with each other. Mahaney seemed not to have followed his own rules. On July 6, shortly before the documents were made public, Mahaney announced he was taking a leave of absence. The SGM board then appointed an independent panel to conduct an official review. His abdication set off a scandal that was covered by such publications as Christianity Today and the Washington Post.

    While the public focus was mostly on Mahaney, the Survivors blog had become a place where other families, compelled by Kate’s missive, were speaking out about sex abuse. A couple I’ll call Sarah and Richard chronicled how their son Taylor had been molested by an older boy from the Fairfax church in the late 1990s. Instead of calling the police, the family pursued reconciliation with the abuser. (The church says it never discouraged the family from contacting authorities.) Nine years later, the couple learned that a different church member had molested their daughter Rose when she was eight. (Both siblings are identified by their middle names.) This time, with Rose having a history of self-mutilation and having undergone a psychiatric hospitalization, Sarah and Richard went to the police. Rose’s abuser was prosecuted, and the church cooperated with the investigation—but the debacle sparked a turbulent (and ultimately failed) reconciliation process with the church that lasted three years.

    “We share our story,” Richard wrote on the blog, “with the hope that those with similar experiences will be encouraged to write their own and bring it to the light.”

    Peggy Welsh’s disturbing experience dated all the way to 1987. That year, her husband, David Adams, admitted to sexually abusing her daughter (whom he had adopted) over several years from the time she turned 11. Peggy wanted a divorce, but she says the pastors at CLC in Gaithersburg, to whom she’d dutifully reported David’s transgressions, discouraged it. She was pregnant with the couple’s ninth child—how would she support them all?

    Peggy balked at the prospect. She took her concerns to Mahaney’s brother-in-law, Pastor Gary Ricucci: How could she stay married to a man attracted to children? Ricucci protested the characterization, she says, and told her, according to civil court papers, that David “was not attracted to his 11-year-old daughter but rather to the ‘woman’ she ‘was becoming.’ ”

    David took a plea deal on two child-abuse-related counts, was sentenced to five years in a state prison, and enrolled in a sexual-disorders program. According to a psychological evaluation he underwent in prison, his assault of his daughter “consisted first of fondling and later of oral sex,” during “times when he thought she was asleep.”

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  25. Not quite two years into his prison term, Ricucci wrote the court on CLC letterhead in support of releasing David early on probation. CLC was finalizing housing arrangements for him, Ricucci wrote, and the church was ready to “provide [him] support.” The following month, David was sent home.

    He married a different woman from Covenant Life, who’s now a teacher at the church’s school, and they had two daughters. He started a bluegrass band with other CLC musicians, at times including teenagers in the lineup. With David on banjo, the group plays at festivals, restaurants, and church events around Washington.

    One day last June, I saw them perform at a park in Montgomery Village while two dozen children climbed on a nearby playground. Toward the end of the set, as three children stood by the stage, David said, “I want to see you dancing.” A little girl in a dress twirled to the last song.

    When contacted by phone, David declined to answer questions, but he did say of his past: “You don’t move on. You just incorporate it into your life and you deal with this forever.”

    Peggy and her children experienced far different treatment from the church. For a time after David went to jail, Peggy says, CLC subsidized the children’s schooling and sent over food and babysitters. But the support eventually stopped, and Peggy struggled to make ends meet while she worked low-wage jobs. “We went from middle class to destitute in a very quick period of time,” another of her daughters, Dara Adams, says.

    Peggy’s house was a disaster, later going into foreclosure, and she felt judged by the church, whose members scolded her for her home’s disarray. Although still legally married to David, she did start dating. Her pastors at CLC warned her that adultery was immoral, she says, and asked her to leave. She did.

    Reading much of this on the blog in 2011, Pam Palmer was filled with anger, and regret. Police records show that similarly to Kate’s experience, a teenage CLC member was arrested and charged with molesting Pam’s daughter, Renee, after he had been hired to babysit one night in 1993. It had been almost 20 years and Pam still couldn’t forget three-year-old Renee cowering under a chair, frightened at the sight of her molester, during a reconciliation meeting that she says Pastor John Loftness convened.
    Why had she and Dominic agreed to meet and forgive the young man, as the church taught? Why hadn’t she gone to any of his court hearings?Pam says another CLC pastor urged her to write a letter to the court requesting leniency for her daughter’s abuser, and she was upset that she had done so. What if these assaults were still going on? she thought.

    She joined the uprising. “I share this with my heart breaking,” Pam wrote on the SGM Survivors blog. She went on, “I wanted everyone to know that the serious effects of any sexual molestation at any age are devastating to the victim and their family for many years. It doesn’t just ‘go away’ after forgiving!”
    • • •
    SGM had been thriving until very recently.

