Ethics Institutions

Evangelical leaders stand by pastor accused of abuse cover-up

(RNS) Several leading evangelical pastors and authors have come to the defense of a pastor accused in a lawsuit for covering up sexual abuse of children.

C. J. Mahaney was named as a defendant in a lawsuit, which charged that he and other leaders of Sovereign Grace Ministries permitted the abuse of children to occur in churches that formed part of the group. Sovereign Grace, an association of 80 Reformed evangelical churches, is based in Louisville, Ky.

Maryland Judge Sharon V. Burrell dismissed the lawsuit ruling that nine of 11 plaintiffs waited too long to sue under the statute of limitations. Their attorney plans to appeal the judge’s decision.

After the dismissal, leading evangelicals are stepping up to defend Mahaney.

“We have stood beside our friend, C. J. Mahaney, and we can speak to his personal integrity,” wrote Al Mohler, president of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary; Ligon Duncan, pastor of First Presbyterian Church of Jackson, Miss.; and Mark Dever, pastor of Capitol Hill Baptist Church in Washington, D.C.

The trio, who said they did not want to comment on the case while it was still in court, posted the letter on the Together for the Gospel Facebook page. Together for the Gospel is a biennial Christian conference the three founded with Mahaney.

Early Friday (May 24) morning, a string of negative comments had been posted on the Facebook wall, and the post was moved to the Together for the Gospel website.

But not everyone is rushing to Mahaney’s defense. Boz Tchividjian, a law professor and executive director of Godly Response to Abuse in the Christian Environment (GRACE), which has investigated sex abuse allegations, found omissions in the pastors’ statement.

“Why no mention that CJ Mahaney was actually the Senior Pastor at one of these churches where all of this horrific abuse allegedly occurred AND that [he] discouraged these families from bringing this matter to the God ordained civil authorities?” he wrote on the Facebook wall.

“Omitting such a fundamentally important fact from this statement is a fundamental error.”

Tchividjian is the grandson of evangelist Billy Graham and the brother of Tullian Tchividjian, pastor of Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., and another leader of the Reformed evangelical movement

“This lawsuit is less about the abuse and more about an institution that took steps to protect itself and its reputation over the victimized souls (and bodies) of little ones,” Boz Tchividjian wrote.

Mahaney also got support from three prominent Reformed evangelical authors, Justin Taylor, Kevin DeYoung and D.A. Carson, who blasted media portrayals of Mahaney as the “face” of the lawsuit against the Sovereign Grace network.

Mahaney took a leave of absence in 2011 after other pastors in the Sovereign Grace network charged him with “expressions of pride, unentreatability, deceit, sinful judgment and hypocrisy.” Six months later, the group reinstated Mahaney, declaring full confidence in him.

Last October, the same month that the lawsuit was filed, Mahaney told the Sovereign Grace board that he would step down to focus on pastoral ministry. Two months later, the flagship church Mahaney started in Gaithersburg, Md., Covenant Life Church, voted to leave the Sovereign Grace network.

Joshua Harris, the current pastor of Covenant Life, referenced the lawsuit in his sermon on Sunday (May 26), and acknowledged that he had been sexually abused as a child.

He said that some church members told him they planned to leave the church over the allegations. Urging them to stay, he said, “Please don’t allow the circumstance to draw you away from faith in Jesus.”


About the author

Sarah Pulliam Bailey

Sarah Pulliam Bailey is a national correspondent for RNS, covering how faith intersects with politics, culture and other news. She previously served as online editor for Christianity Today where she remains an editor-at-large.


Click here to post a comment

  • “Maryland Judge Sharon V. Burrell dismissed the lawsuit ruling that nine of 11 plaintiffs waited too long to sue under the statute of limitations.”
    Statue of Limitations laws have become the pedophile’s (and church’s) best friend, since most victims of childhood sexual crime are emotionally/psychologically incapable of coming forward for up to decades after the abuse occurred. This is why many states have actually removed all SOL protection for crimes committed against children. (
    I’m sure SGM is eager to have its day in court, so it can clear its name and put to rest these outlandish claims made by 11 plaintiffs against them…or, maybe they’d rather not have a day in court.

  • Ken, you are obviously only somewhat familiar with SGM. Sadly, some of these charges are substantiated by people being convicted and serving time, others are substantiated by some of the defendants own remarks, and the question now is whether the blackmail that Mahaney was found guilty of by a panel of SGM pastors is related to the cover-up?

    I hope for all involved the charges are not true, but I will be surprised if that turns out to be the case. SGM is doing its best to avoid transparency in this matter.

  • I’m confused regarding the sermon referenced? Was an advance copy given to you, Sarah? Thx.

