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We Need an Independent Investigation of Sovereign Grace Ministries
For nearly six years now, an open wound has been festering in the evangelical community. It’s time for healing to begin.
But that healing cannot begin until we all know the exact nature and extent of the wound; until all the facts are out in the open; until the truth that liberates can be known; and most importantly, if and when it is pertinent, there is repentance.
To put it simply: Sovereign Grace Churches (SGC; formerly Sovereign Grace Ministries) and its individual churches and leaders, present and former, who have been accused of failing to adequately respond to past incidents of child and sexual abuse should submit to a thorough, truly independent investigation.
For six years now—and more intensely in the last few weeks—charges and counter-charges (see links below), accusations and defenses have been conducted in public forums and in the courts, without a satisfactory conclusion. This has left many, many observers bewildered, angry, and deeply suspicious of SGC and these accused churches. What’s worse, these unseemly events reverberate outward, mixing with the #ChurchToo discussion and lingering anger over the Roman Catholic Church abuse scandal. Many now wonder if there has been a habit of covering up and denying child and sexual abuse in evangelical churches in general—if there is something in the evangelical DNA that makes us hesitant to deal with accusations quickly, openly, and truthfully when there is the suspicion of grave sin in our midst.
We call for a fresh and thorough independent investigation not because we believe those accused are guilty of every one of its critics’ charges. We are as bewildered as anyone and simply don’t have enough information to make a confident judgment on the matter. We see, however, that SGC, churches current and former—and pastor C. J. Mahaney (founder and former president) in particular—are under a cloud of suspicion. A former ministry partner of Mahaney turned critic, Brent Detwiler, has been chronicling the controversy for many years and claims that 100 pastors, 300 small group leaders, 40 churches (including his own), and 12,000 members have left SGC churches largely over what they claim has been abusive and deceitful leadership.
Given the prominence of Sovereign Grace, especially in Reformed evangelical circles, this puts the gospel we preach under a cloud. If, in fact, they are as guiltless as they have proclaimed, and if, in fact, the incidences are as few as they suggest, it would be great news for the evangelical community and the cause of the gospel.
At the same time, if the many charges prove to be true to a larger extent than they currently acknowledge, it would be sad and troubling—but not without hope if it leads to truth-telling and repentance. The truth of sin that leads to repentance is one of the most glorious moments in our life in Christ.
To clarify the context: The focus on SGC and these accused churches and leaders is not because the charges and counter-charges are especially grievous, but only because the controversy is so public. Unfortunately, other evangelical churches are the objects of similar charges from time to time. And precisely for that reason, SGC has an opportunity to set an example for all evangelical churches that are facing—or, sad to say, will one day have to face—similar controversy.
A Scandal That Won’t Go Away
For those confused by the events of the last few years, here is a brief timeline based on one offered by SGC’s former flagship, Covenant Life Church (CLC):
October 2012: Accusers file an initial complaint with three plaintiffs, alleging that SGM and leaders in Maryland and Virginia covered up sexual abuse within two congregations.
January 2013: A First Amended Complaint is filed, adding five more plaintiffs alleging abuse and adding CLC and other defendants.
May 14, 2013: A Second Amended Complaint is filed, adding three more plaintiffs alleging abuse.
May 17, 2013: At the hearing on the motion to dismiss, the court dismissed with prejudice all of the claims of 9 of the 11 plaintiffs, based upon the legal statute of limitations that governs their claims. The court also dismissed for lack of jurisdiction all of the claims against the remaining 2 defendants residing in Virginia. [Basically, the two plaintiffs whose claims were not time-barred had sued in the wrong state and could refile in Virginia.]
May 29, 2013: Plaintiffs file a motion for reconsideration, arguing that the statute of limitations shouldn’t apply because the claims of conspiracy did not surface until August 2011.
June 14, 2013: While the motion for reconsideration is still pending, plaintiffs file an appeal with the Maryland Court of Special Appeals.
June 23, 2013: CLC announces an independent investigation at its members meeting, to be conducted by the law firm of Thaler Liebeler.
August 8, 2013: Motion to reconsider denied by the Circuit Court for Montgomery County. It also notes that since plaintiffs had failed to file a Third Amended Complaint, the case is closed.
