Sovereign Grace Sexual Abuse Lawsuit Just Got More Complicated

A number of developments in the lawsuit against Sovereign Grace Ministries (SGM) have taken place since first reported in March

In my first report for RD, I expressed skepticism that it would lead to any sustained changes in how evangelical churches and leaders respond to allegations of abuse. The responses from T4G and TGC indicate the willingness of some powerful evangelicals to maintain the status quo around these issues. At the same time, there has been significant pushback from SNAP, GRACE, and evangelical bloggers….

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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