The Church Child Sex Abuse Scandal Widens and Deepens
Frederick Clarkson printable version print page     Bookmark and Share
Sat May 25, 2013 at 08:22:57 PM EST
In a recent post, I discussed the apparent lack of sufficient seriousness with which the Southern Baptist Convention and the Catholic Bishops still treat the matter of child sex abuse by clergy. The Associated Baptist Press picked-up on that post and added that while the SBC insists there is nothing it can do, it has nevertheless added a resource page on its national web site for local churches to deal with the matter.  Its not much, but its a start.  

But the scandal of the Louisville, KY-based Sovereign Grace Ministries, which began as a national network of  charismatic evangelical churches but eventually adapted a Reformed theology -- suggests that the problem of child sex abuse and the seemingly inevitable cover-up in conservative churches -- is a pattern that is deep and wide.  And part of that pattern is that too many leaders enable the abusers with their silence, their refusal to consider that the accusations might be true, and/or their efforts to silence the victims.  Child abuse investigator Boz Tchividjian thinks the silence of Evangelical leaders regarding child sex abuse in evangelical churches is not only "deafening" but speaks "volumes".

Indeed. It speaks volumes about the character and moral vision of the leaders of the conservative denominations that comprise the base of the Christian Right.

Sovereign Grace Ministries (SGM) has been in the news due to the accusations (and a related lawsuit) that its leader C. J. Mahaney has been involved in the cover-up of child sex abuse, among other scandals.

The lawsuit was recently dismissed because most of the victims were deemed by the judge to have waited beyond the statute of limitations. (The judge's ruling is being appealed.) There is a statute of limitations for many crimes, but there is no statute of limitation on accountability.  Organizations of victims of these powerful institutions such as SGM Survivors, SNAP (the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests) and Stop Baptist Predators pose a tremendous threat to the leaders who coverup past abuses and continue to enable abusers in the present.  

Indeed, although the suit was dismissed on a technicality, a number of evangelical leaders were quick to defend Mahaney.

"We have stood beside our friend, C. J. Mahaney, and we can speak to his personal integrity," wrote Al Mohler, president of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary; Ligon Duncan, pastor of First Presbyterian Church of Jackson, Miss.; and Mark Dever, pastor of Capitol Hill Baptist Church in Washington, D.C.

Someone really ought to ask these distinguished evangelical leaders about the meaning of "personal integrity."  

"But not everyone is rushing to Mahaney's defense," Sarah Pulliam Baily of Religion News Service reported.  

Boz Tchividjian, a law professor and executive director of Godly Response to Abuse in the Christian Environment (GRACE), which has investigated sex abuse allegations, found omissions in the pastors' statement.

"Why no mention that CJ Mahaney was actually the Senior Pastor at one of these churches where all of this horrific abuse allegedly occurred AND that [he] discouraged these families from bringing this matter to the God ordained civil authorities?...   Omitting such a fundamentally important fact from this statement is a fundamental error."

Tchividjian is the grandson of evangelist Billy Graham and the brother of Tullian Tchividjian, pastor of Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., and another leader of the Reformed evangelical movement

"This lawsuit is less about the abuse and more about an institution that took steps to protect itself and its reputation over the victimized souls (and bodies) of little ones," Boz Tchividjian wrote.

Writing at Religion Dispatches in March, T.F. Charleton details the grievances of many former GSM members, and how GSM continues forward the authoritarian cult abuses of the "shepherding movement" of the 1970s and 80s, and spawned such leaders of the New Apostolic Reformation as Lou Engle and Che Ahn.  

I was not surprised when Sovereign Grace Ministries (SGM), the church group I grew up in as a teen and young adult, was served with a lawsuit this past October, alleging clergy cover-ups of sexual abuse.

Sadly, I was even less surprised when the suit was amended in January to include Covenant Life Church (CLC), the congregation I had attended for nine years, and to add new charges of physical and sexual abuse by pastors, as well as allegations of abuse on church property. From what I'd seen inside Sovereign Grace and Covenant Life from 1996-2005, the alleged abuse seemed almost predictable--the result of the group's toxic teachings on parenting, gender, and sexuality.

Sovereign Grace is a U.S.-based church-planting network (they say "family") of predominantly white, suburban, reformed evangelical congregations. C.J. Mahaney, the current president, and Larry Tomczak--today a pastor at Bethel World Outreach Church in Brentwood, Tennessee--co-founded the Gaithersburg, Maryland church that would become Covenant Life in 1977. It was the first in what would become a network of 91 churches across 25 states and 17 countries. And it would launch the careers of several conservative Christian activists, including Lou Engle, whose ministry The Call has played a significant role in exporting American religious homophobia to Uganda, as well as Che Ahn, president of the charismatic Harvest International Ministries. Both men were among Covenant Life's early leaders.