June 26, 2014: The Maryland Court of Special Appeals dismissed the appeal of the civil lawsuit, saying the appeal was filed prematurely before there was a final judgment by the lower court.
Since the lawsuit was dismissed on procedural grounds, and not on the merits of the case, there was never a legal investigation of the charges. As The Wartburg Watch (a watchdog website critical of SGM) put it at the time:
Even one of the defense attorneys allegedly acknowledged the seriousness of the complaints.
Defense Attorney #1 affirms the seriousness of the allegations and notes that they were “tough to read.” He states that we have not yet gotten to the merits of these allegations, some going as far back as 1982, but if the case were to proceed and we did get to the merits, they would, however, be vigorously contested.
“If I were a defendant, absolutely convinced of my innocence, I would be frustrated by this outcome,” wrote TWW. “I would want the trial to proceed so that the world could see the proof of my innocence. Now, both sides, must live in limbo … for now.”
SGM also recognized that this conclusion was unsatisfactory as well: “I realize that the court’s dismissal of the suit does not answer the question, ‘What now?’” executive director Mark Prater told SGM church members in October 2014. Emphasizing that Christians must grieve with and comfort victims of sexual abuse, he also emphasized that “we deny—in the strongest terms possible—that any Sovereign Grace leaders conspired to cover up abuse as alleged in this lawsuit.”
Fast forward to January 31, 2018, when Rachael Denhollander, an attorney and advocate for victims of sexual abuse, was interviewed by Morgan Lee for Christianity Today. Denhollander came to national attention when she became the first woman (of almost 160) to reveal publicly that she had been abused by USA Gymnastics team doctor Larry Nassar. At his sentencing, she made a compelling speech calling for his just punishment while also extending her forgiveness. This brought her faith into prominence; so naturally, we at CT wanted to interview her. In the course of the interview about Nassar, Denhollander said that evangelical churches in general have a habit of shoving sexual abuse under the rug:
We are very happy to use sexual assault as a convenient whipping block when it’s outside our community. When the Penn State scandal broke, prominent evangelical leaders were very, very quick to call for accountability, to call for change. But when it was within our own community, the immediate response was to vilify the victims or to say things that were at times blatantly and demonstratively untrue about the organization and the leader of the organization. …
The ultimate reality that I live with is that if my abuser had been Nathaniel Morales [a church member at Covenant Life Church convicted of child sexual abuse] instead of Larry Nassar, if my enabler had been [an SGM pastor] instead of [MSU gymnastics coach] Kathie Klages, if the organization I was speaking out against was Sovereign Grace under the leadership of [Mahaney] instead of MSU under the leadership of Lou Anna Simon, I would not only not have evangelical support, I would be actively vilified and lied about by every single evangelical leader out there.
At one point, she was asked to leave a church because of the types of issues she was pursuing:
The reason I lost my church was not specifically because I spoke up. It was because we were advocating for other victims of sexual assault within the evangelical community, crimes which had been perpetrated by people in the church and whose abuse had been enabled, very clearly, by prominent leaders in the evangelical community. That is not a message that evangelical leaders want to hear, because it would cost to speak out about the community. It would cost to take a stand against these very prominent leaders, despite the fact that the situation we were dealing with is widely recognized as one of the worst, if not the worst, instances of evangelical cover-up of sexual abuse.
“The situation we were dealing with” was a not-so-veiled reference to SGM. She went on:
When you support an organization that has been embroiled in a horrific 30-year cover-up of sexual assault, you know what that communicates to the world and what it communicates to other enablers and abusers within your own church….
Rather than engaging with the mountains of evidence that I brought, because this situation was one of the most well-documented cases of institutional cover-up I have ever seen, ever, there was a complete refusal to engage with the evidence.
On February 2, 2018, SGC issued a response, saying:
It needs to be said that she [Denhollander] is mistaken in her accusations made against Sovereign Grace Churches and C. J. Mahaney. The Christianity Today article publicly mischaracterizes Sovereign Grace and C. J. based on accusations of which Rachael had no involvement and which are not true and have never been true. It’s extremely difficult to respond to false accusations without appearing unsympathetic to victims of abuse. It is our sincere hope that this brief statement has done both by speaking truthfully, respectfully and in a way that honors God.
