“I hope abusers are listening. They don’t have the power anymore.”
When it comes to sexual abuse, we believe we are in the midst of a sea change. For far too long sex abuse victims have been silenced and even re-victimized by those who should be caring for them in the wake of a such a horrific experience.
Consider today’s sentencing of Larry Nassar, the former doctor for the U.S. gymnastics team. After more than 150 young women (whom he had victimized) publicly confronted him in court, the judge sentenced him to 40 to 175 years in prison (this is on top of the 60 years he had already been sentenced for pornography). “I just signed your death warrant,” the judge bluntly stated as she imposed the sentence.
Nine years ago as Dee and I were preparing to launch this blog, we were deeply concerned about a ‘family of churches’ called Sovereign Grace Ministries (SGM), now known as Sovereign Grace Churches. We had become aware of two websites that chronicled the many problems that plagued SGM. The comments by current and former members of Sovereign Grace churches were especially troubling. It was incredible how many of the commenters claimed to have been sexually abused or had a family member who had been molested.
Not long after launching TWW, we began to focus on sex abuse taking place in Christendom. While it’s terrible enough that it happens in the secular world, there is absolutely no place for sex abuse in the church. And congregations belonging to Sovereign Grace Ministries seemed to be riddled with abuse.
Over the years, we have written quite a few posts about SGM, which was founded by Larry Tomczak and C.J. Mahaney. Tomczak left SGM (then called “People of Destiny” or PDI International), and eventually it became known that he had been blackmailed by Mahaney. But before the secret was revealed, C.J. had developed friendships with some well-known ‘Reformed’ theologians, namely: John MacArthur, R.C. Sproul, John Piper, Ligon Duncan, D.A. Carson, Mark Dever, Al Mohler, and the list goes on… As those who have been hurt in SGM have come forward, these theologians have staunchly defended Mahaney, who will be speaking once again at the upcoming Together or the Gospel (T4G) conference.
We believe the tipping point for Sovereign Grace Ministries came when Brent Detwiler, once one of the key leaders in SGM, sent extensive documentation to Sovereign Grace pastors detailing Mahaney’s “pride, unentreatability, deceit, sinful judgment, and hypocrisy.” He was also accused of a heavyhanded rule.”
It was at this point that the Ambassadors of Reconciliation (AoR) were hired by SGM’s Board of Directors. Over a period of months they met with those who had been hurt in Sovereign Grace churches, and they conducted training sessions. The culmination of their findings was published in a 39-page Report to the Directors of Sovereign Grace Ministries (April 10, 2012).
Here are excerpts from the AoR report that stood out to us. (see screen shots below)
In hindsight, it’s apparent that the Ambassadors of Reconciliation had no interest in addressing sex abuse allegations in SGM. As stated in the report, those matters involved expertise beyond the scope of their Group Reconciliation Assistance. We doubt this was divulged during the interview process.
Several years later, The Washingtonian published an eye-opening article about Covenant Life Church (CLC), where C.J. Mahaney had pastored for 27 years. CLC had also been the flagship church of SGM. To read this eye-opening article, click on the link below.
Before the above article became available on the internet, I (Deb) was able to access it and discuss the highlights in a post entitled Remembering SGM Survivors.
TIME Magazine interviewed the reporter who wrote this The Washingtonian article and published the following piece:
In the wake of the AoR investigation, the number of churches in the Sovereign Grace network has declined. No doubt they are hoping to do more ‘church planting’ since they will be highly visible at the upcoming T4G conference.
We can’t help but wonder what would have happened with regard to SGM if the sex abuse allegations that were being shared by SGMers a decade or so ago were being revealed now, given the sea change that is occurring.
We have never forgotten those who were hurt in Sovereign Grace Ministries, and we continue to pray for their emotional and spiritual healing, as well as their restoration. Over the years, Dee and I have had the privilege of meeting some of the SGM victims and/or their parents. For our readers who may not have been following our blog when SGM was a hot topic of discussion, we thought we would share what happened to the children of “Happymom” and “Wallace”. We first published their testimony back in 2011 (shared by Wallace), and we have since gotten to know this amazing couple. This family’s tragic story will give you some idea of what those who were hurt in SGM had to endure. It is included in its entirety below.
