For Denhollander and others critical of SGC and Mahaney, the mounting circumstantial evidence has led them to believe Mahaney should be removed from church leadership until these accusations are resolved. In a Facebook post, Denhollander has also challenged SGC to allow GRACE, a Christian organization concerned with sexual assault and led by Boz Tchividjian, to conduct a full investigation of their ministry and the claims made by those involved in the 2012 lawsuit. Denhollander believes the investigation necessary due to the reason for the lawsuit’s dismissal. She explains:
“The lawsuit was dismissed because the statute of limitations had expired. This is a dismissal on technical grounds only, it had nothing to do with the substantive claims made against SGM. It simply means that the time for which legal proceedings can be initiated has expired and therefore the court no longer has the authority to examine the merits of the plaintiff’s claims. Ultimately, this dismissal means that the evidence against SGM was never examined by the courts. This is not evidence, in any way, shape or form, that SGM has not done what is alleged.”
What Does This Mean for Evangelical Churches?
Regardless of where you land on the guilt or innocence of SGC and Mahaney, one thing is clear: SGC had an unclear code of conduct for pastors who were told of sexual abuse, and that failure created a culture that, at best, hurt victims.
In the Washingtonian expose, SGC’s code of conduct is summarized:
Upon hearing about a case of suspected child sex abuse, ministers are advised to notify church elders immediately. They should also call a lawyer, preferably one with “ethics grounded in Scripture,” for legal advice. The document encourages pastors to “establish fact” during a “time of investigation.” It notes that pastors must notify authorities about suspected child molesters if their state’s laws require it. (Not all do.) It also says it may be necessary to call police if the accused is an immediate threat to children—“but this is unlikely,” the memo says. Otherwise, it’s up to the parents to report abuse.
The fundamental problem with this, and what all churches need to be clear of, is that it’s not their responsibility to determine the relative guilt or innocence of an accusation. Whether a state requires it, any accusation of sexual abuse should be immediately reported to the authorities. There are several reasons for this:
- Pastors are not professionals at navigating sexual abuse.
- Pastors may feel the pressure to “protect their churches” by dealing with the issue in-house.
- Pastors may, like many people, believe “well ____ couldn’t have done that.”
In SGC’s case, their own code of conduct created far too lax instructions for their pastors, and while we may never know which leaders made what choices, the culture of SGC actively encouraged pastors to handle severe trauma on their own and in ways that may have re-violated victims of abuse.
If your church does not have a clear policy of immediately reporting any sexual abuse claims, then that is something you should immediately rectify.