By Bob Allen
Southern Baptist leaders in a movement that goes by names including the “New Calvinism” and “young, restless and Reformed” voiced support for a friend and colleague accused in a Maryland lawsuit of collusion in what is being called American evangelicalism’s biggest sex scandal to date.
Albert Mohler, president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky., and Mark Dever, pastor of Capitol Hill Baptist Church in Washington, D.C., joined Presbyterian minister Ligon Duncan in a statement of support for C.J. Mahaney, one of several defendants accused of permitting and covering up the sexual abuse of children in churches affiliated with Sovereign Grace Ministries, a Calvinist church-planting organization based in Louisville, Ky.
“We have stood beside our friend, C. J. Mahaney, and we can speak to his personal integrity,” the trio, who with Mahaney started a biennial preaching conference called Together for the Gospel in 2006, said in a statement on the T4G website.
Dever, Duncan and Mohler said they have wanted to speak publicly on Mahaney but waited until after Maryland Judge Sharon V. Burrell dismissed most of the lawsuit on a technicality. She ruled that nine of 11 plaintiffs did not sue within three years after turning 18 as required under Maryland’s statute of limitations.
Washington lawyer Susan Burke, who filed the lawsuit on behalf of the alleged victims, said they knew about the statute from the outset and tried to overcome it with a conspiracy theory that the judge rejected. She disagreed with the ruling and planned to appeal, and the two remaining plaintiffs must file a third amended complaint to clarify allegations against the remaining defendants.
“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 their statement.
“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.”
“For this reason, we, along with many others, refused to step away from C. J. in any way,” they continued. “We do not regret that decision. We are profoundly thankful for C. J. as friend, and we are equally thankful for the vast influence for good he has been among so many Gospel-minded people.”
Bloggers following the scandal reacted to the statement with disapproval. The Wartburg Watch, started by North Carolina bloggers Dee Parsons and Wanda Martin to track troubling trends in evangelical Christianity, accused Mahaney’s supporters of “utter disregard” for victims and called their defense “absolutely unconscionable.”
Amy Smith, Houston representative of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, called it an example of “selective outrage,” where Southern Baptist leaders speak out on issues like opposition to same-sex marriage and allowing gay youth to be Boy Scouts but are silent when it involves one of their own.
Bob Hadley, pastor of Westside Baptist Church in Daytona Beach, Fla., who blogs at SBC Issues, contrasted the reaction to Mahaney’s problems to recent concerns that Louisiana College and Campbellsville University were not renewing contracts of Calvinist professors.
He predicted more of the same model as Calvinism gains more control in the SBC: “Do not renew a Calvinist’s contract and be ready for an onslaught of criticism. If you are part of the club, we will stand by you, no matter what.”
The lawsuit alleges that Mahaney and other SGM leaders knew about sexual abuse of children occurring in homes and on church property but did not report it to legal authorities. Instead church leaders insisted on handling the problem internally in the name of “church discipline,” a practice of confronting and correcting sin adapted from Bible verses including Matthew 18:15-17.
At Sovereign Grace Ministries, the lawsuit alleges, that meant that victims as young as 2 were summoned to meetings with their molester and told to forgive them for their sins. Victims and parents were told not to call the police, because civil authorities cannot be trusted in disputes between Christians. When church members ignored that advice, they were put out of the church for “gossip,” while sex offenders remained with access to children in pursuit of restoration.
The suit says church leaders interfered with legal processes by misinforming victims’ families about when to show up for court dates and telling authorities they were speaking on behalf of victims without being authorized to do so.
As pastor of one of the churches named in the lawsuit and until recently president of Sovereign Grace Ministries, Mahaney is accused of knowing what was going on and advising subordinates on how to handle incidents of abuse.
“What everyone has told us is that C. J. Mahaney for many, many years was the authority within the church, and that there wasn’t a church rule or doctrine or habit or custom that he did not approve of and participate in,” plaintiff attorney Bill O’Neil said recently on the Janet Mefferds Radio Show.
“So as the head of the church, it seems that it’s impossible for someone to have that level of involvement and not know what was going on,” O’Neil said. “Now some of that is going to be subject to our ability to question him in discovery and to gain access to their files, which we have not had the opportunity to do yet.”
Brent Detwiler, a former associate to Mahaney and now a leading critic, said criminal investigations are now underway ranging from obstruction of justice to rape.
Mohler, Dever and Duncan declined to comment on the specific allegations in the lawsuit, but said a minister’s first response should be to inform law enforcement and act to protect the child or young person and “then to proceed to biblical church discipline when the facts demand such a response.”
“If a Christian leader is accused of any wrongdoing, those to whom he is accountable must investigate the charges and then deal responsibly with the evidence,” they said. “If a criminal accusation is made, Christians have a fundamental duty to inform law enforcement officials. This does not, however, preclude or mitigate the church’s responsibility for biblical church discipline.”
Boz Tchividjian, a professor of law at Liberty University School of Law and grandson of Billy Graham, said evangelical leaders’ silence about Mahaney “was deafening and spoke volumes.”
While hoping to hear voices speaking out or expressing grave concerns about the allegations in the SGM lawsuit, Tchividjian said he found instead a lot of statements by Christians claiming that all of the individuals were innocent until “proven guilty by a jury.”
As executive director of Godly Response to Abuse in the Christian Environment (GRACE), Tchividjian says he has heard that before. The problem, he said, is that the same individuals don’t approach any other sinful crime in the same way.
“For example, so many Christians will cry out against abortion doctors who have been alleged to have killed babies outside of the womb (horrific), but when a person alleges child sexual abuse by someone in the Church, these same Christians cry out that a person is innocent until proven guilty by a court of law,” he wrote.
“Of course a person or institution can only be held legally responsible under civil law when that has been determined by a court of law,” Tchividjian said. “I don’t think anyone has suggested otherwise. However, does this mean that a jury is required in order to determine the existence of evil?”
Peter Lumpkins, a blogger and minister in Carrollton, Ga., recently announced plans to introduce a resolution at the upcoming SBC annual meeting urging denominational leaders to disassociate from public figures accused in criminal or civil litigation involving sexual abuse.
In their statement, however, Dever, Duncan and Mohler said: “If the filing of civil litigation against a Christian ministry or leader is in itself reason for separation and a rush to judgment, no ministry or minister is safe from destruction at any time. Furthermore, the effort to try such a case in the court of public opinion prior to any decision rendered by an authorized court is likewise irresponsible.”