To blog critics and all others who assert that bringing these issues to the light somehow undermines or weakens the cause of Christ, we would say the behavior of some in the leadership of Sovereign Grace Ministries does far more damage to victims of abuse and to a watching world.
We share our story with the hope that those with similar experiences will be encouraged to write their own and bring it to the light.
My wife posted numerous times on the Survivor blog under the name “Happymom.”
We left the SGM Fairfax church in May 2007 because of the overbearing emphasis on personal sin and the cross.
During 12 years as members of the Fairfax church, two of our children were sexually molested by two different people who attended the church. The molestations did not occur on church property. We had completely forgiven the perpetrators. However, the subsequent mental and spiritual anguish we endured both times in dealing with members of the Fairfax staff motivate us to write and “tell it to the church.”
Here is a brief description of how Fairfax has in the past typically handled sex abuse issues in their church. This depiction can be affirmed by numerous former members who have had similar experiences. The perpetrator of a sex crime and his family were brought under the care of a pastor. This would involve counseling, accountability sessions and possible minor restrictions regarding movement in the church during services. People “at risk” were not notified. The victim and victim’s family, however, were usually confronted with opposition from leadership by minimizing and/or invalidating particular aspects of the victim’s story.
In 1998, we discovered our child; (child-A) had been molested by a young man attending the Fairfax church. We did not press charges and regretted this later on. The father of the young man was initially uncooperative in dealing with the situation until Steve Shank stepped in to handle it. This took place during the time frame Benny Phillips was stepping down from leadership. Steve Shank addressed our sin and asked the young man to apologize.
We forgave him; however, with minor restrictions imposed by the staff, he continued to intimidate our child during Sunday services to the point where our child was fearful of going to church. The pastors involved had little to say concerning this as it didn’t appear to be a priority for them.
In October 2007, we discovered that child-B had been molested. The molestation occurred 5 years earlier. Our child revealed to us what had happened only after being hospitalized 7 days for cutting and suicidal thoughts. We eventually found out through our child’s counseling sessions that fear and shame were the two main elements for not telling us about this sooner. Cutting was our child’s way of dealing with misguided guilt and self-loathing.
We then contacted the Police Department and pressed charges. The detective assigned to the case came to the house and listened to our child’s story. The young man confessed the crime to pastor SW (CJ’s son-in-law).
We were given the impression that pastor DH had also heard the confession. Two and a half years later in March 2010, we were told he did not hear the confession. Pastor LG (our brother-in-law) was also in the loop as we had asked him to supply information requested by the detective, but no information was given. Pastor LG said to me, “Have them send the request to us in writing.” The detective told us later on that Fairfax had been “uncooperative” in the investigation…. a fact they later denied.
During the investigation, pastor DH told us they “had a dilemma” because they were caring for the young man and his family. There was no visible concern shown during this time for our child by the staff including our brother-in-law and his family. No inquiring phone calls or emails. Our child had just been discharged from the hospital. When you leave an SGM church for disagreeing with or challenging leadership in any way, all relationships you once had there are severed.
Sometime during the following months, my wife noticed her sister, (wife of pastor LG) not speaking about anything associated with our child’s legal case. She would consistently change the subject when our child was mentioned. This led to a meeting we initiated with pastor LG in January 2008. As no other logical explanation for the silence could be seen, we asked him 3 times if he had advised his wife not to discuss with her sister our child’s case. Three times he answered “No”. We were told in a future meeting by pastor VH that pastor LG was, in fact, legally instructed to inform his wife not to discuss the case with her sister for two days so that the police could complete their investigation. When this was brought up to the leadership, our questions were ignored. Pastor LG lied to us and was not held accountable.
