By Bob Allen
A Southern Baptist Convention official criticized bloggers commenting on a recent criminal trial for jumping to conclusions about allegations that a popular Calvinist speaker with ties to SBC leaders conspired to withhold reporting of child sex abuse to police.
Joe Carter, director of communications for the SBC Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, chastised bloggers in Twitter exchanges for slander and trying to exploit a tragedy by intimating that C.J. Mahaney — a co-founder of Together for the Gospel with Southern Baptists Albert Mohler and Mark Dever — was aware of unreported sex crimes while serving as senior pastor of Covenant Life Church in Gaithersburg, Md., during the 1980s and 1990s.
Mahaney’s brother-in-law, Grant Layman, longtime executive pastor at Covenant Life Church, testified under oath that he failed to report sexual abuse by Nathaniel Morales, convicted May 15 of sexually abusing three boys at the church from 1983 until 1981, to police.
Critics said the admission supports allegations in an earlier civil lawsuit alleging that leaders of Covenant Life and other congregations affiliated with Sovereign Grace Ministries, a church-planting network started and formerly led by Mahaney, repeatedly responded to reports of sexual predation of children by teaching that no Christian should bring a brother to court but that the church should mediate through a process called church discipline.
A class-action lawsuit originally filed in October 2012, and twice amended, claims that church members were taught to distrust secular authorities and that to discuss abuse allegations with other church members amounted to gossip. When authorities were called, it alleges, church leaders helped accused predators avoid arrest, while requiring victims as young as 3 to meet with and “forgive” their abuser.
Church members dissatisfied with the process, the lawsuit alleges, were told they had become the problem because they were unforgiving and preoccupied with the legal system. The lawsuit was dismissed last year due to a legal technicality but is under appeal with oral arguments expected in early June.
Mahaney recently broke silence with a statement saying he could not say much about a pending lawsuit but making clear that “I have never conspired to protect a child predator, and I also deny all the claims made against me in the civil suit.”
Two parties using pseudonyms in the lawsuit disputed that assertion, claiming they met three times with Mahaney in 2009 to discuss their daughter’s molestation and their church’s decision to minimize its handling as a “family disagreement.”
Morales, 56, is expected to be sentenced to 60 years in prison. Because of that, the State of Maryland decided it is not in the interest of “judicial prudence” to proceed with further criminal charges still pending against him.
One alleged victim issued a statement clarifying he isn’t backing down from his claims that Morales sexually abused him as a teenager. In the civil lawsuit he said that he mentioned it in front of a youth worker in context of a group Bible study but didn’t lodge a formal complaint because he feared being forced to sit and “reconcile” with and “forgive” Morales.
The lawsuit describes one alleged victim who had just turned 3 so frightened by such a confrontation that she tried to escape by crawling under a chair.
Carter’s boss, ERLC President Russell Moore, recently advised a group of pastors that while sexual abuse is a matter for church discipline, church leaders also have an obligation to “Caesar” to immediately report any suspicion to secular authorities.
Mohler, president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, and Dever, pastor of Capitol Hill Baptist Church in Washington, were criticized last year for publicly stating online their confidence in Mahaney amid unproven allegations in the lawsuit. The statement later disappeared without explanation.
The Southern Baptist Convention later passed a resolution urging denominational leaders to exercise “discernment” about publicly identifying with groups or individuals with questionable polices regarding sexual abuse.