On February 13, SGC followed up with a 2,800-word defense/explanation of many of the charges swirling around this case, and noted:
The decisions of Rachael and others to publicly pronounce SGC and its pastors guilty of sexual abuse and conspiracy, on the basis of false allegations and with no direct knowledge of SGC’s history or the facts, have profoundly damaged the reputations and gospel ministries of innocent pastors and churches. The comparisons drawn between SGC and horrific, widespread episodes of abuse—about which the facts are already publicly established—are irresponsible.…
No matter how great the passion for an obviously righteous cause, no fallen human being possesses absolute moral authority, and it benefits neither the victims of sexual abuse nor the name of Christ when believers publicly condemn one another without the facts.
This echoed one of the highest-profile past defenses of Mahaney and SGM, when Reformed leaders Mark Dever, Ligon Duncan, and Albert Mohler wrote in 2013:
If the filing of civil litigation against a Christian ministry or leader is in itself reason for separation and a rush to judgment, no ministry or minister is safe from destruction at any time. Furthermore, the effort to try such a case in the court of public opinion prior to any decision rendered by an authorized court is likewise irresponsible.
On March 1, 2018, Denhollander issued a reply of her own. It was not a cursory or flippant statement by any means, but one of nearly 8,000 words and, from our point of view, devastating in its detailed comments on the many aspects of the case. This does not mean we can verify every word Denhollander has written; only that she has so carefully documented so many of the disputed matters that we have concluded that this whole affair needs a fresh, independent investigation to clear the air.
[We encourage readers to read both SGC’s latest defense and Denhollander’s Facebook rejoinder in full, from which the quotes above and below have been taken. SGC has also posted its full statement regarding this editorial.]
Again, we are deeply concerned about this matter in part because we want to make sure justice is done for all the alleged victims. But we also see this as an opportunity for SGC to become a positive example for the rest of the evangelical community. As Denhollander and other experts have noted,
Evangelical churches are plagued with serious problems related to how we respond to and counsel victims of sexual assault. … Because many churches are ideologically committed to the theories that lead them to handle abuse so poorly, many church leaders are very sincere, yet sincerely wrong. Sadly, these leaders and institutions also remain resistant to outside accountability or input. This is a serious problem that damages the gospel and pushes the most vulnerable away from hope and refuge. Addressing this issue is not damaging the Gospel, it is instead seeking to restore the Gospel and Christ to their rightful authority and priority over institutions and mishandled theology.
We would do well in all our churches to conduct open and frank investigations on any matter (especially sexual abuse) that (a) brings into question the integrity of the ministry and (b) contains substantial charges and witnesses that strongly suggest we’re not dealing with frivolous accusations.
A few qualifications are in order. First, we have to be careful about harshly criticizing pastors who, in the 1980s and even into the 1990s, were confused and/or merely ignorant about the best way forward regarding such matters. Or who earnestly felt, as a matter of religious freedom, that secular authorities and courts shouldn’t second-guess pastoral counseling decisions. So while we may deeply regret the failure to report something that happened in 1984—and rightly acknowledge it as damaging to victim and community—we have to take into account this reality.
Second, churches needn’t seek an independent investigation over every charge brought against them; and to be sure, there are cases where it’s a tough call as to whether to seek an independent investigation. In this case, however, the facts being questioned and the witnesses being marshaled do indeed suggest that there are crucial questions that need to be answered if there is to be healing and closure. In this case, it is not a tough call at all.
Third, we are asking SGC to strongly encourage any churches and leaders in its orbit who remain under suspicion to seek an independent investigation, and for accused former SGM churches to agree to one as well. As SGC put it in a statement to CT:
SGC is a denomination consisting of 72 churches, each of which is individually constituted and governed by its own board of elders. While there is a specific process by which a charge may be submitted against an elder by any current or former SGC church member, SGC leadership has no authority to mandate an investigation by an outside authority upon all of our churches.
That being said, we call upon SGC to welcome an independent audit of how it has, in fact, processed charges when they have been brought to its attention—this is precisely one of the points of contention.