As a result of our own research, we became aware of the fact that pastor LG’s wife was not covered under Virginia’s clergy privilege statute. According to the legal process, she could have been liable for any information she had regarding the case, and therefore could have been called to testify in court on our child’s behalf. Pastor LG (our child’s uncle) put great effort into avoiding this possibility. The truth is that this scenario presented a conflict of interest to pastor LG and members of the Fairfax staff as they were caring for the young man and his family, as pastor DH had mentioned. Exactly why this presented a conflict is a mystery.
The trial took place in March 2008. Prior to the trial, not knowing how the young man would plead, we asked pastor DH to come with pastor SW ready to give testimony on our child’s behalf, if needed. Pastor DH made it known to us that they were not coming to the courthouse. I explained to him if the young man pleaded not guilty, our child would then have to get up in front of the court and reveal the entire ordeal, along with answering questions from the attorneys. It didn’t matter; they still weren’t coming. His response to us was: “I have my church’s reputation to consider.” Not sure what pastor DH meant by this statement. In a future meeting with the Fairfax pastors, he claimed not remembering making the “church’s reputation” statement and had no recollection of emphasizing the fact that he wasn’t coming to the courthouse.
I called the detective and asked her to issue a subpoena for both pastors to appear in court. Fairfax would later claim there was no need for us to request a subpoena because one had been issued months before. It wouldn’t have made any difference if we knew this information or not. Pastor DH expressed to us they weren’t coming. They also stated in a future meeting they knew the young man would plead guilty; therefore, coming to the courthouse wasn’t necessary. In reality, there was no way of knowing how he would plead. Nevertheless, it was put back on us.
Pastor’s DH and SW were at the courthouse for the trial. Pastor LG came a few minutes before the trial and left. His wife did not come. She also didn’t make any attempts to call her sister during the days leading up to the trial. My wife was abandoned by her family. The young man pleaded guilty to a felony.…. Our child did not have to get up and speak to the court.
A short time after the trial, my wife attempted to communicate to her sister the hurt, frustration and lack of care she experienced from her sister and family, and it was put back on my wife.
What followed during the next two years included a series of meetings, phone calls and emails involving Fairfax and Covenant Life leadership, two mediators, and an SGM pastor from South Carolina.
In December 2008, our child (child-A), now 18 at the time, was greatly affected by Noel’s story after reading it on the blogs. Our adult child contacted CJ Mahaney and asked him what SGM had to say about this. Not sure what the response was, however, our adult child also described to CJ what our family had endured from the Fairfax staff and as a result a meeting was arranged.
We met with CJ and he listened to our story. He was grieved by our experience and asked permission to contact the Fairfax staff. We asked him if he had any knowledge of our story. He said he did not. Over the next few weeks we received emails from him, thanking us for the opportunity to talk with us. He assured us that the Fairfax staff desired to meet and discuss these important issues with us.
In February 2009, the first meeting was set up at our church with 5 pastors from the Fairfax church, CJ, and a neutral third party attending on our behalf. Two days before the meeting, pastor LG appeared at our door wanting to apologize to our child. We had not seen nor heard from him or his family for 11 months. We asked him what specifically he wanted to apologize for and couldn’t get a straight answer. He wouldn’t answer our questions. Given the state of emotional torment of our child and to block any further confusion, we decided it would not have been in our child’s best interest and said no.
During the meeting, the pastors apologized for not caring for us and poor leadership but avoided our questions. We left the meeting confused and with a new list of questions. A few days later we discover CJ had given our neutral third party a check for 5,000.00……
A short time after, CJ urged us to begin meeting with pastor MM to iron out our difficulties with pastor LG and his family.
It is important to mention here that although we agreed to meet with pastor MM, we were well aware of Fairfax’s intentions to separate the mishandled sex abuse issue from the personal concerns we had with Pastor LG. The opportunity to minimize the situation to a “family disagreement” had presented itself. They could now step away from the spotlight of “sex abuse issues in the Fairfax church and the way leadership typically responds,” and let the light shine elsewhere.
