By Bob Allen
Eleven plaintiffs seeking a day in court to prove that leaders of an evangelical church-planting network conspired to cover up sexual abuse of children were dealt a blow June 26, when a Maryland Court of Special Appeals dismissed their case for the second time due to legal technicalities.
Judge Deborah S. Eyler in Annapolis, Md., said an appeal of a lower court’s dismissal of a lawsuit against leaders of Sovereign Grace Ministries was filed prematurely, before final adjudication of claims by two of the 11 plaintiffs. The plaintiffs say they were sexually abused as children in the 1980s and 1990s but didn’t realize there was a conspiracy until silos of silence around them broke down in 2011.
Judge Sharon Burrell of Maryland’s Montgomery County Circuit Court ruled May 23, 2013, that nine of the 11 alleged victims waited too long after their abuse to sue. In Maryland, claims based on injury caused by sexual abuse of a child that do not meet certain legal criteria must be brought within three years after the victim turns 18.
Burrell said the two youngest plaintiffs, who were 17 and 18 when the lawsuit was filed, could not sue in Maryland because the acts they allege involved defendants in Virginia. She gave them 10 days to file a third amended complaint involving only the defendants under her jurisdiction in Maryland. After that deadline passed, Judge Burrell issued a final order closing the case on Aug. 12, 2013.
For that reason, the appellate judge determined, a notice of appeal filed June 14, 2013, was premature and under Maryland law her court has jurisdiction only “when the appeal is taken from a final judgment or is otherwise permitted by law, and a timely notice of appeal was filed.”
“The only notice of appeal filed in this case, on June 14, 2013, was filed prematurely, before the entry of a final judgment,” Eyler ruled, citing legal precedent that “premature notices of appeal are generally of no force and effect.”
The plaintiffs’ lawyer, Susan Burke, told the Christian Post she would file motions both to reconsider and appeal to a higher court. Burke, a Baltimore litigator known for high-profile cases involving fraud by military contractors and sexual abuse in the military, said in an interview on Christian radio in June that new litigation will be filed in Virginia in the “relatively near future.”
Mark Prater, executive director of Sovereign Grace Ministries, reaffirmed the group’s May 20, 2013, statement claiming the organization found no evidence of any conspiracy or cover-up of sexual abuse and denouncing “sexual abuse of any kind, especially against children.”
Observers have termed the Sovereign Grace lawsuit the largest evangelical abuse scandal to date. It has garnered attention in Southern Baptist Convention circles because of long-standing personal bonds between the ministry’s founder, C.J. Mahaney, and key leaders in the “young, restless and reformed” new Calvinism embraced by many SBC leaders.
Mahaney, who is named in the lawsuit, in the past sponsored Together for the Gospel, a biennial preaching conference, with co-sponsors including Albert Mohler, president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, and Mark Dever, pastor of Capitol Hill Baptist Church in Washington.
When internal challenges to Mahaney’s leadership arose in 2012, Sovereign Grace Ministries relocated from Maryland, its home base for 30 years, to Louisville, Ky., in part because of proximity to Southern Seminary.