For his part, former prosecutor Boz Tchividjian denounces the silence of evangelical leaders and accuses them of de facto complicity in the crimes of SGM.

Here are a few excerpts from his jeremiad:

This past week, I have fluctuated between anger and tears as I read about Christian leaders who proclaim the Gospel with their voice, but remain silent and/or defensive about the horrors of child sexual abuse within the Church.  These leaders have once again, and perhaps unwittingly, demonstrated the art of marginalizing individual souls for the sake of reputation and friendships.

Earlier this week, I read the second amended complaint filed by eleven plaintiffs against SGM, two churches, and a number of individuals, including a man named CJ Mahaney....   it is one of the most disturbing accounts of child sexual abuse and institutional "cover up" I have read in my almost 20 years of addressing this issue.  Besides the horrific accounts of child victimization (some of which allegedly occurred on church property), what struck me most about these allegations is the systematic efforts by these churches to discourage and sometimes prevent the families of children who had been victimized by church officials from speaking out and reporting to law enforcement.  Another aspect that struck me as I read (and re-read) through this complaint were the myriad of common threads related to the efforts made by these SGM churches to silence these survivors.

 

I should hasten to add that as I previously reported, while no one is perfect, the mainline Protestant denominations have done and continue to work hard to prevent and to address these problems if and when they occur than their self righteous conservative counterparts.

By way of contrast, let's also consider that the liberal mainline Protestant denominations -- the ones that respect the moral capacity of women to determine their reproductive life, and many of which not only welcome LGTB people, who are then treated with dignity and equality, but may serve in leadership roles -- do not turn a blind eye to the problems, but also seek to prevent and address child sex abuse by clergy and others.  

These include, among others, Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, Presbyterian Church, USA, United Church of Christ (PDF), The Episcopal Church, and the United Methodist Church as well as the Unitarian Universalist Association.  What's more, the progressive Religious Institute has resources for religious organizations considering developing policies and programs in this area, and consults with those who are looking to improve their policies and performance.

My question is the same as last month:   Can the SBC, the Catholic Bishops -- and Sovereign Grace Ministries -- be taken seriously on anything else when they cannot get it together to actively protect children from sex predators -- especially their own clergy?




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by Frederick Clarkson on Sun May 26, 2013 at 03:08:58 PM EST


It may be important to point out that the churches and ministries named above are not just generically "evangelical" but are highly authoritarian and practice some form of what used to be called "shepherding" or "discipling."

For example, Mahaney and Tomczak spoke at Maranatha Campus Ministries conventions and events back in the 1980s.  Both Sovereign Grace and Maranatha were descended from and directly influenced by the Shepherding movement. It is no accident that Tomczak eventually landed at Bethel World Outreach Center, pastored by former MCM top evangelist Rice Broocks.

While it is no longer called shepherding and no longer even discipling but "accountability," these ministries are structured almost like MLM networks where each member is under the authority of a leader or pastor.  Top pastors are assumed to have almost godlike authority over their flock and are to be obeyed and "respected" without question. Obviously this kind of almost cultic authoritarian structure invites abuse of all kinds--emotional, spiritual, physical, sexual.  And that abuse is also covered up in order to protect the leaders... there is a teaching about being an "armor bearer" where followers are supposed to protect their leaders at all costs, since those leaders are agents for God on earth.

And obviously there are parallels with parts of the Catholic Church, at least the more neoconservative segments of the church where authority is more strictly exercised.  I have heard Rice Broocks and other Every Nation ministers talk highly of Catholic approaches to authority and in a sense the senior pastor in these churches and networks are like popes. This does not mean that all clergy are abusers, or even all conservative clergy.  Though, sadly, the extreme authoritarianism that used to be seen as, well, extreme by most Christians and relegated to just a few fringe groups has been so mainstreamed it has become normative among many American evangelicals. Abuse doesn't occur unless one has the power to abuse IMO.  And these kinds of churches and these kinds of teachings invest a huge amount of power in their leaders... where they become almost God Himself to their congregations and followers.

These particular ministers are mostly all early second gen Shepherding... they had direct ties with or were directly influenced by the original "fab five" Shepherding leaders.  So they aren't typical evangelicals in a more broad sense.

by ulyankee on Tue May 28, 2013 at 03:38:21 PM EST


In addition to the imbroglio of his mistress and the ultimate killing of his wife, SBC Texas minister [Hewitt, TX] twice was cited for "inappropriate touching" in his youth-group activity, that publicly, and another time was cited as well for sexual indiscretion with another youth. Had the 48 Hours presentation not been about unwinding a murder primarily, more matters of youths could have surfaced. He was surely a sexual predator using his church-attachment as a shield.

by achbird65 on Mon May 27, 2013 at 11:27:19 AM EST
Kathryn Casey has a good book about the pastor's case, "Deadly Little Secrets."

by khughes1963 on Thu May 30, 2013 at 10:30:03 AM EST
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