A number of unresolved issues with pastor LG going back many years still remain, some of which are extremely painful for my wife and me. However, in March 2009, we began meeting with pastor MM with hopes of seeing some accountability leading to possible reconciliation with pastor LG. We presented pastor MM with a list of questions for pastor LG. After 4 months of meetings and numerous emails, none of our questions were answered. However, one hard question was answered; my wife asked pastor MM why they do not warn people at risk when a known sex felon is in their church. His response was, “that perpetrator could grow up and sue us for defamation of character.” So in pastor MM’s mind, the possibility of being sued sometime in the future takes precedence over protecting children from known sex offenders. At the final meeting pastor MM said to us, “I find pastor LG to be a man of integrity.” And then he dismissed us. (Simple logic would say, if pastor LG is a man of integrity, we must be liars) We were stunned….Fairfax had once again put the issue back on us.
In a future meeting with the pastors, pastor MM apologized for not answering our questions concerning pastor LG ….but still didn’t answer them.
We contacted CJ and expressed our dissatisfaction with the meetings and final conclusion. He suggested Peacemakers. We declined. He then offered to have SGM pastor JB from South Carolina step into the arena. Our options were diminishing, but we were not going to walk away from this. For the next 8 months we spoke to pastor JB on the phone at least twice a month. Our conversations focused on the “family disagreement” and Fairfax’s response to sex abuse. We had many questions regarding both topics — questions that had already been asked a number of times and not answered. During our many conversations with Pastor JB, he assured us that Fairfax would now be handling sex abuse related issues differently. After 8 months our questions for pastor LG and a few hard questions for Fairfax were still not answered.
In March 2010, a second meeting with Fairfax leadership had taken place. Kenneth Maresco, Pastor JB, and Jim P, moderator for the SGM Refuge blog were also present. We requested that pastor LG attend as well, but he declined. When questioned about this beforehand, pastor LG said, “I do not think my presence in the meeting would be helpful.” And Fairfax backed him up on this. The meeting was arranged in part as a follow-up from our time on the phone with pastor JB. Some of our questions were answered; however, a few of pastor JB’s answers had suggested that everything was just a big misunderstanding — that somehow we misinterpreted or perhaps judged motives incorrectly regarding both pastor LG and the Fairfax staff. Also in this meeting pastor DH forgot important information and pastor VH revealed that pastor LG was, in fact, legally advised by their attorneys back in October 2007. But in the January 2008 meeting (as mentioned above), pastor LG told us 3 times that he did not tell his wife not to discuss our child’s case with her sister. And Fairfax was ok with this.
In the same meeting the pastors would not let us ask any questions related to pastor LG. It appeared they did not want to deal with the fact that he had lied to us. However, they did want to apologize a second time for not caring for us and for poor leadership. We accepted their apologies but there were still unanswered questions.
An obvious pattern can be seen throughout the story; the pastors were eager to apologize for not caring for us and poor leadership expecting us to forgive, but they would not answer our hard questions. And for some reason they were protecting pastor LG from having to account for the issues we presented. Our forgiveness was premature.
In May 2010, we accused pastor LG of lying, specifically but not limited to the January 2008 meeting we had with him, and two consecutive apology letters he had written that were filled with deceptive statements. This led to an “accusation against an elder”. Fairfax’s solution to this was to hire an outside third party mediator to settle things — a professional conciliatory Christian mediator. He was thoroughly impressed with the fact that CJ Mahaney was involved with this. We reluctantly agreed to do it and had regrets later on. I challenged Fairfax to show us where in the Bible do we find that an accusation against an elder is brought to an outside mediator who gets paid for his services. They ignored the question. They were steadfast in maintaining that the struggles we had with the church and pastor LG stay separate and confined to a “family disagreement”. The reality is that Fairfax had relinquished their responsibility in dealing with an accusation against an elder so they could walk away from the entire situation. Maybe they were afraid of uncovering pastor LG’s pattern of deception. We had two sessions totaling 9 hours in which pastor LG persisted in avoiding our questions and claimed not remembering key facts. The mediator’s summation at the end was that pastor LG had not been deceptive and that we were “sinfully craving answers” according to James chapter 4. We were put in the same category as murderers and idolaters!
