By Bob Allen
A Christian radio host says it’s time for evangelical churches to wake up to an “epidemic” of sexual abuse of children going on in their midst.
“I don’t know how long evangelicalism can ignore this problem,” host Janet Mefferd said Oct. 18 on her syndicated radio show from Dallas, heard daily on over 100 stations across the nation. “I really don’t.”
The segment included an interview with Susan Burke, the attorney representing three anonymous women in a lawsuit alleging a cover-up of sexual abuse by Sovereign Grace Ministries, a Calvinist church-planting network with close ties to Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky.
Mefferd said she wasn’t talking just about the Sovereign Grace lawsuit, because those allegations are unproven, but about the “appalling” number of hits that can be generated any day by typing terms like “sexual abuse” or “sexual assault” along with “pastor,” “minister” or “church.”
“This is an epidemic going on in churches,” Mefferd said. “I’m looking at these other stories, and I’m thinking, ‘When are evangelicals going to wake up and say we have a massive problem in our own churches?’”
“So much ink was spilled on the Catholic Church abuse scandal, and it should have been, but we act as if it’s not happening in our own churches,” she said. “It’s happening in our own churches every single day, and I am finding it harder and harder to find people who will talk about this.”
A class-action lawsuit filed Oct. 17 in Montgomery County, Maryland, claims that Sovereign Grace Ministries, a network of about 80 churches formed in 1982, “cared more about protecting its financial and institutional standing than about protecting children, its most vulnerable members.”
“The church failed to report known incidences of sexual predation to law enforcement, encouraged parents to refrain from reporting the assaults to law enforcement, and interposed themselves between the parents of the victims and law enforcement in order to mislead law enforcement into believing the parents had ‘forgiven’ those who preyed on their children,” the lawsuit alleges.
The complaint says those acts and omissions were not isolated events but rather part of “a culture in which sexual predators were protected from accountability, and victims were silenced.”
The lawsuit claims Sovereign Grace was on notice that sexual predation of children was occurring under its auspices as early as 1987, including allegations against the son of a high-ranking church leader, but did nothing to protect the children under its care.
It claims church leaders failed to alert law enforcement that abuse was occurring, directed members not to report sexual assaults to the police and provided sexual predators with free legal advice and counsel on how to evade accountability and mislead law enforcement.
“They imposed their own misguided views on what is the appropriate path, and they tried to prevent prosecution and punishment in the secular world,” Burke, a personal-injury lawyer best known for representing plaintiffs suing the American military and military contractors including Blackwater, told Mefferds.
Burke said she decided to file the lawsuit as a class action because of the subject matter and how traumatic it is for people to come forward. “Even just since we’ve filed we’ve had a few more folks reach out to us as well,” she said. “Sadly, it’s not just the three.”
Burke cited parallels with other high-profile molestation cases such as Penn State’s attempted cover-up of the Jerry Sandusky pedophilia scandal. “What you see is that institutions end up elevating their own reputational and financial interests over vulnerable children,” she said.
The lawsuit accuses Sovereign Grace of negligence, intentional infliction of emotional distress, conspiracy to obstruct justice and misrepresentation.
Sovereign Grace Ministries recently moved its offices from Gaithersburg, Md., to Louisville, Ky., in part to strengthen ties with Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. Sovereign Grace founder C.J. Mahaney and seminary President Albert Mohler have worked together on projects including Together for the Gospel, an annual conference for young pastors, and the Council for Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, which is based on the Southern Seminary campus.
Mahaney has spoken several times on campus, most recently Aug. 23 at a conference on Strengthening Your Marriage in Ministry. He is also active in the Gospel Coalition, a group of neo-Calvinist church leaders that includes several high-profile Southern Baptists.