“I know in this room that C.J. Mahaney has 10,000 friends,” said Albert Mohler Jr. at Together for the Gospel 2016 last week, a Calvinist conference that regularly draws big names and large crowds.
The April 12-14 gathering held at the KFC Yum! Center in Louisville, Kentucky, became the focus of controversy when it invited Mahaney, the senior pastor at Sovereign Grace Church in Kentucky, to speak. He and other pastoral colleagues have been accused of covering up child sex abuse in their churches. The lawsuit against them was eventually dismissed on a technicality.
Maybe the irony wasn’t lost on Together for the Gospel organizers and attendees, that a conference whose 2016 theme was to celebrate the “Protest” in “Protestants” was itself under protest. Organized by SNAP, the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (recently featured in the movie Spotlight), the demonstrators included ex-members of Sovereign Grace Ministries. Letters were written; petitions were created.
“By allowing C.J. Mahaney to speak in an international place of prominence,” wrote SNAP in a letter to Together for the Gospel on March 31, “you are inadvertently sending a message to all sexual abuse victims—and in particular those from within Sovereign Grace Churches—that their trauma is not worth your consideration.”
Mahaney’s life work was born out of the Jesus movement of the 1970s, a charismatic revival movement built on prayer meetings and filled with Christian hippies. Mahaney was one of those hippies. Around 1980, he officially co-founded Covenant Life Church with his friend, Larry Tomczak, in Gaithersburg, Maryland. This became the flagship for an association of church plants best known as Sovereign Grace Ministries. Today they are called Sovereign Grace Churches. Sovereign Grace’s culture incorporates a strong emphasis on homeschooling, patriarchy, and corporal punishment, the latter based on the teachings of Tomczak and his book, God, the Rod, and Your Child's Bod (1982).
Trouble originally began for Mahaney in June of 2011, when he temporarily left then-Sovereign Grace Ministries after complaints were made of “pride, unentreatability, deceit, sinful judgment, and hypocrisy.” He was also accused of a heavyhanded rule. Mahaney stepped aside, he said, to re-evaluate his life and leadership. But after an internal review process and affirmation by the board, he returned to his position as president of the ministry early the next year.
A blog, SGM Survivors, became the outlet to tell the story of ex-members, including the accusations of sexual abuse and an authoritarian leadership.
A civil suit was filed in 2012, accusing Mahaney and other Sovereign Grace pastors of covering up the sexual abuse of children. The amended complaint from 2013 painted a portrait of a closed community that acted as its own court.
“Defendants failed to report known incidences of sexual predation to law enforcement, encouraged parents to refrain from reporting the assaults to law enforcement, and interposed themselves between the parents of the victims and law enforcement in order to mislead law enforcement into believing parents had ‘forgiven’ those who preyed on their children…Defendants’ repeated acts and omissions created a culture in which sexual predators were protected from accountability and victims were silence.”
The case was eventually dismissed in 2013 due to the statute of limitations in Maryland and an appeal was denied by the Maryland Court of Appeals the following year. Sovereign Grace Ministries engaged in another internal review and denied there were any efforts to cover up crimes. Mahaney left his presidency at Sovereign Grace the same year. According to reports, Susan Burke, legal representation for those in the dismissed case, plans to bring a new suit in Virginia—where there aren’t statute of limitations restraints—on behalf of those with claims of abuse in that state.
In 2013, The Together for the Gospel leadership, Mark Dever, Ligon Duncan, and Albert Mohler, issued a statement standing behind Mahaney and vouching for his integrity. But by 2014, the uproar over his ministry was loud and led him to drop out of that year’s conference. Mahaney, who is generally quiet about the accusations, has publicly expressed his grief for those who suffered, but rejects the claims about his ministry.
“I have never conspired to protect a child predator,” he wrote in 2014, “and I also deny all the claims made against me in the civil suit.”
The story of the Sovereign Grace Church scandal, however, was far from being over.
Since the original dismissal of the civil lawsuit in 2013, there have been convictions and new charges against members in the SGC. In 2014, for example, a jury in Maryland found Nathaniel Morales, an active member at Covenant Life Church, guilty of molesting three teenage boys. His former pastor at Covenant, Grant Layman, admitted under cross-examination that he should have reported what he knew. No new suits against Mahaney have been made.
