Inside the Investigation into Child Sexual Abuse at Sovereign Grace Ministries
Elizabeth Dias Feb. 16, 2016
How one reporter investigated child sex abuse at a major evangelical church
The February issue of Washingtonian Magazine featured an exposé of long-buried sexual abuse of children in a prominent evangelical church network, Sovereign Grace Ministries. Freelance journalist Tiffany Stanley, a 2015 National Magazine Award finalist, spent 10 months uncovering reports of child rape and molestation in Sovereign Grace churches over the last three decades, particularly at the then-flagship Covenant Life Church in Gaithersburg, Maryland.
Her investigation, “The Sex Scandal that Devastated a Suburban Megachurch,” chronicles the inside story of crimes against children in D.C.-area Sovereign Grace churches, explores how church leaders including founder C.J. Mahaney did and did not respond, and recounts how victims’ mothers joined forces to seek justice.
Unlike the hierarchical Catholic Church, evangelical churches often function independently. But their influence is widespread—as Stanley points out, Wayne Grudem, an evangelical theologian at Phoenix Seminary, once described Sovereign Grace Ministries “as an example of the way churches ought to work....
In response to the Washingtonian investigation, executive director of Sovereign Grace Churches Mark Prater pointed TIME to a lengthy statement he made in 2014 denying that Sovereign Grace leaders “conspired to cover up” sexual abuse. “Yes, we have been the target of misinformed critique in both the secular and Christian media, and more will likely come,” he stated. “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....
(Tiffany Stanley) The Catholic Church has been taken to task over abuse for decades now. Evangelical ministries are now facing their own abuse crises. In the media, we’re hearing more about these stories. Some of these allegations confront abuse that is decades old. From just the past year, I’m thinking of reports about Josh Duggar of 19 Kids and Counting and Bill Gothard, a Christian homeschooling advocate. I’m also thinking about Buzzfeed’s recent story on Jesus People USA and Kiera Feldman’s 2012 investigation of abuse in a Tulsa megachurch. (Of course, other religions are not immune from sexual abuse scandals either.)
The sad reality is that sexual abuse is widespread everywhere, not just in religious communities. The statistics I saw were one-in-four girls and one-in-six boys will be sexually abused before the age of 18. The experts I spoke to didn’t say these statistics are worse in evangelical churches, but they did say that abusers could prey on trusting religious communities, which give them access to children. That’s why churches need policies in place to protect children and handle abuse when it happens. That means reporting suspected abuse to authorities immediately, instead of handling it internally. Abuse is a sin, but it’s also a serious crime....