By Bob Allen
A network of Reformed church plants accused in a class-action lawsuit of covering up sexual abuse of children appealed to a First Amendment defense in a statement Nov. 14.
Sovereign Grace Ministries, which recently relocated from Maryland to Louisville, Ky., in the wake of recent internal strife, initially declined comment until receiving a copy of the lawsuit filed Oct. 17 in Montgomery County, Md.
An “updated” statement by Tommy Hill, Sovereign Grace’s director of administration, said the organization could not comment on specific allegations in the lawsuit, but upon review “it appears the complaint contains a number of misleading allegations, as well as considerable mischaracterizations of intent.”
Hill said the lawsuit, which does not allege child abuse by any current or former pastor involved with the network of about 90 churches, involved “biblical and spiritual direction” given by request of those seeking counsel.
“This care was sought confidentially, as is a right under the First Amendment,” Hill said. “We are saddened that lawyers are now, in essence, seeking to violate those rights by asking judges and juries, years after such pastoral assistance was sought, to dictate what sort of biblical counsel they think should have been provided.”
The lawsuit, filed by three unidentified women, says Sovereign Grace counselors advised admitted child molesters on how to avoid prosecution and forced children as young as 3 to meet with their abusers for “reconciliation.
Church leaders allegedly failed to report suspected abuse to police and encouraged parents to do the same. The suit claims Sovereign Grace “cared more about protecting its financial and institutional standing than about protecting children, its most vulnerable members.”
The new statement on the ministry website said allowing the courts to second-guess a church’s pastoral guidance “would represent a blow to the First Amendment that would hinder, not help, families seeking spiritual direction among other resources in dealing with the trauma related to any sin including child sexual abuse.”
“Child sexual abuse is reprehensible in any circumstance, and a violation of fundamental human dignity,” the statement said. “We grieve deeply for any child who has been a victim of abuse. SGM encourages pastors from its associated churches to minister the love, grace and healing of God to any who have suffered this horrific act.”
Hill said Sovereign Grace is “committed to integrity and faithfulness in pastoral care” and takes seriously “the biblical commands to pursue the protection and well-being of all people — especially children, who are precious gifts given by the Lord and the most vulnerable among us.”
He said the Bible also commands “fully respecting civil authority to help restrain evil and promote righteousness as Romans 13 instructs us,” and that SGM “encourages the establishment of robust child protection policies and procedures based on best practices.”
Hill said attorneys are working on a formal legal response.
Formed in 1982 out of Covenant Life Church in Gaithersburg, Md., Sovereign Grace Ministries recently moved its headquarters to Louisville following a period of controversy over the leadership of founder C.J. Mahaney, a prominent figure in the Reformed or Neo-Calvinist movement popular in conservative evangelical circles including the Southern Baptist Convention.
A stated reason for settling on Louisville was proximity to Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. Mahaney has worked closely with Southern President Albert Mohler on projects including Together for the Gospel, a biennial conference they and two other preachers started in 2006, and the Council for Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, which is based on the Southern Seminary campus.
Mahaney recently launched Sovereign Grace Church of Louisville, the first of the network’s churches in Kentucky or neighboring Indiana. The current pastors of his former church, Covenant Life Church, recently decided to end their 30-year association with Sovereign Grace Ministries and asked church members to vote in support of their decision between Nov. 21 and Dec. 12.