  • Thank you, Jenn. I’m not sure how a more extensive knowledge of SGM would inform my thinking regarding its recent, tragic court experience. But, my thinking doesn’t have much to do with the SGM blackmail fiasco–although I’m sure there are leadership patterns discernible both in that issue and the current, child sexual abuse one. My thoughts have to do with the irreparable damage that SOL laws do to victims, and to the accused. (Alleged) victims receive no help, no assurance, no voice–simply (as the ruling judge made clear) because time passed is allowed to rob them of those things. SOL laws do not served the accused because they do not in any way prove innocence, but leave the smear of accusation, and the suggestion that the accused benefited from a legal technicality, not the free verdict of a jury or judge. No winners in child sexual abuse SOL laws… Again, thank you for reading, Jean!

  • Just like the Catholics who keep warming the pews and dropping their money in the baskets while they join the clergy in their various offerings. The clergy offer the sacrifice of the Holy Communion. The reckless, uncaring parents allow themselves to be deceived into offering their children as sexual sacrifices to the corrupt priests and their cover-up bishops.

  • Ken, thanks for your response, I took your original comment to mean something other than what you intended. .

  • Would you mind if I quote a few of your articles as long as I provide credit and sources back to your website: http://www.
    I will aslo be certain to give you the appropriate anchor text hyperlink using your website title:
    Evangelical leaders stand by pastor accused of abuse cover-up | Religion
    News Service. Please make sure to let me know if
    this is ok with you. Thanks alot 🙂

  • Trying to sort out this situation as an outsider is a waste of time (Eph 5:16). Satan is well pleased to see believers fight with other believers. Good and godly men stand on both sides of this matter. Which means we will likely never know what happened or did not happen here. Al Mohler and Josh Harris appear to be godly Christian leaders. Humble men that are Word-dominated. Pray for these men and then move on with your life and ministry. We will all stand before the Lord one day alone. Read Chris Braun’s chapter on ministry impasses in his fine book “Unpacking Forgiveness” if you are struggling with this situation.

  • This lawsuit is incredibly horrifying. Although several of the alleged victims are now over 21, their attorneys are going back to the judge arguing that the Plaintiffs qualify for a longer 7-year statute of limitations.

    There are more than 200 paragraphs and the vast majority of them include names, locations, and graphic descriptions of child sexual abuse. The alleged victims were as young as age 2.

    For example, here is the summary of just 3 horrifying paragraphs of allegations (Paragraphs #36-38) —
    Youth ministry leader Nate Morales molested several boys. During one youth group discussion about being “pure,” [James Roberts, the teenage boy who had been abused] then openly referred to Morales’ ongoing molestation of boys, stating words to the effect, “yeah, Nate got me too.” This discussion group was headed up by a youth leader…. …[who] cautioned him and the other boys against talking about the facts. [The youth leader] reported it to Grant Layman, one of the defendants. He and other defendants allegedly conspired to cover it up.

    Nate Morales has already been convicted of child sex crimes and is jail, according to ABC affiliate WJLA TV.

    About 1/3rd of the defendants have already been convicted. Three have been brought to the attention of the authorities: 2 were convicted and 1 proceeded in the juvenile system. One trial is pending in Montgomery Co., Maryland, according to attorney Bill O’Neil’s interview on a recent Christian radio program.

  • Caleb: There are already 3 convicted of sex abuse crimes connected with this case. Who cares if Mohler/Harris “appear” to be godly leaders? We know now that there have been convicted pedophiles under CJ’s watch. The leaders have brushed these issues aside.

    This is about sounding an alarm at a whole church structure that failed many victims. You want people to read a book about forgiveness? No, this is the time to demand that churches deal appropriately with sex abuse. Demand that they put safeguards in place to protect children. Demand that they notify civil authorities when crimes are committed. Read Romans 13:1. God has ordained civil authority for such a time as this. Let’s not put a quick spiritual band-aid (forgiveness) on a problem that needs civil correction. That civil correction IS biblical.

  • In these sad and difficult times for the Christian church, my hope and prayer is that healing power of Jesus Christ, the health and wholeness that only He can bring, will come expediently to all of the parties involved in this unjust and evil matter. I pray that complete truth will be exposed; that the full weight of justice and righteousness will prevail in the life of each and every person involved. I pray each and every victim of any injustices perpetrated against them will be vindicated. May every evildoer be exposed and bear the full weight and consequences of their sinful deeds. May Christian leaders everywhere be awakened to wisdom in how to better protect innocent lives from such tragic atrocities as these. And may the Church of our Lord Jesus Christ with due diligence put into practice every possible safeguard that would prevent future harm to all vulnerable, innocent ones everywhere. May those of us who are so deeply angered and grieved over these such grave matters have the courage to stand and speak up, and yet speak no further than we can responsibly speak. In Jesus name, amen.

  • Reckless uncaring parents? How can you speak for the whole world? You can only speak for yourself. You can’t even speak for your own parents.