C.J. Mahaney, Pastor Accused of Covering Up Child Sex Abuse, Returns to Spotlight at Together for the Gospel Conference; Victims and Protesters Denounce Albert Mohler’s Praise of Mahaney

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Pastor C.J. Mahaney and his network of churches faced protests from victims groups last week after the controversial pastor came back in the public eye.

“I know in this room that C.J. Mahaney has 10,000 friends,” said Albert Mohler Jr. at Together for the Gospel 2016 last week, a Calvinist conference that regularly draws big names and large crowds.

The April 12-14 gathering held at the KFC Yum! Center in Louisville, Kentucky, became the focus of controversy when it invited Mahaney, the senior pastor at Sovereign Grace Church in Kentucky, to speak. He and other pastoral colleagues have been accused of covering up child sex abuse in their churches. The lawsuit against them was eventually dismissed on a technicality.

Maybe the irony wasn’t lost on Together for the Gospel organizers and attendees, that a conference whose 2016 theme was to celebrate the “Protest” in “Protestants” was itself under protest. Organized by SNAP, the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests(recently featured in the movie Spotlight), the demonstrators included ex-members of Sovereign Grace Ministries. Letters were written; petitions were created.

“By allowing C.J. Mahaney to speak in an international place of prominence,” wrote SNAP in a letter to Together for the Gospel on March 31, “you are inadvertently sending a message to all sexual abuse victims—and in particular those from within Sovereign Grace Churches—that their trauma is not worth your consideration.”

Mahaney’s life work was born out of the Jesus movement of the 1970s, a charismatic revival movement built on prayer meetings and filled with Christian hippies. Mahaney was one of those hippies. Around 1980, he officially co-founded Covenant Life Church with his friend, Larry Tomczak, in Gaithersburg, Maryland. This became the flagship for an association of church plants best known as Sovereign Grace Ministries. Today they are called Sovereign Grace Churches. Sovereign Grace’s culture incorporates a strong emphasis on homeschooling, patriarchy, and corporal punishment, the latter based on the teachings of Tomczak and his book, God, the Rod, and Your Child’s Bod (1982).

Trouble originally began for Mahaney in June of 2011, when he temporarily left then-Sovereign Grace Ministries after complaints were made of “pride, unentreatability, deceit, sinful judgment, and hypocrisy.” He was also accused of a heavyhanded rule. Mahaney stepped aside, he said, to re-evaluate his life and leadership. But after an internal review process and affirmation by the board, he returned to his position as president of the ministry early the next year.

A blog, SGM Survivors, became the outlet to tell the story of ex-members, including the accusations of sexual abuse and an authoritarian leadership.

A civil suit was filed in 2012, accusing Mahaney and other Sovereign Grace pastors of covering up the sexual abuse of children. The amended complaint from 2013 painted a portrait of a closed community that acted as its own court.

“Defendants failed to report known incidences of sexual predation to law enforcement, encouraged parents to refrain from reporting the assaults to law enforcement, and interposed themselves between the parents of the victims and law enforcement in order to mislead law enforcement into believing parents had ‘forgiven’ those who preyed on their children…Defendants’ repeated acts and omissions created a culture in which sexual predators were protected from accountability and victims were silence.”

The case was eventually dismissed in 2013 due to the statute of limitations in Maryland and an appeal was denied by the Maryland Court of Appeals the following year. Sovereign Grace Ministries engaged in another internal review and denied there were any efforts to cover up crimes. Mahaney left his presidency at Sovereign Grace the same year. According to reports, Susan Burke, legal representation for those in the dismissed case, plans to bring a new suit in Virginia—where there aren’t statute of limitations restraints—on behalf of those with claims of abuse in that state.

In 2013, The Together for the Gospel leadership, Mark Dever, Ligon Duncan, and Albert Mohler, issued a statement standing behind Mahaney and vouching for his integrity. But by 2014, the uproar over his ministry was loud and led him to drop out of that year’s conference. Mahaney, who is generally quiet about the accusations, has publicly expressed his grief for those who suffered, but rejects the claims about his ministry.

“I have never conspired to protect a child predator,” he wrote in 2014, “and I also deny all the claims made against me in the civil suit.”

The story of the Sovereign Grace Church scandal, however, was far from being over. 

Since the original dismissal of the civil lawsuit in 2013, there have been convictions and new charges against members in the SGC. In 2014, for example, a jury in Maryland found Nathaniel Morales, an active member at Covenant Life Church, guilty of molesting three teenage boys. His former pastor at Covenant, Grant Layman, admitted under cross-examination that he should have reported what he knew. No new suits against Mahaney have been made.

In February of this year, the Washingtonian published an expose on the ministry (“The Sex-Abuse Scandal That Devastated a Suburban Megachurch: Inside the rise and fall of Sovereign Grace Ministries”). And most recently, on March 16, Covenant Life Church member Larry Ellis Caffery was charged with nine counts of child sexual abuse and two of false imprisonment.

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SOURCE: The Daily Beast – Brandon Withrow