Critics question support of former ministry head accused of covering up abuse

A criminal trial has renewed interest in a civil lawsuit pending appeal alleging a massive cover-up of sexual abuse in a ministry with ties to high-profile Southern Baptists.

By Bob Allen

Thursday’s conviction of a former youth leader at a church in Maryland has renewed calls that evangelical leaders cease promoting a ministry colleague accused in a class-action lawsuit of conspiring to cover up sexual and physical abuse of children.

Nathaniel Morales, 56, who most recently served as a pastor in Las Vegas, was convicted of three counts of sexual abuse of a minor and two counts of sexual offense by a jury in Montgomery County, Md. He will be sentenced Aug. 14 and faces up to 85 years in prison.

Morales was found guilty of abusing three boys from 1983 to 1991 while working with youth ministries and conducting Bible studies for Covenant Life Church in Gaithersburg, Md. Other charges are pending.

During the trial, longtime executive pastor Grant Layman testified that he should have reported alleged abuse to police in 1992 but did not. Morales left shortly thereafter and ended up in Nevada, where he married a woman with five sons from a previous relationship. After his arrest, the woman filed for divorce, and now says she believes her ex-husband may have harmed other children after leaving Maryland.

"I think we've come to realize that's not the right way to deal with these matters,” Montgomery County State’s Attorney John McCarthy told ABC affiliate WJLA television in Arlington, Va.

Jeremy Cook, a victim of Morales who testified during the trial, said he thinks there are people in Covenant Life Church “that have a bit to answer for.”

“They left this predator on the street when they had knowledge, and ultimately they'll have to answer to that, whether it be to the courts or whether it be to God,” said Cook, now a married father of three.

Until last year Covenant Life Church belonged to Sovereign Grace Ministries, an 80-church network based in Louisville, Ky., formerly led by C.J. Mahaney, Layman’s brother-in-law and a longtime ministry associate to Southern Baptist leaders active in a neo-Calvinist movement that goes by names including “young, restless and Reformed.”

mahaney and friendsAlbert Mohler, president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, and Mark Dever, pastor of Capitol Hill Baptist Church in Washington and founder of 9Marks Ministries, associate with Mahaney in Together for the Gospel, a biennial preaching conference that they and Presbyterian pastor Ligon Duncan first coordinated in in 2006.

Mahaney withdrew from leadership for this year’s conference, due to his being named in a class-action civil lawsuit alleging his participation in what has been described as possibly the largest sex abuse scandal in American evangelical history, but was photographed at the recent gathering in Louisville seated on the front row alongside conference speakers including Mohler.

Comments by Mohler requested by ABPnews/Herald have not yet been received.

Brent Detwiler, a Mahaney critic, called it “unconscionable” for religious leaders to continue to support Mahaney in light of evidence that he “manage[d] a conspiracy to cover up sex abuse for over 30 years.”

The mother of an alleged victim of the cover-up criticized “insensitivity and callousness” on the part of Mahaney and his supporters.

“What other conclusion can observant people come to when they see a disgraced (yet undisciplined) leader sitting in the front row at such a prominent event other than the men sitting with him approve of his 30-plus year record of covering up child sex abuse?” asked Pam Palmer, mother of a plaintiff in the Sovereign Grace Ministry abuse lawsuit.

Todd Wilhelm, an air traffic controller in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, who withdrew from a 9Marks-affiliated church there after he upset church leaders by saying he could not in good conscience promote books written by Mahaney, recapped past statements of support in a May 14 blog posting titled “Mahaney has no clothes.”

“These leaders display either an appalling lack of discernment or a love of fame and fortune which overrides any concern for the brothers and sisters they are pastoring,” Wilhelm commented. “Either way one must question the wisdom of continuing to follow these celebrities.”

Together for the Gospel responded to publicity over the abuse lawsuit with a public statement expressing unqualified support for Mahaney’s integrity. The posting subsequently disappeared without explanation.

Last June the Southern Baptist Convention adopted a resolution on sexual abuse, amended on the floor to encourage denominational leaders to “utilize the highest sense of discernment in affiliating with groups and or individuals that possess questionable policies and practices in protecting our children from criminal abuse.”

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