A three-part Houston Chronicle/San Antonio Express-News newspaper story about widespread sexual abuse in the Southern Baptist Convention has prompted one powerful leader to apologize for his past defense of a ministry colleague accused of conspiracy in a high profile lawsuit dismissed on a legal technicality in 2013.
Albert Mohler, president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky, apologized for “serious errors” in his handling of concerns surrounding C.J. Mahaney, former head of Sovereign Grace Churches and along with Mohler one of four organizers of a lucrative biennial Calvinistic preaching conference and book-selling opportunity called Together for the Gospel.
In a statement dated Feb. 15 — the same day the Houston Chronicle quoted Mohler saying in an interview he regrets his embrace of Mahaney and making a joke downplaying the seriousness of the allegations while introducing Mahaney at T4G in 2016 – Mohler said he severed all personal and ministry ties with Mahaney when the issue resurfaced last year.
Mahaney, pastor of Sovereign Grace Church in Louisville, Kentucky, withdrew from speaking at the conference in 2014, saying he didn’t want his presence to be a distraction. That was due to a class action lawsuit in Maryland claiming that he and fellow ministers at his former church and ministry conspired to cover up allegations involving 13 alleged perpetrators and 11 child victims between 1982 and the filing of the lawsuit.
The allegations never made it to trial, because a judge ruled the plaintiffs waited too long to file a legal claim under the state’s time-barred statute of limitations. Press coverage such as a February 2016 article in the Washingtonian magazine, however, helped convince legislators of a need to change the law.
“C.J, in getting ready to introduce him, I decided I would Google to see if there was anything on the Internet about him…. I now know it to be true, because I read it about C.J.”
After the lawsuit’s dismissal Mohler and the two other Together for the Gospel co-founders issued a joint statement vouching for Mahaney’s “personal integrity” and explaining why they continued to stick up for their friend.
“A Christian leader, charged with any credible, serious, and direct wrongdoing, would usually be well advised to step down from public ministry,” the online statement later removed without explanation said in part.
“No such accusation of direct wrongdoing was ever made against C. J. Mahaney,” the three leaders said. “Instead, he was charged with founding a ministry and for teaching doctrines and principles that are held to be true by vast millions of American evangelicals. For this reason, we, along with many others, refused to step away from C. J. in any way. We do not regret that decision. We are profoundly thankful for C. J. as friend, and we are equally thankful for the vast influence for good he has been among so many Gospel-minded people.”
David Clohessy, then national director of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, objected at the time.
“It’s dreadfully hurtful to child sex-abuse victims when people in authority publicly back accused wrongdoers, and it hinders criminal investigations, because it intimidates victims, witnesses and whistleblowers” Clohessy said in May 2013.
“Support Rev. Mahaney if you must,” said Clohessy, one of just four abuse survivors to testify before the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops at their historic meeting in Dallas in 2002. “But do so privately in ways that don’t further harm, depress and scare other child sex-abuse victims into keeping silent and thus helping child predators escape detection and prosecution.”
Before joining the statement defending Mahaney, Mohler was one of 77 evangelical leaders addressed in an open letter asking them to stop inviting Mahaney to speak at religious gatherings until allegations against him were proven either true or false.
Mahaney withdrew from the Together for the Gospel conference in 2014, citing bad publicity.
“Unfortunately, the civil lawsuit filed against Sovereign Grace Ministries, two former SGM churches and pastors (including myself), continues to generate the type of attention that could subject my friends to unfair and unwarranted criticism,” Mahaney said in a statement issued in July 2013.
Criticism came anyway, after a photo of Mahaney seated alongside Mohler and other conference speakers in the front row at the 2014 T4G conference circulated on survivor blogs popping up across the Internet.
Mahaney reappeared at T4G 2016 – prompting protesters to carry signs outside the KFC Yum! Center in downtown Louisville – where he was introduced by Mohler.
“C.J, in getting ready to introduce him, I decided I would Google to see if there was anything on the Internet about him,” Mohler said to audience laughter heard on recorded audio. “And that’s where I discovered, having discovered this on the Internet, that C.J. cheers for the Washington Redskins and the Washington Nationals and against the Dallas Cowboys, the New York Yankees and Duke basketball.”
“That is a section that is entirely missing from any biographical material on me, but I now know it to be true, because I read it about C.J.,” Mohler said.
Mohler said in his apology statement Feb. 15 that his words referred to “the general fog of information on the Internet” at the time and “I did not even grasp the context I was speaking into.”
“This was wrong, a serious error, and caused hurt to the victims and survivors who felt their suffering had been trivialized and dismissed,” he said. “It was wrong, and I must say so without excuse or minimization. I would never make such a comment again.”