    In fact, the sexual abuse might have been dismissed by all but the families who survived it, but Mahaney’s downfall brought attention to the ministry’s secrets. SGM’s Washington-area churches now had no choice but to respond.

    In Fairfax, the church leadership called a meeting with its congregation. The mood was repentant: A group of pastors acknowledged the stories of abuse and issued a tearful apology to the families. According to an audio recording of the meeting, senior pastor Mark Mullery blamed the church’s model of reconciliation. “This resulted in the victim’s family being corrected when they should have been gently cared for as sufferers,” he said.

    “We were proud,” Mullery went on, his voice breaking. “We didn’t know, we didn’t know. We were ignorant.” As he continued, he took a long pause and, with a high-pitched cry, said, “I’m so sorry.”

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  26. The tone at CLC in Gaithersburg was different. At a meeting that addressed what had happened to the families of Pam Palmer and Peggy Welsh, pastors maintained that Loftness, Ricucci, and the church had served the families well. They also cited a 17-page memo attributed to Loftness that codified the church’s child-sex-abuse protocols.

    It’s a troubling document. Upon hearing about a case of suspected child sex abuse, ministers are advised to notify church elders immediately. They should also call a lawyer, preferably one with “ethics grounded in Scripture,” for legal advice. The document encourages pastors to “establish fact” during a “time of investigation.” It notes that pastors must notify authorities about suspected child molesters if their state’s laws require it. (Not all do.) It also says it may be necessary to call police if the accused is an immediate threat to children—“but this is unlikely,” the memo says. Otherwise, it’s up to the parents to report abuse.

    “When Christians appear in a courtroom and they come from the same church community that has fostered trust and spiritual unity,” the guidelines state, “they will likely find the legal process to be highly offensive.” Reconciliation between a repentant abuser and a victim is presented as the ultimate goal.

    “It read like an eighth-grade report,” says the mother of a victim who received the memo. “There was nothing in there that had any significance or anything helpful.”

    As church leaders rationalized, Pam Palmer began reaching out to the other women, and they formed a support network of sorts—a club no one would wish to join. “I just knew somebody had to do something,” she says. Pam researched the sexual-misconduct policies in place at other churches. She also found Susan Burke, a Baltimore litigator known for taking on the US military over its handling of sexual assault and harassment. That might be the type of person we need,Pam thought.

    The fathers were initially reluctant. Kate’s husband “felt like as a family we needed peace,” she says. When the group met for the first time in October 2011 at Peggy Welsh’s Rockville home, Pam’s husband stayed behind. “It took me a while to get onboard,” he recalls. It wasn’t until he witnessed the number of victims coming forward that he changed his mind.

    Around Peggy’s kitchen table, the families told other stories they knew—of families who were afraid to come forward. Everyone present had gotten criminal justice, but they knew of many who hadn’t. The next time the families met, Burke joined them. As one of the mothers later told me, “I’m an evangelical Christian woman, but I said on the blog: Someone needs to sue these bastards.”
    • • •
    The lawsuit hit in October 2012.

    In a class-action suit filed in Montgomery County, Susan Burke alleged that SGM, Mahaney, and seven pastors had engaged in a cover-up of child molestation. SGM “cared more about protecting its financial and institutional standing,” the suit claimed, “than about protecting children, its most vulnerable members.”

    There were three plaintiffs initially, but it wasn’t long before others came forward. One alleged that there was a pedophile ring at Covenant Life and that men, including a pastor, had molested her. Another alleged that cofounder Larry Tomczak had her strip and beat her for more than 20 years, allegations he calls “baseless” and “absolutely false.” A woman who stated she’d been molested by her father alleged that in 2000, the pastors at the Fairfax church encouraged her mother to stay with him. They blamed the mother, according to the suit, for being “a bad wife who had failed to satisfy her husband sexually.” Eventually, 11 plaintiffs in all signed on.

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  27. SGC Fairfax executive pastor Vince Hinders denied the allegation in an e-mail, adding: “We want you to know that we never covered up or tried to cover up child abuse of any kind in our church.” Don Nalle, a spokesman for CLC, said by e-mail: “Our heart and practice is to comfort and protect those who have experienced abuse or neglect, including victims of sexual abuse. We believe our history as a church and the facts bear that out. We vigorously deny any and all assertions that Covenant Life Church participated in conspiracy or obstruction of justice as alleged in the civil lawsuit.” Of 16 former and current SGM pastors contacted for this story, none would answer questions on the record about the suit’s allegations, and some did not return messages. A lawyer for Mahaney, Loftness, and Ricucci declined to comment. Mark Prater, executive director of Sovereign Grace, said in a public statement: “Let me be clear that we deny—in the strongest terms possible—that any Sovereign Grace leaders conspired to cover up abuse as alleged in this lawsuit.”

