Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Because I Don't Know What Else to Do: Thoughts on the SGM Lawsuit

While this is out of character for me to write about, and to publicly come out on one side of this issue, I can't be silent on this. Too many people already have.

You may have heard about the lawsuit (recently tossed out due to statue of limitations) against Sovereign Grace Ministries, alleging a conspiracy to cover up multiple incidences of child sexual abuse by pressuring families not to report abuse. 

I can't stop thinking about it, for many reasons. 

One reason: The details of the kinds of abuse that occurred are horrific. At least eleven people came forward with stories that I wish I could forget. If you know anything about child sexual abuse, it’s that allegations of abuse are rarely false. In so many of these instances, church leaders were made aware of the abuse that was happening by either other church members or people in ministry roles, and their response was to defend the victim and push for reconciliation over and against alerting authorities.

This was not one church within the Sovereign Grace network. This happened in at least two locations, and the charges in the civil suit were aiming to prove that there had been an orchestrated effort on the part of the leadership to keep the abuse under wraps and out of the hands authorities.

A second reason: C.J. Mahaney is a well-respected and influential leader in Reformed circles, one of the founders of Sovereign Grace Ministries and its long-time president, one of the “4” in T4G (Together for the Gospel, the quartet of Mark Dever, Al Mohler, Ligon Duncan, and Mahaney), and a council member on The Gospel Coalition, an organization composed of almost all influential Reformed folks (John Piper, Tim Keller, the T4G boys, Justin Taylor, Kevin DeYoung, D.A. Carson, Matt Chandler, and many more). The lawsuit included many instances of abuse that happened at the church of which he was senior pastor, some of them under his watch. He was named as one of the men allegedly covering up abuse.

Now, in 2011, CJ took a leave of absence from his position at Sovereign Grace Ministries, in order to examine his heart over several charges leveled at him by others in leadership. These charges were perhaps not directly related to the abuse cover-up, but it wasn’t long after that the lawsuit was filed, and it isn’t hard to link the two eventsIn a post on The Gospel Coalition website titled “Why I’m Taking a Leave of Absence,” CJ explains that, while the charges aren’t immoral in nature, they are serious, and he was leaving to go under the care of his friend Mark Dever while examining his heart, etc.  A statement put out last week by Dever, Mohler, and Duncan seems to echo the language of this 2011 article:  

A Christian leader, charged with any credible, serious, and direct wrongdoing, would usually be well advised to step down from public ministry. No such accusation of direct wrongdoing was ever made against C. J. Mahaney. Instead, he was charged with founding a ministry and for teaching doctrines and principles that are held to be true by vast millions of American evangelicals. For this reason, we, along with many others, refused to step away from C. J. in any way. We do not regret that decision.

I read that and felt my blood boil. Were I a victim of abuse, or a family member of a victim, I would feel betrayed not just by one church organization, but by the church at large, whose leaders have chosen to minimize the seriousness of the charges and spin the truth to protect a single leader. Add to that the fact that it’s simply not true. Mahaney was charged with aiding in the cover-up of abuse happening in his church and the network of which he was the head, not with simply being the leader of the network where the abuse happened.

Later, The Gospel Coalition website posted another response composed by Justin Taylor, Don Carson, and Kevin DeYoung, “Why We Have BeenSilent About the SGM Lawsuit.” This one was equally troubling; though the language was somewhat more sensitive to victims and those with reasonable questions, the aim of it seemed to be to discredit the victims and those who brought the suit and to defend the actions of those around Mahaney and SGM who have not spoken up about this.

This is an example:

So the entire legal strategy was dependent on a theory of conspiracy that was more hearsay than anything like reasonable demonstration of culpability. As to the specific matter of C. J. participating in some massive cover-up, the legal evidence was so paltry (more like non-existent) that the judge did not think a trial was even warranted.

Simply not true. The reason the judge decided to throw out the suit was because the statute of limitations had passed for civil complaint for many of the plaintiffs named in the suit. The plaintiff’s attorney was hoping that the judge would consider a charge of a conspiracy to cover up the abuse would be enough for the judge to consider bringing the case to trial anyway, but the judge decided against that. Not because of lack of evidence being “so paltry,” but because of the statute of limitations.
And that’s a huge deal. Because it means that, since this won’t go to trial, the pattern of behavior in these churches may continue. It also means that the leadership of the reformed community in America can feel justified in standing by Mahaney and SGM, claiming their innocence because the judge threw out the case against them.

A third reason this weighs on me: I am Reformed. I’m a member in a Presbyterian church, and I’m part of a Presbyterian church-planting ministry. These people are my people. I’ve watched and listened some of the sessions of the Together for the Gospel conference and gained a lot from them; I’ve respected these men for their solid biblical teaching and for their reputation for integrity in leadership. So it grieves me to my soul that they are so far off in how they are handling this. It grieves me that C.J. Mahaney has not simply come out and said, “ I did wrong; this happened on my watch. I can’t fix what happened, but I can make sure I do whatever I can so that it never happens again.” Instead he’s done the opposite, running and hiding from it and having his powerful friends run interference for him. He stepped down several months ago from leadership at SGM to become senior pastor at a church in Louisville. He’s gotten around coming clean about his culpability by retreating, rather than owning up and asking the church community how he can begin to work toward restoration.

And Dever, Mohler, Duncan, Carson, Taylor, and DeYoung have publicly sided with him, each one of them going on record as saying that Mahaney is above reproach in the whole thing.
I know there’s the possibility for Mahaney’s innocence. It’s a possibility, but it’s fairly unlikely. I have (regrettably) read many of the details of the case, and the close ties many of these instances of abuse have to Mahaney (close associates and men in ministry roles accused of abuse, cases of abuse being handled inappropriately by the leadership of the church while he was senior pastor, etc.) would make it next to impossible for me to believe that a) he had no knowledge of abuse happening in his church (and network of churches) on his watch, and b) he had no influence on how the leadership structure handled their approach to abuse victims and victimizers.

The reformed leadership – these celebrity-like figures within the landscape of Christianity in America – has a lot to answer for in these circumstances. I almost wish they had remained silent, because when they spoke up, they made things a whole lot worse. What they did was the collective equivalent of telling the abuse victims what happened is their problem.

And a fourth reason this bothers me: the Church is called to look out for the widows and the orphans. We are to look out for and speak out for the oppressed and the powerless, to defend and give voice to those who have none. We are told that the Kingdom is made up of children and the child-like.
These men have done the opposite. They have acted to silence those who have been oppressed; they have prioritized defending the powerful against the powerless children who were abused on his watch. They have publicly spoken out in such a way as to dismiss their plight. They have failed to do what they are called to do as Christians.

So where does that leave us? It leaves us all in the hands of a sovereign God whose grace covers over all sins. I pray that these men repent of what they are doing; they are hurting the church at large by shielding Mahaney. I pray that Mahaney repents, that God pursues him as only He can until he can’t resist any more. I pray that, even if nothing changes with the men who lead reformed America, the victims experience the healing that only Jesus offers. And I pray that other believers speak out against this cover-up, that pressure is put on these leaders to repent of their actions. 

May God have mercy on us all.