A class action lawsuit was filed against Sovereign Grace Ministries on Wednesday accusing the church of habitually covering up child sexual assault and abuse over an extended period of time.
The complaint, filed in Montgomery County, Md., claims the ministry led by C.J. Mahaney "cared more about protecting its financial and institutional standing than about protecting children, its most vulnerable members."
Founded in 1982 in Gaithersburg, Md., Sovereign Grace Ministries is a family of about 90 churches that are located primarily in the United States, but also in Australia, eastern Asia, Africa, Western Europe, Bolivia, Mexico and Canada. Mahaney is named as just one of the defendants in the lawsuit, along with other church leaders including Gary Ricucci, David Hinders, Louis Gallo, Frank Ecelbarger, John Loftness, Grant Layman and Lawrence Tomczak.
As far back as 1987, the church allegedly failed to report or discouraged others from reporting the sexual abuse of minors, forced victims to "forgive" those who abused them and prevented others from knowing how much abuse went on in the church, the suit claims.
"Essentially what has happened is that there has been a fairly widespread pattern on the part of this church of suppressing information about sexual assaults amongst the community. And the pastors have stepped in and made misrepresentations to secular authorities, to police, and have attempted to prevent parents and others from reporting things to secular authorities," Susan L. Burke, attorney for the plaintiffs, told The Christian Post on Thursday.
The alleged abuse described in the suit happened during the 1980s and 1990s in both Maryland and Virginia. Burke says the goal of the suit is to make sure no one else gets hurt.
"My clients are very concerned that it's still going on," she said.
Pseudonyms are used in the complaint to protect the identities of the plaintiffs (for the sake of clarity, these pseudonyms will also be used in this article). One of the women, Jane Doe, whose parents were members of an affiliated church in Virginia, alleges she was just 3 years old when she was sexually assaulted and molested by a church member over the course of several months. The complaints are over counsel by pastoral staff to her parents and do not accuse church staff of assault or allege the assaults were on church property.
The mother of Doe's predator told church leaders her son confessed to committing the crime, though church officials allegedly told Doe's parents not to alert other church members to the situation and allowed the perpetrator to continue interacting with children in the church community without supervision. Though legal authorities were contacted by church staff immediately, the complaint alleges the church interfered in the legal process by falsely telling law enforcement officials that Doe's parents did not want to participate in the court proceedings surrounding their daughter's molestation.
The parents of Norma Noe, another plaintiff, found out that their then 2-year-old daughter had allegedly been abused by someone who served as a babysitter for one of the ministry's Home Groups in Maryland.
They called the police the day after the incident. They then called Loftness, who allegedly told them, "Do not call the police" and said it was an issue that should be handled by church leadership. The church also tried to arrange a meeting between Noe and her predator so they could be "reconciled" to one another, the complaint states, which further traumatized the girl.
The final of the three listed plaintiffs in the suit is Robin Roe, whose adopted father – named "Parental Pedophile" in the suit – is still a member of the church. He sexually abused Roe's older sister for three and a half years, the complaint states, and Roe's mother eventually reported him to Mays, who went on to report the incident to Ricucci and later to Loftness.
"The Church did not report the matter to the police or any other law enforcement authorities, as they were required to do," the suit states. "Instead, acting through Defendant Ricucci, the Church directed Robin Roe's mother to let them 'take care of everything.'"
Roe is a plaintiff in the suit because she was allegedly no longer accepted by the church after she told a friend and fellow church member about her sister's abuse.
As a result of being considered an outcast, the suit claims, Roe was not cared for properly as a child, and eventually wound up in a juvenile half-way house for young criminals. The church also allegedly helped Roe's father with his legal issues, and told Roe's mother to have sex with him more frequently to prevent him from "being tempted."
Those who might be included in the class action suit are those who were sexually assaulted or molested as a minor by Sovereign Grace Ministries church members between 1987 and the present. The church's neglect of the situation has allegedly led to multiple abuses over time.
According to a statement released Wednesday by Tommy Hill, Sovereign Grace's director of finance and administration, the church had not yet been served with a lawsuit and only heard of it through various media outlets.
"Sovereign Grace Ministries is not in a position to comment on the allegations of the reported lawsuit," said Hill. "Child abuse in any context is 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 abuse and cover-up allegations are just part of a string of issues Sovereign Grace Ministries has dealt with recently in view of the public.
In the summer of 2011, for example, Mahaney took a leave of absence as the church's leader after being accused by those in his church, and by former pastors, of having character flaws including "pride, unentreatability, deceit, sinful judgment, and hypocrisy." He returned to his role as the ministry's president in January after six months of leave.
The church has also dealt with a number of internal conflicts, between the pastors at Covenant Life Church and the Sovereign Grace Ministries Interim Board/Leadership Team, which have not yet been resolved.
Editor's note: An earlier version of this story inadvertently may have implied that sexual assaults occurred on church property. This corrected version clarifies and makes clear complaints in the suit are directed at pastoral counsel, not activity on church property or a lack of involvement by legal authorities.
Barry Bowen contributed to this report