Rachael Denhollander, the first woman to go on record in her allegations against convicted USA Gymnastics doctor Larry Nassar, has also made a statement about Sovereign Grace Churches (SGC) and its co-founder C.J. Mahaney. Denhollander claims she was told her church “wasn’t a place for her” after she vocally protested her church’s role in restoring Mahaney to leadership.
Considering the national conversation currently surrounding sexual abuse, this is a vitally important conversation for all leaders in the church to be familiar with. Here is an explanation of what this controversy is, who is involved and what it means for the evangelical church at large.
What Is Sovereign Grace Churches (SGC)?
Sovereign Grace Churches (formerly Sovereign Grace Ministries) describe themselves as a “family of churches” that includes over 70 churches around the globe. Founded in 1982 by C.J. Mahaney and Larry Tomczak, SGC has been one of the most influential reformed evangelical movements in America, with famed theologian Wayne Grudem once saying, “I know of many churches around the United States who are looking to Sovereign Grace Ministries as an example of the way churches ought to work.”
SGC attracted young men to their SGM Pastor’s College located at the ministry’s headquarters in Louisville, Kentucky, including Joshua Harris, writer of the influential courting-based advice book I Kissed Dating Goodbye. Harris went on to become lead pastor of the 3,000-member SGC flagship Covenant Life Church located in Gaithersburg, Maryland, when C.J. Mahaney stepped down as pastor for that church.
What Are the Accusations Against Sovereign Grace Churches and What Role Does Mahaney Play in This?
In 2012, a lawsuit jointly filed by multiple parties accused then-Sovereign Grace Ministries and C.J. Mahaney of systematically covering up instances of sexual abuse for decades. The lawsuit cited three cases, the earliest of which dated back to 1987. Since then, SGC has repeatedly denied the allegations and pointed to the dismissal of the charges as vindication. In 2013, key leaders in the evangelical church, including Mark Dever, Ligon Duncan and Albert Mohler came forward in support of SGM and Mahaney following the lawsuit. One well-known site in the evangelical world went so far as to say Mahaney was the “object of libel.”
Prior to the lawsuit, Mahaney took a leave of absence due to accusations of pride and divisiveness in his leadership style. Mahaney has since permanently withdrawn from an elder role with SGC, but he continues to pastor one of their churches, Sovereign Grace Church in Louisville, Kentucky. He also continues to be a publicly sought out speaker, most recently being invited to speak at this year’s Together for the Gospel Conference.
Victims Start to Speak Up
To date, there is no evidence that Mahaney directly discouraged victims or pastors from reporting crimes to the authorities. However, there are several accounts of people claiming SGC’s culture made it conducive to abuse and cover-up, with some former leaders in the church claiming it would have been impossible for Mahaney to be unaware of this.
In a scathing, in-depth expose by the Washingtonian, multiple stories are presented from former members of SGC churches, all claiming they were discouraged from going to the police. Among these are a woman who claims she was told not to divorce her husband who had molested their daughters because he was only attracted to “the women they were becoming.”
Another woman in the article claims she was discouraged from reporting her 3-year-old daughter’s sexual assault at the hands of a teenage boy because “you shouldn’t bring a Christian to court.” The church denies discouraging her from going to the authorities.
The lawsuit brought against SGC was dismissed due to statute of limitation laws, meaning the judicial system has neither confirmed or discredited the claims. However in 2014, longtime SGC youth pastor Nathaniel Morales was found guilty of sexually molesting three young boys between 1983-1991. During the trial, former SGC pastor Grant Layman was asked by public defender Alan Drew if Layman had an “obligation to report the alleged abuse?”
“I believe so,” Layman replied. “And you didn’t?” asked Drew, to which Layman responded “no.”
This is the first verified instance of SGC knowingly refusing to report a crime to the authorities, and potentially gives some weight to the multiple other unproven allegations levied by accusers.
Brent Detwiler, a former member of the SGM Board of Directors for 25 years, has publicly accused Mahaney of knowing more “than he’ll ever let on.” Detwiler has become a fierce critic of Mahaney and SGC after resigning in 2007 for what he calls a “matter of conscience.”