"Do you think that cover-up of sex abuse would happen over and over again if women were involved in policy?"
Pam Palmer quoted in The Fall of a Megachurch, Washingtonian Magazine
It's hard to believe that it's been almost seven years since Dee and I went to hear C.J. Mahaney speak at a Sovereign Grace Church in our area. That was on January 25, 2009. For five months prior we had been researching Mahaney and Sovereign Grace Ministries on the internet. We were in absolute shock at the testimonies we were reading over at SGM Survivors (and SGM Refuge – which is no longer online). How in the world could such horrific abuse take place without a huge outcry from congregants in this 'family of churches'?
We hoped that seeing C.J. Mahaney in action and attending a Sovereign Grace church might shed some light on this conundrum. The day before, Mahaney, his son, and son-in-law were treated to a sporting event event in our area. This was not just any college basketball game – it was Duke (my alma mater) hosting Mahaney's favorite college team, the University of Maryland. While Duke has had its setbacks in recent days, Coach K's team slaughtered the Terrapins that day. Dee and I could not believe how C.J. spent 15 to 20 minutes of his sermon time regaling his audience about the game. He finally got around to delivering his message Cravings and Conflict (one of those canned sermons he preached from church to church), and we were very disappointed. We just couldn't understand the appeal. As an aside, the church never posted this sermon online. Instead, they substituted the same message delivered by Mahaney at another Sovereign Grace church. At least it wasn't just us who felt the sermon wasn't up to par.
When the 'meeting' concluded, we spent some time talking with parents of the youth in the church. Our children were teenagers at the time, and we were dismayed at how the youth meetings are conducted at the church (and probably throughout this 'family of churches'). The parents are collectively in charge of the youth meetings, and when they do one-on-one activities, the church kids meet with their own parents. It appeared to be extremely 'controlled". Not only that, a good number of the youth are homeschooled.
What shocked us the most was the church bookstore. It was the focal point as you entered the front door of the church. It should come as no surprise that the books being offered for sale were authored by those in the Neo-Cal camp. Crossway books are high and lifted up in the Sovereign Grace 'family of churches'. Funny thing, some churches have libraries filled with books that can be borrowed, but not Sovereign Grace churches (as far as we can tell).
As we have emphasized here at TWW, C.J. Mahaney has been embraced and endorsed by high-profile leaders in the Neo-Cal movement. Perhaps he bought his way into their hearts with his generous contributions. After all, money talks… Because these leaders have promoted Mahaney so extensively, conservative pastors just love him! For example, a few years ago Mahaney was the guest preacher at a Southern Baptist church in our area. The pastor of that church (who has since retired) is a council member of The Gospel Coalition. Not only that, Mahaney addressed my daughter's Campus Crusade for Christ (Cru) group while he was here. She was not impressed. Then a couple days ago I was listening to an Assemblies of God pastor featured on the Truth radio network, and I almost passed out when he recommended that members of his congregation read The Cross Centered Life by C.J. Mahaney, a book stocked in their church bookstore. Not only that, at least three Calvinista pastors in our area recommend Mahaney's books on their websites. And of course C.J. Mahaney will be one of the featured speakers at the upcoming Together for the Gospel (T4G) event. Will the hero worship ever end?
We contend it is in God's sovereignty that a lengthy article in the Washingtonian Magazine has just been published focusing on Mahaney, the church he pastored for 27 years (Covenant Life Church), and other churches in what used to be known as Sovereign Grace Ministries (now called Sovereign Grace Churches). The article, featured in the February issue, is entitled THE FALL OF A MEGACHURCH. Tiffany Stanley, who has a masters in divinity from Harvard, is a Washington-based contributor to the New Republic, National Journal, and the Daily Beast. She spent about ten months conducting interviews and researching the story. I have read it in its entirety, and I believe she has provided a comprehensive look at a ministry that appears to have covered up child sex abuse.
The article provides a look at some of those who have been hurt in Sovereign Grace Churches. It begins with a long-time member of Covenant Life Church, Pam Palmer, whom Dee and I have met on several occasions. Pam had been involved with CLC since the 1980s and decided to leave after 22 years. She shared with us that her three year old daughter was molested by a teenage CLC member who had been hired to babysit, according to police records. (page 165 of article). She recounted for us and for Tiffany Stanley that she will never forget her "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."