    Like the Catholic Church before them, Protestant ministries are increasingly having to confront sex-abuse scandals that get aired in public. SGM, with little experience in crisis management, found its reputation eroding—a situation that only worsened after the bombshell announcement that Montgomery County prosecutors had indicted a 55-year-old man named Nathaniel Morales on child-sex-abuse charges in December of 2012.

    Morales had been an active member of Covenant Life Church in the 1980s and early ’90s, known for his beautiful singing voice and for his mentorship of the congregation’s young men, leading Bible studies and taking them to movies and ball games. But during that same period, he sexually assaulted three teenage boys who had been part of the church. According to evidence revealed at his criminal trial, he targeted boys who came for sleepovers at a CLC family’s home, where he lived in the basement. Morales’s patterns were as stealthy as they were insidious: He would approach his victims at night, and they’d awake to find him fondling or orally raping them. One man said that Morales goaded him with guilt: Morales claimed that if his advances were resisted, he would have to seek out prostitutes and men in bathrooms and could get AIDS.

    The men and their families had kept the abuse a secret from many for years—but not from pastors, according to court testimony. “We were told and strung along for quite some time that the church was taking care of it, that they would handle all of this,” Jeremy Cook, one of the abused, told me. An investigation commissioned by CLC revealed that between 1990 and 2007 at least five members of the church’s staff were told of Morales’s abuse. None notified the police.

    Instead, Morales left Washington, and in 1994 he married Marcia Griffeth, a mother of five boys. The family moved around the United States, working at various churches along the way. On the day in 2012 that her husband was arrested at a Walmart in Nevada, Griffeth was there. In the days and months to come, two of her sons would make a terrible disclosure to her: They’d allege it had happened to them, too.

    Today, Griffeth views her family’s peripatetic existence differently. Morales always convinced her that God was telling him to move on, but now she thinks he was running away from other alleged victims. “I blame the church for covering everything up,” she says. “I wish they would have reported it to the authorities sooner.”

    In the end, Morales was turned in only because one of his victims, as is typical of many child-sex-abuse survivors, finally went to police after years of suffering in silence. Morales was found guilty and, more than two decades after his crimes, was sentenced to 40 years in prison.

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  28. For the mothers behind the SGM class-action suit, the Morales verdict was vindicating. Most of them attended the trial in solidarity. In their minds, the most consequential moment happened during a back-and-forth between Morales’s lawyer and former CLC pastor Grant Layman, one of Mahaney’s brothers-in-law:

    Q: . . . [A]s a pastor, when you become aware of sexual child abuse, did you have a responsibility to report that to the police department? That’s a yes or no.

    A: I believe so.

    Q: And you didn’t do it.

    A: No, sir.

    Pam Palmer calls this exchange “the Perry Mason moment,” because it seemed to corroborate their claims of a cover-up—right there in open court.

    But for the purposes of their class-action lawsuit—and for demonstrating that SGM as an institution had failed its members—it wasn’t that simple. The pastors’ responsibility to report abuse cases rests on so-called mandatory-reporting laws that require certain people to alert authorities of suspected child abuse. In about half of US states, clergy are specifically named as mandatory reporters. Maryland and Virginia, however, exempt them in some instances.

    As of now, the families are in limbo. A Montgomery County judge dismissed their suit based on technicalities, including the state’s restrictive civil statute of limitations for child-sex-abuse cases. The proceedings never delved into whether the allegations were true. Burke describes the saga as “heartbreaking and grueling.” She plans to file a new suit in Virginia against the Fairfax church on behalf of at least two plaintiffs. “Out of all the cases I have worked on,” she says, “this one is the toughest.”
    • • •
    Sovereign Grace Ministries is no longer the force it used to be.

    Since the scandal, more than 30 churches have left the denomination—including Covenant Life and SGC Fairfax. The ministry’s revenue declined by 46 percent between 2012 and 2014, and its assets dropped from $6.2 million to $2.8 million. It’s also no longer a Washington institution: Leaders have moved their headquarters from Montgomery County to Louisville, Kentucky.

    At least a dozen CLC and SGC Fairfax pastors have left their posts, including Joshua Harris, Mahaney’s handpicked successor. In an emotional sermon in January 2015, Harris recounted how Mahaney had trained and anointed him. Harris explained that he had come to see flaws in that system. His next step, he said, was moving to Canada to attend seminary—the sort of formal education, he said, that neither he nor Mahaney had ever gotten and that both men had once dismissed.

    In Gaithersburg and Fairfax, the aisles are a lot emptier than they once were. At CLC, Sunday attendance in 2014 dropped to 1,715 members—a little more than half what it was in 2011. On a relatively sparsely attended Sunday at SGC Fairfax this past summer, Mark Mullery—the senior pastor who apologized to the families—preached from the book of Revelations about the end of life, when everyone will be judged. “No fancy lawyers to get anybody off the hook,” he quipped, to laughs. Slowing down for emphasis, he added, “What you do matters.”