Mahaney planned to be on hand for T4G in 2018 but withdrew after Rachael Denhollander — the first woman to publicly accuse former Michigan State and USA Gymnastics doctor Larry Nassar of using his position to sexually abuse more than 150 women – described evangelical churches as “one of the least safe places to acknowledge abuse.”
Denhollander told Christianity Today in January 2018 she had to leave a former church “directly involved in restoring” Mahaney to ministry when elders told her and her husband “that it wasn’t the place for us,” indicating they had no interest in taking their objections seriously.
“When you support an organization that has been embroiled in a horrific 30-year cover-up of sexual assault, you know what that communicates to the world and what it communicates to other enablers and abusers within your own church,” she said. “It’s very obvious that they are not going to speak out against sexual assault when it’s in their own community.”
Denhollander set up a public Facebook page to continue her argument that churches are often worse than secular institutions when it comes to holding people who commit sexual abuse accountable.
“It is my own mistakes that, in large part, are driving my sense of urgency to respond clearly and forcefully to the problems in the SBC which the Houston Chronicle has detailed.”
“Penn State University is a byword for sexual assault scandals, yet it took Penn State a mere six days to commission a truly independent investigation into the circumstances surrounding Jerry Sandusky,” Denhollonder said on social media last March. “It took Michigan State University an excruciating 17 months to finally request a similar investigation into the Larry Nassar case.”
“Yet, it has been more than seven years and Sovereign Grace has steadfastly refused this sort of accountability in the face of multiple instances of abuse within the organization, even though they have been asked multiple times to clear the air.”
Mohler said it was her documentation and a meeting with her and her husband, who is studying at Southern Seminary for his Ph.D., that “fundamentally changed my understanding of the issue.”
Mohler said when he defended Mahaney in 2013 he wrongly believed Sovereign Grace Churches had fully investigated the matter. Adding that to the lawsuit dismissal and his own personal dealings with Mahaney, he said, “I frankly was not equipped to sift through the allegations and did not grasp the situation.”
“I should have said nothing until I had heard from the survivors who were making those allegations,” Mohler said in his statement Feb. 15. “I should have sought advice and counsel of agencies and authorities and experts who were even then on the front lines of dealing with these kinds of allegations.”
Denhollander said on Facebook she is “deeply grateful” for Mohler’s statement, but others say it it doesn’t go far enough.
Conservative Christian talk show host Janet Mefferd called Mohler’s apology “incomplete,” describing in a blog a story she said he has not shared before.
While covering the Sovereign Grace scandal in 2013, Mefferd said she was “blindsided” by executives from her former radio network’s corporate headquarters saying they had received a call from Mohler’s office complaining that Mahaney whistleblower Brent Detwiler – the man who wrote the 77 evangelical leaders — was an unreliable source.
“I told the executives the full story about the SGM scandal, including the fact that Mahaney’s lawyer had been invited on my show to tell his side of the story but had declined to appear,” Mefferd wrote. “I also relayed to them that Mohler and Mahaney were good friends, that they co-founded T4G, and that Mohler’s seminary had financially benefited from donations from Mahaney. For example, Mahaney’s name is listed as a Southern Seminary Distinguished Associate donor on page 36 in the linked seminary publication; this classification of donor is given to those individuals or groups who donate $10,000 or more to SBTS.”
“I informed them that the scope of the SGM scandal meant significant coverage was warranted and that Detwiler’s role as an early leader of SGM and investigator into the scandal made him a perfectly appropriate person to interview on the matter,” she continued. “I further told them that I thought it wholly inappropriate and unethical for anyone to try to influence my coverage of a news story on my show who has a vested personal — and, arguably, financial — interest in how that coverage is executed.”
She said one executive asked if she would be open to suggestions from Mohler’s office about guest interviews in future programs. A few days later, she said, the same executive came back recommending a Sovereign Grace pastor who called the accusations against Mahaney a “witch hunt” and advised his church members to “refuse to read or listen to the divisive speech” Detwiler and others “continue to spread.”
Mefferd said she declined to invite the pastor to her show and never received any more “Mohler-approved guest recommendations” after that.
Detwiler said on his blog Feb. 16 “there is a lot more” that Mohler “needs to acknowledge in terms of his unqualified defense of C.J. Mahaney from 2011-2018” and suggested he do it as a guest on Mefferd’s program.
“This kind of good ole boy ‘leadership’ needs to end,” Detwiler said. “C.J. has been treated with extreme partiality and shown extraordinary favoritism. The clear teaching of God’s word has been transgressed for years. There are scores of leaders who need to own their ungodly support of Mahaney and Sovereign Grace Churches, Inc. because they refused to study the evidence and believed the deceptive talking points put out by Mahaney and his enablers.”