"The day after the magazine hit newsstands, I got a card from Covenant Life Church, signed by some of the elders, saying the pastors prayed for me that morning."
First of all, let me convey our deepest gratitude to those hurt in SGM churches (and their loved ones) who had the courage to share their testimonies publicly. Of all the information Dee and I read on the internet prior to launching this blog, it was those painful accounts of sexual abuse that had the most profound effect on us. We resolved to do what we could to call attention to the problems that appeared to stem from authoritarian churches like those belonging to Sovereign Grace Ministries.
Little did we know that we would have the opportunity to get to know some of these brave souls personally. The first one we met was Pam Palmer, who notified us that she would be traveling through North Carolina. Dee and I agreed to drive to Charlotte to have lunch with her at the Billy Graham Library. We were still relatively new to blogging, and Pam was just beginning to discover that others besides her daughter had been hurt in churches belonging to SGM. This fearless woman has been a tremendous inspiration to us!
In our early years of blogging, we couldn't understand why the secular press wasn't covering stories of abuse that were being discussed over at SGM Survivors (and SGM Refuge, which has since been taken down). They certainly seemed newsworthy to us. As more individuals came forward to share their testimonies, Pam Palmer and the other victims (several of whom we have met) began to compare notes. It appeared to them that there was some sort of collusion among the leadership in SGM. Attorney Susan Burke represented a growing number of SGM victims who alleged abuse. The lawsuit was dismissed on a technicality. However, it appears two of the plaintiffs are still eligible to file a complaint.
It has been a long road to recovery for those who have been hurt in the SGM 'family of churches'. Perhaps one of the ways to move beyond the pain is to bring it out in the open. That's why Tiffany Stanley's article has been so beneficial to these individuals. We are grateful that The Washingtonian published her exposé – The Sex-Abuse Scandal That Devastated a Suburban Megachurch – in its February issue. For those who have not read it, you can now access it online here.
When the article was first published, we wrote a post on it entitled Washingtonian Magaine Spotlights C.J .Mahaney, CLC, SGM.
Now TIME Magazine has picked up on it, interviewing freelance journalist Tiffany Stanley in its latest issue. The TIME article, How one reporter investigated child sex abuse at a major evangelical church, reveals that Stanley
"spent 10 months uncovering reports of child rape and molestation in Sovereign Grace churches over the last three decades, particularly at the then-flagship Covenant Life Church in Gaithersburg, Maryland".
According to the TIME Magazine article, Stanley "chronicles the inside story of crimes against children in D.C.-area Sovereign Grace churches, explores how church leaders including founder C.J. Mahaney did and did not respond, and recounts how victims’ mothers joined forces to seek justice". It goes on to state that Stanley's reporting was subsidized in part by a Fund for Investigative Journalism grant.
In the Q&A article, Tiffany Stanley explains that she approached Susan Burke, not the other way around. Gradually, Stanley was able to get to know more and more victims who slowly came to trust her. Perhaps one of the most important questions asked of Tiffany Stanley was this:
How does the legal system currently help or hurt victims of child sex abuse? You wrote that Susan Burke, a leading abuse litigator who is defending the Sovereign Grace victims, has called this case “the toughest” she’s ever worked on.
Stanley responded as follows:
I was surprised how much the laws vary from state to state. Statutes of limitations—which put time limits on when you can file charges or sue—can be an issue for victims. In Maryland, unlike some states, there is no statute of limitations for bringing criminal charges in felony sexual abuse cases, which is why Nate Morales went to jail decades after he abused boys at Covenant Life Church. But Maryland limits when you can sue over child sexual abuse; you can be no older than 25. In reality, victims often don’t realize the long-term damage they have suffered from sexual abuse until they are much older. And as I found out in my reporting, civil lawsuits aren’t just about the money. They are a tool to see if there was a cover-up. It’s difficult and rare to criminally prosecute religious leaders who covered up abuse, so lawsuits are an avenue to get transparency and justice from the institution, not just the abuser.
About half of U.S. states specifically require clergy to report child abuse, but still others exempt them, through what’s known as clergy-penitent privilege. I think there are real problems with these exemptions. This is an oversimplification, but basically, if a church member confesses abuse to a pastor, or the knowledge is received from a victim in a pastoral capacity, the minister may not be legally obligated to report the abuse. The information may be privileged, as it would be with an attorney. I can understand that pastoral confidentiality is important, and so are religious freedom considerations. But it seems to me that a workable compromise would be to do what states like Texas and West Virginia and North Carolina do: Clergy-penitent privilege exists, but not in cases of child abuse.
As these accounts of abuse garner more and more attention, we pray that the laws regarding the reporting of child sex abuse will change. Can you believe that the current law in Maryland does not allow someone over the age of 25 to sue over child sex abuse? We are grateful that moms like Pam Palmer are testifying about the need for change.
And we give props to TIME for making the following point in the concluding paragraph of the article:
It’s galling to them that Sovereign Grace leaders like C.J. Mahaney are still revered, still headlining conferences, and still running churches, with powerful evangelical allies on their side.e
Galling indeed! We will have more to say about this in an upcoming post. And finally, the pastors at Covenant Life Church gave us a glimpse into their hearts through their recent actions. We are so glad that Tiffany Stanley revealed during the interview that she received a card from CLC pastors the day after the article hit newsstands saying they prayed for her. What will it take to touch these hearts of stone?
Thanks to the editors of the Washingtonian Magazine and TIME Magazine for calling attention to the abuse that occurred in these churches. Please continue to pray for those who have been hurt. May they, with God's help, be fully restored.