"We denied those charges and allegations from the beginning and not only that we hired an independent investigator to look into those allegations, and the investigator concluded that there was not any evidence to support that conspiracy or obstruction had taken place."
Mark Mitchell – Executive Pastor at CLC
Kojo Nnamdi, an American radio journalist at WAMU 88.5 recently dared to address child sex abuse charges involving members of Covenant Life Church (CLC) and Sovereign Grace Church Fairfax. Here is an overview of that broadcast which aired last Thursday:
For more than 40 years, Sovereign Grace Ministries was a haven for evangelical Christians from around the D.C. metro region. With congregations numbering in the thousands, SGM’s churches — including Sovereign Grace Church in Fairfax, Va. and Covenant Life Church in Gaithersburg, Md. — created insular communities led by a patriarchal hierarchy. But according to a Washingtonian magazine investigation, SGM’s leadership allegedly suppressed years of child sexual abuse within in its membership and actively discouraged victims from notifying police. Kojo learns more about what happened inside two of this powerful organization’s local churches, and explores the legal and personal fallout for those who filled its pews.
Kojo, a Guyanan native who emigrated to the United States in 1967, conducted a live radio interview with the following guests:
Tiffany Stanley, a freelance journalist whose article The Sex-Abuse Scandal That Devastated a Suburban Megachurch: The Rise and Fall of Sovereign Grace Ministries appeared in the February 2016 issue of The Washingtonian
Mark Mitchell, Executive Pastor at Covenant Life Church
Pam Palmer, an activist and victims' advocate. She is a former member of CLC where her daughter, Renee, was sexually assaulted as a child by a fellow congregant, who was convicted
Terri, a member of Covenant Life Church. She is married to one of the men accused in the second amended lawsuit
Covenant Life Church was the flagship church of Sovereign Grace Ministries, a global evangelical network. At the height of its ministry, CLC had more than 3,000 members. A sister church, Sovereign Grace Church Fairfax, peaked at around 1,000 members. Over time the leadership became very authoritarian and patriarchal. Unfortunately, this led to serious problems, which Tiffany Stanley described in her article.
During the radio interview, Tiffany Stanley, who was in the studio with Kojo, gave an overview of what happened to Kate and Edward's children. They were members of SGC Fairfax. Tiffany explained that Edward was leading a small group, and a teenage boy who was also a member of the church babysat other children including Kate and Edward's four year old daughter. The teenager (who was 15), began acting out, as did Kate and Edward's young daughter. Tragically, the teenage boy had sexually abused Kate and Edward's daughter. Kate and Edward allege that church leaders discouraged them from going to the authorities. Instead, a Matthew 18 approach was used, and they were pressured into forgiving the teenager, who confessed to the crime.
Kojo then made the point that child sex abuse is a crime and asked Tiffany Stanley whether pastors are required to go to the authorities if they suspect a child is being sexually abused. Tiffany explained that in the state of Maryland, everyone is considered a mandatory reporter, except clergy. The one exception to the law is clergy penitent privilege, with the roots of the exception coming from Catholic confession. Tiffany then said that doesn't mean that pastors cannot report abuse.
Next, Kojo interviewed Mark Mitchell, Executive Pastor at CLC, who was also in the studio. Mark has held this position since 2013.
Kojo began this segment of the interview by saying they have been discussing cases of child sexual abuse over the years within Covenant Life Church and its network of churches. He further said that Tiffany's Washingtonian article indicated that for years pastors in those churches have suppressed those cases and not reported them to the authorities. Here is Mark Mitchell response:
"Well, obviously the first thing I'd want to say is that we are deeply troubled by any report of sexual abuse, and we're grateful that as a society this is something that we're taking much more seriously, and we hope and pray that our justice system would function effectively in prosecuting those who have perpetrated these crimes. And we certainly as a church want to grow in providing support and help to those who are genuine victims. With regard to those specific allegations at Covenant Life Church, we've denied them. There was a civil lawsuit that was brought against the church and in that civil lawsuit it alleged that pastors of Covenant Life were guilty of conspiracy to protect sexual deviants, pedophiles, as well as obstruction of justice.
Kojo then revealed that they reached out to Sovereign Grace Church in Fairfax, but they declined to participate in the broadcast. Instead, they sent the following statement:
We want you to know that we never covered up or tried to cover up child abuse of any kind in our church. We have never knowingly allowed perpetrators of child sexual abuse access to other children in the church or in any church activities. The claim that there was a conspiracy among the pastors to cover up child sexual abuse is not true. Child abuse of any kind and especially child sexual abuse is abhorrent and devastating to the victims and their families, and we have always remained committed to providing the best and most loving care we can give.
