Dismissed abuse lawsuit headed for appeal

Alleged victims in what has been called the biggest evangelical abuse cover-up to date will get a day in court seeking to overturn a lower court’s ruling that they had to file their lawsuit within three years of turning 18.

By Bob Allen

A lawsuit described as the biggest evangelical sex abuse scandal to date is headed for appeal, a year after being dismissed on a technicality, elders of the church involved informed members in a letter dated April 22.

Elders of Covenant Life Church in Gaithersburg, Md., said a lawsuit dismissed by a district judge in May 2013 due to statute of limitations will be heard by the Maryland Court of Special Appeals in early June.

The lawsuit originally filed in October 2012 and amended in 2013 alleges a decades-long conspiracy that led to numerous children being sexual abused on church and school property by employees and volunteers.

It accuses church leaders of colluding “to suppress the reporting of sexual abuse to civil authorities, to interfere with the prosecution of child abuse and to prevent other church members from learning of past reported child abuse.”

The case attracted attention among Southern Baptists because of personal ties of one of the alleged conspirators to high-profile leaders in the Southern Baptist Convention.

Albert Mohler, president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, and Mark Dever, pastor of Capitol Hill Church in Washington, released a public statement of support for Covenant Life Church and Sovereign Grace Ministries founder C.J. Mahaney in May 2013 that was widely criticized.

It prompted one Georgia pastor to present a resolution adopted at the Southern Baptist Convention annual meeting that June urging “denominational servants, entity leaders and our trustee boards to sever all ties, whether official or unofficial, with any evangelical organization, fellowship of ministers, and/or celebrity leader who, presently or in the past, is facing criminal and/or civil litigation for neglecting moral or legal obligations to protect the little children whom Jesus said suffer to follow Him.”

Mahaney, who stepped down last year as head of the church-starting network he began 30 years earlier, is, with other plaintiffs, accused of failing to report known or suspected abuse of children to police, treating it instead as a matter of “church discipline” to be handled within the congregation.

The lawsuit claims Sovereign Grace leaders conspired to “permit sexual deviants to have unfettered access to children for the purpose of predation and to obstruct justice by covering up ongoing and past predation.”

Alleged victims say when incidents were reported, pastors tried to play down their seriousness to other church members, counseled with perpetrators about how to avoid prosecution and falsely told authorities that parents did not want to prosecute.

Nate MoralesNate Morales, one of a number of alleged child predators mentioned in the civil suit, is scheduled to stand trial May 12-16 in criminal court on 14 counts of sex crimes between 1985 and 1990 at Covenant Life Church. Two of the church’s pastors have been subpoenaed for the criminal trial.

The civil lawsuit claims that Morales’ reputation as a sexual predator was so well known by the early 1990s that during a group discussion of high school boys about remaining “pure,” some of the students said it was “too late” for them. One commented, “Yeah, Nate got me, too.” A youth leader cautioned the boys against talking about the facts and reported the matter to a pastor.

Montgomery County Circuit Court Judge Sharon V. Burrell dismissed the lawsuit in May 2013 without addressing the allegations of abuse. She ruled that under Maryland’s statute of limitations the alleged victims had to sue within three years of turning 18, and the deadline had passed for those under her jurisdiction.

Susan Burke, the attorney representing the alleged victims nationally known for battling sexual abuse in the military, objected that in a case involving “civil conspiracy,” the statute doesn’t accrue until the plaintiffs knew or reasonably should have known about the conspiracy in 2011, when a number of church members began to suspect a cover-up.

The lawsuit claims that church leaders admitted during a meeting in 2011 “that they had placed protection against lawsuits over and above the safety of children.”