In February of this year, the Washingtonian published an expose on the ministry (“The Sex-Abuse Scandal That Devastated a Suburban Megachurch: Inside the rise and fall of Sovereign Grace Ministries”). And most recently, on March 16, Covenant Life Church member Larry Ellis Caffery was charged with nine counts of child sexual abuse and two of false imprisonment.
Last week’s Together for the Gospel conference, which welcomed back C.J. Mahaney to their pulpit, is the latest in the controversy.
Mahaney is, however, not the only person raising ire. Albert Mohler’s high praise of the pastor is getting attention as well. As he did in 2013, Mohler maintains his admiration for his friend. While introducing Mahaney before he took the pulpit this last week, he extolled his colleague’s integrity, leaving many to feel he simultaneously belittled the Sovereign Grace victims.
“It would be very easy to get up here and just say C.J. Mahaney is going to speak for us,” said Mohler, according to a recording provided by Amy Smith, an advocate for survivors of sexual abuse, “but I think faithfulness in my responsibility this afternoon in introducing him is to say we know he has demonstrated endurance in the face of an incredible trial, and he has been a model of endurance for us.”
He went on to offer a litany of virtues that describe the controversial minister: kindness, consistency, steadfastness, encourager, and joy.
“I told C.J. that in getting ready to introduce him I decided I would Google to see if there was anything on the Internet about him,” continued Mohler, presumably downplaying the controversy.
The auditorium broke out in laughter.
“That’s when I discovered…that C.J. cheers for the Washington Redskins and the Washington Nationals and against the Dallas Cowboys, the New York Yankees, and Duke basketball,” Mohler adds to more laughs. “I now know it to be true because I read it about C.J.”
The last part was especially understood by protesters on Twitter to be a joke about anyone who believes something—in this case about Mahaney—because they read it on the Internet.
Perhaps meant with irony, Mahaney’s message that followed was on Job, a man said to be tested by God, who suffered accusations from friends, and, according to the most prominent reading of the biblical figure, was eventually found faithful.
Without directly addressing the elephant in the room, many on Twitter using the hashtag #IstandwithSGMvictims believed Mohler managed to say plenty. “His whole intro is disgusting,” tweeted Amy Smith, noting it as a slight against those abused.
“Mohler’s flippant remarks, like TG4’s [sic] invitation to Mahaney, are extraordinarily callous,” David Clohessy, director of SNAP, told me by email. In saying what he did, adds Clohessy, Mohler and T4G “make churches more dangerous and help predators hurt more kids.”
According to the National Center for Victims of Crime, 1 in 5 girls and 1 in 20 boys is a victim of sexual abuse. “In that room was a 15 year old boy being molested by his teacher or a 16 year old girl being raped by her stepdad,” said Clohessy, pointing to the statistical likelihood. “They knew Mahaney’s accused of concealing pedophilia. Imagine how they felt. Think they are more likely or less likely now to report their perpetrator to the police?”
Others were also angry.
“Al Mohler called Mahaney kind and humble today. Victims are invisible in their conferences,” tweeted Dee Parsons, co-editor of The Wartburg Watch, a blog that tracks “disturbing trends within Christendom” and which has followed the scandal.
Mahaney’s once former partner in ministry and now critic, Brent Detwiler, also expressed his frustrations on Facebook at Mohler’s praise and deafness toward the petitions of victims. (It was Detwiler who turned whistleblower and released a cache of 600 pages of emails to other pastors in the denomination, a move that is often seen as the impetus to Mahaney’s decision to step down in 2011.)
“C.J. Mahaney was just honored by Al Mohler when introduced,” Detwiler writes. “The appeal of thousands has been rebuffed. This is unsurprising and underscores the magnitude of the problem. The enabling and extolling of C.J. continues by some of the most powerful evangelical leaders in the nation. The Lord Jesus Christ is not pleased and he won't be mocked.”
Whether Mohler could have said something better in introducing Mahaney is likely now beyond the point. At the root of the issue, according to protesters, is that having Mahaney at the conference at all is by itself dismissive and divisive.
“There is no togetherness for the gospel when the victim stands alone,” responded James Kessler, senior pastor at New City Presbyterian Church in Hilliard, Ohio.
It is a sentiment that is undoubtedly shared by those who walked the margins of the sidewalk around the KFC Center in protest.
Request for comment from Sovereign Grace Churches, Together for the Gospel, and Albert Mohler were not returned in time for this story.