01.27.13

Calvary Chapel’s Tangled Web

A pastor whose family was murdered in New Mexico belonged to a large association of evangelical churches that, critics allege, stands behind misbehaving pastors and looks away when they are accused of sexual abuse and other misdeeds.

Greg Griego, who was slaughtered along with his wife and children, allegedly by his 15-year-old son, Nehemiah, last week near Albuquerque, was a beloved minister. A born-again gang member, he seemed to serve anywhere he would be had: as a minister in Albuquerque’s fire department, at a detention center, and in the prison ministry at Calvary Albuquerque, a megachurch affiliated with the Calvary Chapel network of more than a thousand similar churches. After allegedly committing the horrific crimes, Nehemiah reportedly spent hours hanging around Calvary Albuquerque, telling church members his family died in a car accident.

The Albuquerque massacre wasn’t the first time lately that a Calvary Chapel–affiliated church found itself part of a grim news cycle. Calvary is one of several large evangelical denominations beginning to draw national attention as lawsuits pile up over abuses allegedly covered up by pastors and church leaders. Over the past decades, Calvary has been plagued with accusations ranging from unaccountable leadership to covered-up sexual abuse, raising questions similar to those faced by Roman Catholic hierarchy about what kind of role the church’s top leaders were playing behind the scenes.

Unlike the centralized, bureaucratic Catholic Church, some upstart evangelical denominations have less explicit authority structures that remain opaque even to members. Because networks of churches like Calvary Chapel and Sovereign Grace often have an ostensibly informal relationship with the flagship church, denominational leaders can find themselves in the difficult position of having to take responsibility for the abuses of an affiliate church—or, more often, refusing to do so.

This tension is especially acute in Calvary Chapel, where pastors are given a great deal of individual authority, but it seems have sometimes found senior Calvary leaders asserting their prerogative in doctrinal, financial, or administrative matters. Turned off by the micromanaging he saw in other evangelical denominations, Chuck Smith, Calvary's founder, developed a church model based on near-absolute sovereignty of the senior pastor. “I feel my primary responsibility is to the Lord,” he explained to Christianity Today in 2007. “And one day I'm going to answer to him, not to a board of elders.” Though Smith described church budgeting as a collective process to Christianity Today, Calvary Chapel pastors have little requirement to disclose church finances to members or even other leaders, according to other Calvary members who say they were given the cold shoulder when they asked for more information.

Though Smith’s Calvary “distinctives” (PDF) exalt the authority of individual pastors, Calvary churches are never completely exempt from meddling by Smith or other powerful figures in the movement. One of those figures is Skip Heitzig, the founding pastor of Calvary Albuquerque, and perhaps the most prominent public face of the evangelical community’s mourning of Greg Griego, who also served as a pastor there.

The story of Heitzig’s exit from and return to Albuquerque is a perfect example of how “independent” Calvary churches can be quite entangled with the larger movement, both structurally and financially. When Heitzig departed to pastor another Calvary church in California, he chose Pete Nelson as his successor. Heitzig remained on the board of Calvary Albuquerque, and, with the help of other board members who did not live in New Mexico but were also powerful Calvary leaders, tried to force financial decisions on the Albuquerque church, according to the Christianity Today report.

Critics allege that Calvary leaders intervene in disputes, especially involving its financial assets, and then claim no affiliation when their underlings are accused of covering up misdeeds.

Heitzig attempted to create a “mega-board” that would place the Albuquerque church and its two radio stations under his own management, according to Christianity Today. Nelson eventually resigned, citing Heitzig’s attempts to concentrate power in his own hands and push out dissenters. A group of five church members, including a professor at the University of New Mexico, created a group to call for increased accountability from the church’s leadership. Greg Zanetti, a former church elder and general in the New Mexico National Guard, also went public with accusations that Heitzig had moved expensive stage equipment from Albuquerque to his new church in California and had forced Calvary Albuquerque to subsidize Heitzig’s money-losing radio program. 

Nelson’s departure led to an uproar in the Albuquerque church, with nearly 2,000 members signing a petition supporting Nelson, and others publicly questioning Heitzig’s lack of financial accountability. Heitzig resigned from the Albuquerque board—with his supporters reportedly handing him a severance of more than $300,000—only to return as senior pastor a year later. Heitzig denied (PDF) the accusations of abusing his authority.

Chuck Smith has injected himself into conflicts in other Calvary churches, almost always on the side of authorities accused of abuses. According to the Christianity Today investigation, Smith protected several Calvary pastors who were accused of having affairs and sexually harassing women on the grounds that they were “great Bible teachers” who would be “totally destroyed” if they weren’t helped by the church. Smith rehired at least two leaders who had been fired by other Calvary churches for sexual misconduct. According to Christianity Today, another employee of one of Smith’s churches in California, who was arrested for having sex with a 15-year-old girl, had already been fired from a different ministry at Smith’s church for having sex with a woman on church property. Smith denies that the employee’s initial firing was sex-related, but several leaders and pastors confirmed it to Christianity Today.

