By Bob Allen
The mother of a child sex abuse victim who is suing a Maryland ministry with ties to leaders in the Southern Baptist Convention said June 11 that a “good-old-boy” network among evangelical preachers is just as effective in covering up clergy predators as the Catholic hierarchy.
“It’s almost like a mafia system,” Pam Palmer, a plaintiff in a class-action lawsuit heard June 9 by the Maryland Court of Special Appeals, said in a media event staged outside the SBC annual meeting in Baltimore by the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests.
“To me, as a Bible-believing Christian, it should not be that way,” Palmer said of an alleged conspiracy to conceal child abuse by Sovereign Grace Ministries, an evangelical network of churches that during internal strife moved its headquarters from Montgomery County, Md., to Louisville, Ky., in part because of proximity to Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.
“They have come out very publicly in support of Sovereign Grace Ministries,” Palmer said. That concern brought her to Baltimore for a demonstration prodding Southern Baptist officials “to take child sex abuse cases more seriously and take strong steps now to safeguard innocent children and vulnerable adults from those who commit and conceal clergy sex crimes.”
The sidewalk press conference and flier handout was arranged by SNAP, the nation’s oldest and largest support group for survivors of clergy sexual abuse.
SNAP is asking the SBC, the nation’s second-largest faith group behind Roman Catholics, to hire independent experts to review child sexual abuse scandals, immediately respond to child sexual abuse reports with openness and compassion and hire outside experts to study of the feasibility a denomination-wide database of clergy predators.
The SBC Executive Committee responded to a motion requesting such a study in 2007 with an internal probe that recommended against the idea, saying the denomination lacks authority to police autonomous Southern Baptist congregations.
“The Southern Baptist Convention is doing the same thing Sovereign Grace Ministries has done,” Palmer said in describing her reason for linking up with SNAP in the SBC protest.
Palmer said “there is no doubt in my mind” that C.J. Mahaney, founder and former head of Sovereign Grace Ministries, knew of a conspiracy to discourage the reporting of sexual abuse to outside authorities and instead handle it internally as a matter of “church discipline” during his 27 years as senior pastor of Covenant Life Church in Gaithersburg, Md.
“I just know how it was run,” said Palmer, an active member in the church for 23 years. “It was run with a very strong hand of leadership,” she said, with group leaders reporting to pastors who in turn reported to senior pastors up the chain of command.
When she learned her 3-year-old daughter was sexually abused in 1993, she said, pastors advised her not to call the police, but the family had already done so.
She said at the time “there was no reason given” for the counsel, but later church leaders said it was to not cause further harm to her daughter.
If that is so, Palmer’s daughter, Renee Gamby, wondered why six months after her abuse she was re-victimized by a “reconciliation” meeting organized with her abuser “as if a 3-year-old was supposed to forgive the perpetrator.”
“I was absolutely terrified,” she recalls vividly at age 24. “As soon as I could, I crawled under my mom’s chair.”
Gamby’s story is one of several recounted in sometimes graphic detail in a lawsuit dismissed by a trial court because Maryland law requires sex abuse victims to file lawsuits within three years of turning 18. Gamby described the statute of limitations as “antiquated” and said it protects only predators.
Experts say delayed reporting of child sexual abuse is a common and normal reaction from someone who has experienced traumatic events. Sometimes the secret is kept for decades.
Gamby said what prompted her family to break silence was when a number of former church members with similar stories came into contact and perceived a pattern of alleged minimizing and non-reporting of sexual abuse by church leaders in 2011.
Southern Seminary President Albert Mohler and prominent Southern Baptist pastor Mark Dever of Capitol Hill Baptist Church in Washington, responded to allegations in the lawsuit with a public statement vouching for the “personal integrity” of Mahaney, a ministry colleague who with Presbyterian pastor Ligon Duncan co-founded a biennial preaching conference called Together for the Gospel.
“A Christian leader, charged with any credible, serious and direct wrongdoing, would usually be well advised to step down from public ministry,” Dever, Duncan and Mohler said in a statement later removed without comment from the T4G website.
“No such accusation of direct wrongdoing was ever made against C. J. Mahaney,” they 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.”
Palmer said she doesn’t understand why Southern Baptist leaders so quick to speak out on controversies such as the Jerry Sandusky scandal at Penn State seem so circumspect when it involves one of their own.
She said SBC pundits have been similarly silent about John Langworthy, a former staff member at Morrison Heights Baptist Church in Clinton, Miss., and Prestonwood Baptist Church in Dallas, convicted of molesting multiple boys in the 1980s.
Prestonwood Pastor Jack Graham, who came to the now multisite church with its main campus in Plano, Texas, just before church leaders reportedly fired Langworthy for sexual misconduct with minors but did not call police, is a former SBC president.
Greg Belser, the pastor of Morrison Heights Baptist Church, which investigated the recently discovered allegations against Langworthy but refused to share the findings with secular authorities, has been honored with recent denominational leadership roles. The most recent was membership on this year’s SBC Resolutions Committee, which drafted pronouncements on social issues including the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act, payday lending and transgender identity.
“If it’s a good-old-boys club at the expense of children, we know what Jesus said they should do,” Palmer said. “Have a millstone around their neck.”
After attending Monday’s hearing Palmer said she is “hopeful” the lawsuit will move forward, but if not the plaintiffs intend to continue appealing to a higher court.