Fourth, we recognize and applaud the steps Sovereign Grace and its churches have taken since this controversy first erupted. As SGC put it in a statement to CT:
Clearly, any specific allegations of child sexual abuse should be reported to criminal and child protection authorities, regardless of the passage of time. We recognize the critical importance of treating child sexual abuse seriously and its victims with compassion. To this end, SGC has taken specific steps in recent years to better understand and address the risk of child sexual abuse. Since 2014, we have provided the MinistrySafe child safety system to SGC churches free of cost, including training, screening forms, policies, and proactive reporting practices.
Fifth, we acknowledge that a primary challenge churches face is not knowing where to turn for independent investigations. Denhollander has championed GRACE (Godly Response to Abuse in the Christian Environment), led by Boz Tchividjian, a Liberty University law professor and grandson of Billy Graham. GRACE certainly is a leader in the field and has expertise, having done high-profile investigations such as Bob Jones University (BJU). However, its history of being fired or not rehired by some ministries—as well as Tchividjian’s past public statements on SGM, which SGC says have “prejudged” and “publicly indicted” the ministry—could make a church understandably balk. SGC has turned to MinistrySafe, a group favored by Southern Baptists and Dallas Theological Seminary. Another ministry that recently faced accusations, Associated Baptists for World Evangelism (ABWE), turned to a private investigator. There is an institutional effort to protect against child abuse, the Child Safety Protection Network, but it does not do investigations. (CT’s sister publication, Church Law & Tax, also offers resources to help churches reduce the risk.)
The Need for an Experienced Investigator
Picking the right investigator matters. Indeed, Covenant Life Church (which left SGM in 2012 amid the allegations) did commission an independent investigation to look into how sexual abuse reports were handled at its church. But Denhollander argues that the resulting Thaler-Liebeler report:
was conducted by a firm and an attorney with no known or recorded experience in criminal law or investigative work. Rather, the firm specialized in various forms of business litigation and business law, as did the attorney hired to investigate, Mr. Liebeler. Anyone familiar with sexual assault, institutional dynamics, or simply the process for independent investigations, would immediately recognize that this type of firm is not in any way the type of firm normally retained for such endeavors, and that the skill set and expertise necessary for this type of investigation, simply was not present.
Of the many matters of concern, Denhollander says that Liebeler did not contact most of those raising allegations, nor witnesses on behalf of those making allegations. If this is true, it raises many questions.
If true, perhaps there are reasons these people weren’t contacted. Perhaps there are reasons the report failed to disclose a number of disturbing facts. Perhaps the number of abuse victims isn’t as high as it seems. Perhaps the number of incidents when pastors decided not to report abuse is small. Perhaps SGM’s reporting process was indeed followed more times than not. With each perhaps, we’re left with another question or three. Given the substantial nature of the accusations, given the prominence of SGC and Covenant Life Church, given the aborted court case on procedural grounds, given the crucial questions left hanging in the air, a new independent investigation is in order for all those churches that have been involved in these events over the years.
Looking for Light and Healing
To repeat: While we find Denhollander’s and Detwiler’s allegations compelling, we are not ready to say each of their charges is the whole truth and nothing but the truth. And we are hardly ready to conclude SGC and the accused congregations and leaders are guilty of every charge brought against them. We are grateful that SGC says (in its statement to CT), “It is our desire to walk transparently, to grow in our ability to better address this risk, and to honor Christ in the way we care for those who have experienced abuse.” We assume that is true of every one of the churches involved in these events. Still a number of its explanations for past events remain inadequate and leave too many questions unanswered.
We desperately need a fresh and thorough independent investigation by an organization that specializes in these matters and is acceptable to accusers and SGC, and to any current and former SGC churches, who have been involved in these events, in the hope that the resulting report and any resulting apologies and actions could start a healing process, no matter how partial, in the manner that past high-profile apologies by ABWE, BJU, New Tribes Mission, and the Christian and Missionary Alliance have done.
We call for this on behalf of potential victims who may have yet to be heard. And for the sake of SGC and for the integrity of evangelical churches everywhere. And especially for the sake of the gospel.
Mark Galli is editor in chief of Christianity Today. This article has been updated the story with clarifications since it original publication.