By Bob Allen
A Southern Baptist leader criticized for supporting a ministry colleague accused of covering up child sex abuse advised pastors June 10 to immediately dial 911 at the first report of any abuse.
“Know beforehand that if you get any report of any kind of sexual abuse — certainly involving a minor — you be committed before that ever happens, that before you leave that room you are going to dial 911 and you’re going to call for help,” Albert Mohler, president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky., said during a panel discussion between sessions of the 2014 Southern Baptist Convention annual meeting in Baltimore.
“We’re not in the position of being able to be investigative agents,” Mohler said. “That’s not our job at that level. There are young people, the vulnerable, to be protected, and you need to call.”
“If you’re not doing that, you’re not only putting those children at risk, you’re putting your entire ministry at risk,” Mohler continued. “Call. Let the authorities start to sort it out.”
“That doesn’t mean that you don’t exercise pastoral ministry and church discipline, but those are your responsibility after you have called 911, and they are a big responsibility,” he said. “One of the things we need to do is create safe places where people can come and report this kind of thing knowing that we’re going to respond in the right way.”
“This is something that churches have had to learn,” Mohler continued. “You go back 30 years, 20 years, churches didn’t know what to do in this kind of situation. We’re in a different situation now. There’s no excuse right now for not knowing what you’re going to do before you have to do it. It is a gospel ministry stewardship imperative. Be ready to dial 911, and do so before you leave the room.”
Mohler’s comments came near the end of a wide-ranging discussion of issues facing the Southern Baptist Convention sponsored by Baptist 21, an unofficial group formed in 2008 in hopes of affirming and re-energizing Baptist convictions among recent seminary graduates.
Panel moderator Jon Akin, one of the founding members of B21, asked Mohler what advice he would give pastors in light of a recent criminal trial involving a church formerly associated with Sovereign Grace Ministries.
Nathaniel “Nate” Morales was convicted May 15 of sexually abusing three boys between 1983 and 1991 while volunteering as a youth group leader at Covenant Life Church in Gaithersburg, Md.
A separate civil lawsuit currently under appeal alleges a conspiracy to cover up ongoing sexual abuse of children by leaders in Sovereign Grace Ministries. A plaintiff in the lawsuit was among a half-dozen protestors gathered outside the Baltimore Convention Center June 11 calling for an independent review of clergy abuse and cover-ups in Southern Baptist churches.
“Major leaders within the SBC have publicly supported C.J. Mahaney, my former senior pastor, now in the midst of what has been called by some in the media as the largest sex abuse scandal in the evangelical church,” plaintiff Pam Palmer said in a statement. “My daughter is just one of the many sex abuse victims from SGM under Mahaney’s watch.”
“In recent years Southern Baptist seminaries and related conferences, such as T4G [Together for the Gospel], have invited Mahaney to come and teach, while his denomination [SGM] has become embroiled in multiple court cases related to cover-up of sex abuse,” Palmer said.
Palmer said she believes that Southern Baptist leaders who continue to identify with Mahaney are in “direct violation” of a resolution passed at last year’s SBC annual meeting in Houston encouraging “all denominational leaders and employees of the Southern Baptist Convention to utilize the highest sense of discernment in affiliating with groups and or individuals that possess questionable policies and practices in protecting our children from criminal abuse.”
Susan Burke, the attorney representing 11 plaintiffs in the civil lawsuit said on the “Janet Mefferd Show” June 6 that pastors of Covenant Life Church “knew of various instances of sexual abuse” reported by alleged victims.
“They knew they had a duty to report it to the police,” Burke said. “They discussed with each other whether or not to do so, and they reached an agreement. They collectively decided that they were going to cover it up rather than bring it forward to the secular authorities. They took steps to encourage anyone who learned of it to do the same.”
During the criminal trial, former Covenant Life Church pastor Grant Layman testified that he believes he had an obligation to report abuse allegations against Morales but did not do so.
“We now have sworn testimony from one of the defendants admitting what we alleged in the complaint,” Burke said.
That will have no bearing, however, in the question before the Maryland Court of Special Appeals: whether a statute of limitations on civil action began when the conspiracy occurred or when the plaintiffs learned about it in 2011. She said a decision on the outcome will probably take months and that if she loses she plans to continue appeals until all options are exhausted.
Burke said lawyers are also in the process of assessing new allegations for a lawsuit to be filed in the “relatively near future” in Virginia on behalf of plaintiffs dismissed in the original lawsuit due to lack of jurisdiction.
Mahaney proclaimed his innocence with a statement in May, saying: “I have never conspired to protect a child predator, and I also deny all the claims made against me in the civil suit.”
Asked about Mahaney’s denial, Burke told Mefferd: “If you look at the contrast between what C.J. Mahaney and the various church leaders have stated about flat denial, and then you look at the sworn, under-oath testimony that came out in the Morales trial, you see a clear discrepancy.”
“We are hopeful we will get to a trial, in which case all the testimony will be under oath, and we believe that we have the evidence needed to prevail,” Burke said.
Mohler, Mahaney and two other preachers co-founded Together for the Gospel, a biennial preaching conference popular with a new Calvinist movement that goes by names including “young, restless and reformed.”
Mahaney did not speak at this year’s gathering, saying he did not want attention to the lawsuit to be a distraction, but was photographed at the event seated alongside program participants on the front row.
Last year Mohler joined Together for the Gospel co-founders Mark Dever and Ligon Duncan in a statement that appeared briefly on the ministry website vouching for Mahaney’s “personal integrity” in light of the lawsuit allegations.
“A Christian leader, charged with any credible, serious and direct wrongdoing, would usually be well advised to step down from public ministry,” the statement said. “No such accusation of direct wrongdoing was ever made against C. J. Mahaney. 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.”