In response to a civil lawsuit alleging that it covered up numerous cases of child sexual abuse, Sovereign Grace Ministries (SGM) has pledged to "carefully review" each accusation.

However, the lawsuit—which claims the association of Reformed church plants discouraged victims' parents from reporting abuse to authorities and had victims forgive their abusers in person—has also prompted the denomination to cite its First Amendment right to religious freedom.

Specifically, SGM has defended its freedom to provide confidential pastoral counseling free of government infringement.

"SGM believes that allowing courts to second-guess pastoral guidance would represent a blow to the First Amendment that would hinder, not help, families seeking spiritual direction among other resources in dealing with the trauma related to any sin including child sexual abuse," Tommy Hill, SGM's director of administration, said in a November 14 statement.

Such a stance strikes some legal observers as more of a smokescreen than a legitimate defense.

Boz Tchividjian, founder and executive director of Godly Response to Abuse in the Christian Environment (GRACE), which has investigated sex abuse allegations previously for New Tribes Mission and currently for Bob Jones University, readily acknowledges that he does not know all the facts. But the former Florida child abuse prosecutor takes issue with the SGM statement.

"Quite frankly, any time an institution—a Christian institution—responds or defends its behavior as it relates to sexual abuse allegations with quoting laws and hiding behind constitutions, it causes me concern," said Tchividjian, a law professor and grandson of Billy Graham. "I think an authentic, gospel-centered response to sexual abuse disclosures within an institution is to be transparent and to be vulnerable.

"God did his most powerful work when his son was transparent and vulnerable," Tchividjian added, referring to Jesus' crucifixion.

In the November statement, Hill accused plaintiffs' lawyers of seeking to violate SGM's First Amendment freedom "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."

In a January 15 statement, he stressed, "We take seriously the biblical commands to pursue the protection and well-being of all people—especially children, who are precious gifts given by the Lord and the most vulnerable among us. These biblical commands include fully respecting civil authority to help restrain evil and promote righteousness as Romans 13 instructs us."

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Hill told CT he was unable to comment further beyond the public statements. SGM stated in November that the lawsuit "contains a number of untrue or misleading accusations as well as considerable mischaracterizations of intent."

David Skeel, a law professor at the University of Pennsylvania, said he would need more information to fully assess SGM's defense. However, he stressed that "the First Amendment is not—and shouldn't be—a defense against child abuse.

"There's a pastor-penitent privilege that might protect some kinds of conversations relating to child abuse, although many states purport to override the privilege in cases of child abuse, and to require pastors to report any evidence of child abuse," said Skeel, who recently wrote about the issue for the Wall Street Journal's Houses of Worship column. "I think many of the statutes were enacted after the Catholic clergy scandals of the last several decades."

In Maryland, where the lawsuit was filed and SGM was based until relocating to Kentucky last year, state law does not require the reporting of child abuse if such notification would disclose a communication protected by the clergy-penitent privilege.

However, Tchividjian said the focus of the law "is on perpetrators who may 'confess' and not victims or their family members who may disclose the abuse to their pastor."

The lawsuit, originally filed in October, seeks class-action status. The petition was amended in January, adding five plaintiffs (bringing the total to eight) and alleging that some church leaders—who are among the dozen defendants—engaged in abuse directly.

The amended lawsuit came shortly after SGM flagship Covenant Life Church of Gaithersburg, Maryland, voted to sever ties with the denomination, and SGM leader Dave Harvey stepped down from his duties.

SGM made headlines in 2011 when its president, C.J. Mahaney, took a leave of absence for a "period of examination and evaluation" of charges against him by alienated SGM pastors, including "various expressions of pride, unentreatability, deceit, sinful judgment and hypocrisy." The process proved difficult for the denomination, but six months later SGM reinstated Mahaney after vetting the charges and declaring full confidence in him.

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