Mass sexual predation in a church community. Pastors who sheltered and defended abusers. Church leaders who warned congregants not to go to the police. Denial from centralized, authoritative leadership.
Those things sound like elements of the sexual abuse scandal that rocked the Catholic church 15 years ago, but they actually describe widespread sexual abuse and cover-ups in an influential Evangelical megachurch: Sovereign Grace Ministries, an organization with followers in dozens of countries and massive congregations in more than 20 U.S. states. The sexual abuse scandal was documented in detail after a nearly year-long investigation by the Washingtonian's Tiffany Stanley.
The resulting story, "The Sex Scandal That Devastated A Suburban Megachurch," lays out a sprawling case against Sovereign Grace Ministries in almost 7,000 words, detailing sexual abuse cases that were buried by church leaders for decades.
The first allegations came to light publicly in 2012, when three women who allegedly suffered sexual abuse by church leaders sued Sovereign Grace for not reporting the abuse to police. The lawsuit was eventually derailed due in part to statute of limitations laws, but the headlines and fallout spurred other abuse victims to come forward.
Church leaders, including founder C.J. Mahaney, initially brushed off the allegations, describing them as secular attacks on religion. That remains the church's official line, as reported by TIME magazine on Feb. 16.
“Yes, we have been the target of misinformed critique in both the secular and Christian media, and more will likely come,” Mark Prater, executive director of Sovereign Grace Churches, wrote in a statement to the magazine. “I pray that God gives us all grace to respond wisely and biblically. But regardless of the public discourse, we are strongly committed to ensuring a safe environment for the children in our churches.”
Despite the denials of church leadership, facts revealed in court cases and documents show a pattern of cover-ups and intentional attempts to keep sex abuse allegations from police.
In one incident, which occurred in the late 1990s, a church member was accused of molesting a 3-year-old girl, and pastors told the victim's family to forgive the abuser, telling them, “You shouldn’t bring a Christian to court," according to Stanley's Washingtonian story. The parents did go to the police about the incident, but afterwards things changed at the church. The mother said she felt bullied by the pastors into skipping court hearings, while the father said one pastor berated him for his "carnal desire" to see the abuser suffer.
In 2014, former church member Nathan Morales, 56, was convicted of sexually abusing young boys in the 1980s and 1990s, and was sentenced to 40 years in prison. Morales, a youth group leader, would host Bible study sessions and sleepovers with the boys, according to the Washington Post.
Church leaders denied they knew about the allegations against Morales, but court testimony revealed that at least three of the victims or their families informed pastors about the sexual abuse. When the victims came forward, church leaders said they would address the allegations, but never did.
“That was the way we were raised,” one victim testified, according to the Post. “You take these things to your pastors. So we took it to the pastors at Covenant Life Church, and we were told that it would be handled. It would be taken care of.”