It wasn't until C.J. Mahaney stepped down as SGM president in 2011 that Pam's life changed forever. Prior to that, she had occasionally read a blog called SGM Survivors, but it was only after Mahaney temporarily resigned his post that she began to read more testimonies by parents that their children had been sexually abused by others in the church. These parents revealed that they had been mistreated by their church leaders when they spoke up. According to the article: "Until that moment, Pam had no idea there were other families out there just like hers." (page 58)
The first person to speak out over at SGM Survivors was Noel, whom the Washingtonian Magazine article identifies as 'Kate'. Dee and I have also had the pleasure of meeting her. The article goes into quite a bit of detail about how Kate's three-year-old daughter was sexually abused. In a nutshell, the fifteen-year-old son of a couple at the Sovereign Grace Church in Fairfax was entrusted to babysit other children from the church while their parents met in someone's home. Apparently, this was a common occurrence among Sovereign Grace families. The toddler began having 'night terrors' and found the bathroom frightening. The article explains that the teenage boy's mother confided to Kate that her son was acting out so intensely that she was worried about him. The article states: (page 59)
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…
The teenage boy's mother was so distressed that she contacted the church pastors to confess her son's sin. A meeting between the three-year-old's parents and the teenage boy's mother was arranged so the sin could be confessed. The article further states: (pages 59-60)
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.
My first thought upon reading this was – did the Fairfax pastors report this crime to the authorities?
Something didn't feel right to Kate, and she consulted a doctor and social services, who found evidence of sexual abuse, which led to a police investigation. Court documents reveal that the teenage boy was charged with 'object penetration' and 'aggravated sexual battery'. In the end, the perpetrator pleaded guilty to one count of sexual battery for which he received probation and counseling.
The article goes on to explain how poorly the Fairfax pastors treated Kate and her husband and how this drug on for years. In the end, the family moved beyond the world of SGM at which time they finally began to thrive.
After describing the horrific experience of Kate's young daughter, Tiffany Stanley made this important point: (page 60)
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 manstream culture and that distrusted that wider, secular world.
THE FALL OF A MEGACHURCH goes on to describe how some of Mahaney's subordinates began to express their dissatisfaction with his leadership. He appeared to turn a deaf ear to their contentions that he had serious character flaws, specifically: pride and stubbornness. All of this was kept quiet as Mahaney anointed his successor (Joshua Harris) and assumed the role of president of Sovereign Grace Ministries. Brent Detwiler, one of Mahaney's colleagues, was de-gifted in 2009 and two years later he sent 600 pages of documentation demonstrating Mahaney's character flaws to various pastors and leaders in SGM. The distribution of these e-mails and documents seemed to make little difference, and after some time had passed they were posted online for anyone to read. Just before "The Documents" were made public, Mahaney announced his leave of absence.
Stanley goes on to explain that the board of Sovereign Grace Ministries appointed an independent panel to determine whether Mahaney was 'fit for ministry'. It is important to point out that the individuals on this panel were not identified until they had rendered their decision affirming their buddy C.J. In our post Is C.J. Fit for Ministry?, we discussed these three panelists (once they had been identified) and their connection to Mahaney and SGM. The independent panel was a complete JOKE! And let's not forget the travesty done by the Ambassadors of Reconciliation.
The Washingtonian Magazine article discussed a couple other abuse stories including one that we featured here at TWW – The Gospel Coalition: C.J. Mahaney is Adored While Pain Continues in Sovereign Grace Ministries. This post includes the story of Wallace and Happymom, whose children were also abused in yet another Sovereign Grace church.
Stanley then discusses the class action suit filed by Susan Burke in Montgomery County, Nate Morales – his crime and conviction, and the recent changes in SGM from their move to Kentucky to their financial setback to the withdrawal of more than 30 churches from SGM to the departure of Joshua Harris from CLC. We have covered most of these developments here at TWW.
Kudos to Tiffany Stanley for traveling to Kentucky in an attempt to meet with Mahaney and his lieutenants. She explains how she was 'swiftly turned away'. Mahaney's brother-in-law Gary Ricucci responded to her e-mail stating that there would be no interview with either of them. She goes on to describe in considerable detail the church's third anniversary celebration which took place the following morning. The climax of that 'church meeting' was Mahaney's sermon from the book of Job. I am familiar with what Tiffany described because I took the time to listen to the sermon audio shortly after it was made available on the church website. Here is what she wrote: (page 167)
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 its's relentless," he said in a near whisper, hunched over the podium.
As hes 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!"
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 wll be truly comforted."
What a shame that those who suffered so much at Covenant Life Church, Sovereign Grace Church Fairfax, KingsWay, and other churches in Sovereign Grace Ministries were not comforted in their time of desperate need. As their testimonies are communicated far and wide through articles such as this one, we pray that their faith in God and mankind will be restored. We are grateful that the Washingtonian Magazine saw fit to publish this article, and we appreciate the tremendous effort by Tiffany Stanley to cover such a complicated saga.
Finally, we love Tiffany's wrap-up as she explains what has become of those she mentions throughout the article. And we especially appreciate her glowing conclusion, which focuses on our dear friend Pam Palmer (page 167). (see below)
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?"
Way to go Pam! Thanks for your care and concern for those hurt in the SGM 'family of churches' and for your tireless effort to try and change the laws regarding child sex abuse in Maryland. You are such a hero to us!