The former head of a Reformed, charismatic evangelical ministry is backing out of a biennial preaching conference he helped found, citing renewed controversy over a sexual abuse scandal involving his former church.
C.J. Mahaney, senior pastor of Sovereign Grace Church of Louisville, Ky., announced March 7 he will withdraw from the 2018 Together for the Gospel scheduled next month. Mahaney, a T4G founder, said he does not want his presence to be a “distraction” for those attending the sold-out event at the KFC Yum! Center in downtown Louisville.
Mahaney’s decision comes days after Rachael Denhollander — the woman lauded for mentioning her Christian faith in testimony against former USA Gymnastics team doctor Larry Nassar — renewed attention to a class-action lawsuit naming him and his former church in Maryland thrown out of court in 2014 due to statute of limitation.
Eleven people — most of them identified by pseudonyms — sued Mahaney and other leaders of Covenant Life Church in Gaithersburg, Md., in 2012 alleging decades of sexual and physical abuse of young children from the 1980s forward.
The dismissed lawsuit claimed that Mahaney’s church and another congregation aligned with Sovereign Grace Ministries (now Sovereign Grace Churches) routinely discouraged victims of child sexual abuse from calling the police so elders could deal with the allegations internally as a matter of church discipline.
Each of the families assumed theirs was an isolated event, until similar accounts began showing up on a “survivor” blog for former SGM members in 2011.
Mahaney co-founded Sovereign Grace Ministries in 1982 and was pastor of Covenant Life Church from 1988 until 2007. He resigned as president of Sovereign Grace Ministries in 2013 to plant Sovereign Grace Church in Louisville, Ky.
Mahaney said at the time he chose Louisville in part to be near Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. Southern Seminary President Albert Mohler and Mahaney co-founded Together for the Gospel in 2006, along with Mark Dever, pastor of Capitol Hill Baptist Church in Washington and founder of 9Marks Ministries, and Ligon Duncan, a Furman University graduate who now serves as chancellor and CEO of Reformed Theological Seminary.
In 2014, Mahaney said he would not participate in the conference due to publicity over the high profile case, but a photo circulated on the Internet showed him seated beside plenary speakers on the front row.
Mahaney returned to the T4G platform in 2016, introduced by Mohler with the welcome, “I know in this room that C.J. Mahaney has 10,000 friends.”
In announcing his withdrawal from this year’s conference, Mahaney said the decision is not an admission of guilt.
“I am innocent of the allegations that have been made against me personally, and the recent, public characterizations of Sovereign Grace as a whole are absolutely false,” Mahaney said. “I categorically reject the suggestion that I have ever conspired to cover up sexual abuse or other wrong-doing.”
Denhollander responded on Facebook that she was “deeply grieved” by Mahaney’s statement, because it does nothing to address lingering concerns never addressed because the lawsuit did not make it to trial.
Denhollander, a trained attorney who passed the California Bar Exam, says there is evidence that during the time Mahaney led Sovereign Grace Ministries, the organization “had an internal policy of not reporting sexual assault allegations to law enforcement, and instead handling them internally.”
Elders of SGM churches, she said Feb. 9, “did, in fact, follow this internal policy and did not report sexual assault allegations, did not warn congregants of known sexual predators, and did not place limitations on known predators to prevent additional access to children.”
Three of the elders directly involved in known instances of failure to report, she said, were close relatives of Mahaney — two brothers-in-law and a son-in-law. As senior pastor, Mahaney was supervisor of all the elders named in allegations contained the lawsuit.
Denhollander, a stay-at-home mom whose husband is pursuing a Ph.D. at Southern Seminary, first mentioned Sovereign Grace Ministries publicly in an interview about her Nassar testimony with Christianity Today.
Describing evangelical churches as “one of the least safe places to acknowledge abuse,” Denhollander said she was forced out of her former church “directly involved in restoring” Mahaney to the ministry.
Denhollander said March 7 she is not asking anyone to sit as “judge and jury” over Mahaney or anyone else.
“What I have said, and plead for again, is that we treat these concerns as the serious concerns they are, and require of ourselves what we require of every other secular institution,” she said. “That the truth be sought, and accountability be pursued, through an independent investigation into SGM’s handling of sexual and domestic violence allegations.”
“As Christians who speak to the necessity of accountability, transparency and the pursuit of truth and right, should we not be the first to submit ourselves to the same processes we call for secular institutions to follow?” she asked. “And if the sexual assault of children is not important enough to motivate us to pursue these Biblical aims, what will be?”