Next, Kojo asked whether CLC was utilizing a 17 page memo cited in The Washingtonian article that outlines what pastors should do regarding child sex abuse. Mark Mitchell stated emphatically that it is NOT a Covenant Life Church document. CLC has its own procedures. He clarified that if accusations are brought forward about child sexual abuse that the civil authorities must be notified. He and Tiffany then dialogued about what happened in the Nate Morales case beginning at the 9:20 mark. (link)
Kojo's next set of questions involved Larry Ellis Caffrey, a former member of Covenant Life Church who was arrested on March 16, 2016, on charges of sex abuse and false imprisonment of a minor. He worked in the church's children's ministry. He asks Mark Mitchell this question:
"How is the church handling communications with congregants and especially parents given that the worked in your children's ministry?"
Mark responds by saying that the initial communication that went out to church members did not include Caffrey's name because the victim was not aware that the information was being disseminated to the congregation. He expresses his sadness that this has occurred; however, he is grateful that it did not take place on church premises or in the context of Discovery Land. Mark said he would be going back to his office to handle a follow-up communication with the members of CLC.
Kojo then brought up the book written by Caffrey entitled Years of Grace, Life of Mercy in which he writes – "If I had daughters I might sexually abuse them."
Caffrey wrote to CLC's senior pastor (we assume Joshua Harris) to see if his book could be sold in the church bookstore. At that point Caffrey's book was given to a CLC pastor to review. Unfortunately, he missed the shocking portion Kojo quoted. According to Mark, it just 'slipped through the cracks'.
Next, Kojo brought Pam Palmer into the conversation. She was speaking by phone. Pam is an activist and victims' advocate. She attended CLC with her family for 22 years, and she has been involved in a class action lawsuit accusing the church's leadership of covering up child molestation. Kojo asked her to explain why they brought the lawsuit.
Pam shared that her daughter (who was three years old) was abused in 1993. The pastors told her not to go to the police, but she reported the crime anyway. They prosecuted the perpetrator at that time. Pam thought her daughter was the only sex abuse victim in at CLC. Later, they moved on to another church.
It wasn't until 2011 that she discovered on an internet forum that there were others coming forward with accusations of child sex abuse. As a result she and eleven others filed a lawsuit in Maryland that was ultimately dismissed on a technicality – the statute of limitations had expired on all but two of the alleged victims (who were not residents of Maryland). Kojo asked her to explain the problem and how they are trying to fix it.
Pam said that most child sexual abuse victims have just three years after turning 18 to bring forth a civil action. She stated that the best way to prosecute an institution is civily since it is difficult to prosecute an institution criminally.
The lawsuit filed in 2013 was dismissed on a technicality because the statute of limitations had expired. Pam, S.N.A.P., and other activists are trying to extend the statute out.
Apparently, some have been working to change the law in Maryland for over two decades. At the end of the interview Tiffany Stanley explained this comes up almost every year, and each time the Catholic church sends representatives opposing it. This year CLC sent two members who oppose the bill.
One of the two members of CLC opposing this bill is Terri, who was the final guest on the program. She phoned in to say that her husband had been falsely accused of child abuse in the lawsuit. She said that a woman accused him and three others of molesting her about twenty-five years earlier. It was investigated by the police who did not file any charges. The church hired an independent investigator and after 18 months they concluded it could not have happened. Terri said that what ensued was a witch hunt, and she went on to describe how terribly they were treated.
Toward the end of the interview Kojo asked how many criminal convictions have come out of these sex abuse cases within these churches over the years. Tiffany Stanley responds that more than a dozen people have come forward with allegations and at least seven of those have gotten criminal convictions.
The CLC congregation has declined by around 2,000 in recent years, and the congregation is exceedingly concerned about allegations of child sex abuse. They are seeking to grow and have a good relationship with civil authorities and are trying to heal from what has been a very distressing and difficult period.
After the interview Mark Mitchell went back to his office and put together the following communication, primarily for Covenant Life Church members.
We attempted to embed it but do not have permission. (Just click on the blue box to watch it.)
We hope you will take the time to listen to the entire interview (which is less than 30 minutes long), and we would appreciate your sharing your thoughts.
Todd Wilhelm has chimed in, and you can read his insightful post here.