Back in 1994, according to reports in Christianity Today and the Los Angeles Times, Smith intervened when a Calvary church in Idaho wanted its pastor, Mike Kestler, to take a leave of absence amid multiple accusations of sexual harassment from female members. Kestler was, at the time, a star player in Calvary's growing radio network. Smith finally said he believed the charges when the pastor was sued a decade later by Lori Pollit, a Dallas Cowboys cheerleader who claimed Kestler had fired her from a job at the radio network when she refused his sexual advances. Smith funded the cheerleader’s lawsuit, leading to an epic legal battle between Smith and Kestler over the radio network. Smith eventually offered to settle, and Kestler still runs the network.

The accusations kept getting tawdrier, but, still, Calvary has seemed willing to stand behind its men. In 2010 Alex and Paul Grenier, two sons of a Calvary pastor in Visalia, Calif., alleged that their stepfather, Bob Grenier, had horrifically beaten and abused them as children. They claimed they were not allowed to see the police report they filed because their father, who works as a police chaplain, had clout with local law enforcement. When the report was finally disclosed by court order, Alex and Paul told the Fresno Bee that their accounts of the abuse to police had been “watered down” to make them appear less incriminating. Bob Grenier sued Alex in 2012, accusing him of mounting “cyber-bully hate campaign” and libeling him on the Internet. In the filing, Grenier denies allegations that he sexually molested Paul and that he stole money from his church. According to Smith, he has also denied physically abusing his stepsons.

Alex Grenier has published an account of a meeting with Smith and a Calvary lawyer, in which Smith and other Calvary officials denied any affiliation with or responsibility for Bob Grenier’s behavior. In the blog post, Alex wrote that despite their supposed “independence,” other Calvary pastors have had their official affiliation with Calvary revoked over theological differences. Responding to a suit against several local churches in Arizona, Calvary lawyers argued (PDF) that the Arizona court lacked jurisdiction in the case because of Calvary’s “ecclesiastical structure”—namely, that Calvary churches were accountable to the central organization and that the ones accused in the suit were already involved in a “disciplinary process” within the Calvary structure.

In July 2012 Smith dissolved Calvary’s central organization and divided up Calvary’s churches under regional leadership (though Calvary retains a central “leadership council”). Smith commented publicly on the Grenier case in a radio confrontation in which he accused Alex of “doing his best to bring down the work of God through the Calvary chapels because he’s got a bee in his bonnet.” Smith said that he had examined the materials Alex provided but could not find proof of his stepfather’s abuse. On the same program, Smith said, “I don’t have any authority over [Bob Grenier] anyhow.”

Meanwhile, Smith’s Calvary Chapel Outreach Mission, which at the time acted as the denomination’s central organization, was denying its responsibility in an even more sordid legal battle. In 2011 four young men sued both a Calvary church in Idaho and Smith’s “mothership” in Costa Mesa, Calif., alleging that Calvary leadership had protected a pedophile youth minister who molested them as boys. The suit reportedly claimed that the accused pedophile, Anthony Iglesias, had been previously removed from a Calvary ministry in California and sent home from a Thailand mission trip for sexual misconduct with boys, and that the churches allowed him continued access to children despite knowing his history. One of the accusers alleged that when his parents approached Robert Davis, the senior pastor of the Idaho church, about Iglesias’s inappropriate contact with their son, Davis said, “Yeah, we knew. That’s why we pulled him out of Thailand.”

Iglesias was convicted of molesting two of the plaintiffs, but their case against Calvary was dismissed. (The young men's lawyer, Tim Kosnoff, told The Daily Beast that he would never take a sex-abuse case in Idaho again because the state’s court system is “very hostile to sexual-abuse victims and very friendly to perpetrators and institutions that enable them.”) Other Calvary pastors have been removed when they were convicted of similar crimes. In 2011 Dino Cardelli, senior pastor of Calvary Chapel Arcata, Calif., was convicted of sexually abusing his two stepdaughters; later in the year, after pastor Christopher Raymond Olage was arrested for allegedly molesting an 8-year-old girl and keeping child pornography on his computer, the Calvary name was dropped from the website of his church in Buena Park, Calif. Olage pleaded not guilty, and the case is currently pending. 

In the Iglesias case, the central Calvary organization again reportedly played the “no authority” card, arguing that there was no connection between Calvary Chapel Outreach Fellowship, the central organization, and the Idaho affiliate. Alex Grenier and other church critics have argued that this fits a pattern: Calvary leaders intervene in disputes, especially involving its financial assets, and then claim no affiliation when their underlings are accused of covering up misdeeds.

Clearly, Smith and other Calvary leaders are able, at the very least, to put pressure on affiliate churches to investigate wrongdoing, or get rid of abusive leaders. But Smith only seems to have the response he gave Alex Grenier in their radio confrontation: “We did everything we could.”