How did we end up here?
We started out down this road as parents of two children who were molested and ended up being thrown into the ring with murderers and idolaters!
Only SGM could orchestrate something like this…..
Fairfax was indifferent to the fact that we disagreed with the mediator’s conclusions.
In June 2010, we had our 3rd and final meeting with Fairfax, initiated by Kenneth Maresco and pastor JB as a follow-up to the March 2010 meeting. Kenneth Maresco was not happy with the pastor’s apologies in the March meeting. Apparently, they needed to be a little more sincere. They were given the opportunity to apologize once again for the same things they had previously apologized for, not caring for us and poor leadership, but this time the apologies were more detailed.
A short time after the meeting, our final interaction with SGM was at hand. As a last ditch attempt to at least work out our family difficulties, I asked pastor LG if he would agree to meet with us and another SG pastor. He said, “That ain’t happening.” And Fairfax backed him up on this. We wanted a person he worked with to witness his response to our questions. We asked CJ, Kenneth Maresco, and pastor VH to intervene and be the witness, and they all declined.
Pastor LG’s evasive behavior, supported by a shield of protection from Fairfax, is a symptom of a much deeper problem in their governmental structure…
The Fairfax church has a history of treating victims of sex abuse and their families in similar ways mentioned in our story. We know two other cases and have talked with someone who mentioned knowing FIVE… all involving the Fairfax church. Noel and Grizzly were told by pastor MM their story had inconsistencies… “Inconsistency” is an SGM euphemism for lying. What pastor MM really meant to say was Noel and Grizzly were lying.
In the minds of SGM leadership, they hear from God and tell us what God is saying. If what ordinary people discern fails to line up with their program, they are dismissed. This way of thinking allows them to continuously reinforce their spiritual agenda on a congregation conditioned to think they are being truly humble by accepting this. Where in the New Testament do we find this type of church government?
- The faith and well-being of child-B had been severely affected by the molestation and 3 year ordeal with SGM. Our child’s professional counselors have documented the adverse affects of family abandonment and how this contributes to thoughts of guilt and shame in a young child’s mind. Our child’s perception of a loving God had been distorted.
- My wife feels the pain of family abandonment plus the abandonment of a church she was a part of for 12 years.
- Child-A is grown up and doing very well.
- For some reason Fairfax had chosen not to deal directly and not dig deeper into the claims we made concerning pastor LG. He was not held accountable for lying to us. Fairfax hired a mediator who ultimately made the decision as to who was lying and who was telling the truth.
- A few of the pastors expressed genuine sorrow for the way our child and my wife and I were treated. Their apologies are nullified because in the end we were the ones “sinfully craving answers” – murderers and idolaters according to the paid mediator’s assessment. We assumed Fairfax was in agreement with this.
- Fairfax would say our questions for pastor LG were answered. Here’s the problem; we weren’t there to hear his answers…. They were now finally able to close the door and move on to more important things.
- The Fairfax staff told us they have made significant changes in the way they now handle sex abuse issues in their church. Assuming this is true, we applaud their efforts.
- The question is how will Fairfax handle their past failures? Will they publicly confess their past sin before our family and the other families who have been hurt by their failure to lead, care, and protect, or will they remain silent and hope no one else comes forward. Will any restitution be made to the families involved?
- In light of the damage done, has anyone involved disqualified themselves from professional ministry?
- The clergy privilege statute exempts church leadership in Virginia from having to divulge any information to the authorities regarding sex crimes committed by church members. We had contacted a Virginia state senator who had been in the process of pursuing legislation to change this law.
- The actions of Fairfax leadership in handling prior sex abuse issues in their church are good examples of why this law needs to be changed. The senator from Virginia heard our story and agreed.