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  29. Mahaney though has come out remarkably unscathed. In 2012, he moved the organization with him to Kentucky, where he started a new congregation, Sovereign Grace Church of Louisville. Though he’s no longer the ministry’s president, its leadership team includes two pastors who work at his church. Mahaney himself still headlines conferences that help promote the movement.

    His direct role in the sex-abuse crisis is difficult to trace—usually his deputies were tasked with handling the matters and the reconciliation processes. “I have never conspired to protect a child predator, and I also deny all the claims made against me in the civil suit,” he said in a rare statement after the Morales verdict came down.

    Former church official Brent Detwiler, however, believes Mahaney knew more than he’ll ever let on. “Nobody worked longer or closer with C.J. in all the history of Sovereign Grace Ministries than I did,” Detwiler says. He believes it’s impossible for all these pastors to have known about abuse and not to have told Mahaney how they were handling it. “It just didn’t work that way.”

    Now known as Sovereign Grace Churches, the ministry’s new headquarters are in a business park just outside Louisville. One Friday this past October, I stopped by and was swiftly turned away. Mahaney didn’t respond to my follow-up e-mail, but that Saturday night, his brother-in-law Ricucci did. There would be no interview with either of them, he wrote.

    The following morning, the church celebrated its third anniversary. Mahaney’s congregation filled the ballroom of a suburban Marriott with nearly 300 people, most of them good-looking adults under 35, singing along with the worship band. Elementary-school-age children squirmed in their seats until they were released to go to Sovereign Grace Kids. It was as if Mahaney, now 62, had recreated an earlier time in his ministry—once again assembling a new, makeshift church, an audience full of idealistic young families.

    He preached from the book of Job, about a man who loses nearly everything he has. The part of the text that preoccupied him dealt with Job’s tone-deaf friends. They came to Job during his suffering and called him a sinner. Job was blameless, but his friends couldn’t see that: They thought he must have deserved to have so much taken from him.

    Removing his glasses, Mahaney wiped a tear away with his sleeve and pulled out a tissue. “They turn on him and they attack him and it’s relentless,” he said in a near whisper, hunched over the podium.

    As his preaching reached a crescendo, Mahaney raised his hands and flapped his arms as if conducting an orchestra. He shouted, “Job’s friends were wrong! Job was right!”

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  30. He lowered his voice again telling his congregation they wouldn’t make such a big mistake. “This is a church,” he said, without irony, “where those suffering will be truly comforted.”
    • • •
    Kate’s daughter, Ann, now a junior in college, has grown into a bright all-American girl, tall with long brown hair.

    She’s been through counseling and, thankfully, doesn’t remember the abuse. She says she has agreed to be part of a future lawsuit, to encourage others to “stand up and tell their stories.”

    At 21, Richard and Sarah’s daughter Rose also feels strong enough to be part of another lawsuit. When I met her at her parents’ home in Virginia, she wore her blond hair half shaved, her arms etched with tattoos. “Her warrior look,” her mother calls it. The family’s son Taylor, too, is healing: Joining the original lawsuit persuaded him to go to therapy with his wife, and they’re working through how the ordeal affects their intimacy and marriage. Richard and Sarah have written to state lawmakers to lobby for Virginia clergy to become mandatory reporters. Taylor says, “We’re blessed to have badass parents who fight”—before Rose finishes his sentence: “for their children and for other children.”

    Peggy Welsh moved to California in 2012. She’s been a mother since she was 16, but this choice, she says, was for her: “I’m going to die in California, but I’m going to get there early enough to enjoy it.”

    Pam Palmer’s life, meanwhile, has indeed been transformed. She has become an activist. Last March, she testified before a Maryland Senate committee to support a bill that would lengthen the civil statute of limitations in child-sex-abuse cases by 13 years. The ordeal prompted her to go back to school to earn her bachelor’s degree in psychology, and she hopes to become a therapist for abuse survivors.

    Over dinner last summer, Pam marveled at what a homeschooling, “stay-at-home Christian mom” managed to do—bring a group of people together to stand up against a denomination led by men.

    “I don’t believe now that that’s the way Jesus meant the church to be set up,” she says. “Do you think that cover-up of sex abuse would happen over and over again if women were involved in policy?”

    A Washington-based contributor to the New Republic, National Journal, and the Daily Beast, Tiffany Stanley(@tifflstanley on Twitter) has a master’s in divinity from Harvard. Her reporting on this story was partially subsidized by a grant from the Fund for Investigative Journalism.

    This article appears in the February 2016 issue of Washingtonian.