[edited to note that Maryland began requiring mandatory reporting of abuse by clergy around 2003. Allegations of abuse in SGM span several decades, many preceding mandatory reporting by clergy. Allegations are that SGM elders covered up crimes by pressuring families not to report sexual crimes against minors to civil authorities.]
Conversations with wise friends (including Bekah Mason and Rachael Starke) have given me clarity on the disconnect between Sovereign Grace’s language and understanding of their “cover-up” of sexual abuse versus that of most of the rest of folks (I hope) in evangelical circles. I am not writing THIS POST to either exonerate or condemn Sovereign Grace or CJ Mahaney’s handling of sexual abuse claims. I am writing THIS POST to explore the logical disconnect between what leaders at SGM believe they did in response to allegations of sexual abuse and what others see as a cover-up.
Sovereign Grace Ministry leaders really do not believe they covered anything up because they don’t accept the premise that they were obligated to report sexual abuse in the first place.
SGM leaders interpret or define the phrase “cover-up” as the suppression of facts rooted in malicious intentions. They saw reporting at the time of these events as a choice they had, not something they were obligated to do. The essential problem then is that they put themselves above the law as a direct result of their ecclesiology and hierarchy. SGM leaders issuing these statements truly do not think they did anything wrong. Why? Because they created a hermetically sealed world in their churches and singular denomination where the elders were not submitted to anyone except themselves and CJ – including even the US government.
The key problem isn’t the scandalous details of the abuse–it’s the underlying authority structures and ecclesiology that made these elders think the right thing to do was to keep allegations in house.
CJ Mahaney and Sovereign Grace elders cannot admit to any wrong doing because they simply don’t have a category for it. They view themselves as apostles, receiving direct word from God Himself through the charismatic gifts. This theology then fed their understanding of their own authority as elders over themselves and others in their congregations. They can not confess anything else until they first recognize and confess failure to submit themselves to secular governing authority. Until they understand that their “apostleship” did not mean that they did not have to obey Romans 13 (which was written by actual apostles), all other reasoning to them is useless. Instead of seeing God’s law commanding their obedience to civil law, they saw themselves as above it.
In the ministry Mahaney built, some of these features were readily apparent. SGM represented a society unto itself, one that functioned parallel to mainstream culture and that distrusted that wider, secular world. “They believe God’s law comes before civil law,” as one former member says.
This is why SGM statements repeatedly use language that there was “no conspiracy.” Mahaney and elders didn’t conspire behind each others’ backs to hide allegations – these allegations weren’t hidden at all. They just weren’t reported to authorities. It was actual policy at SGM to deal with things in house. When they handled it in house, they thought they WERE handling it. Before folks criticize SGM’s ill informed techniques for how they handled abuse in house, the first issue is that they kept it in house at all. This is the stumbling block that keeps SGM from acknowledging their sin (by not obeying Romans 13) that resulted in ongoing abuse that harmed many.
In order for SGM elders to understand their complicity in ongoing abuse, one may need to break down the issue for them:
a. This is the definition of sexual abuse … Did you know sexual abuse occurred?
b. Did you report it to police?
c. If not, then you have actively covered up a crime.
d. This is the statute on mandatory reporters of sexual abuse.
e. Did you train your elders to NOT obey that statute?
f. Then you set up a church system that violated and obstructed the law.
Really, the question for CJ Mahaney and his fellow SGM elders is, “During the period in question, did you believe you needed to submit to the governing authorities concerning the reporting of allegations of sexual abuse in your congregations? Did you teach other leaders that they needed to submit to the governing authorities concerning the reporting of allegations of sexual abuse in your congregations?”
If the answer to either is “no”, that is sin, and SGM elders need to confess and repent.
Let everyone submit to the governing authorities, since there is no authority except from God, and the authorities that exist are instituted by God. 2 So then, the one who resists the authority is opposing God’s command, and those who oppose it will bring judgment on themselves. 3 For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Do you want to be unafraid of the authority? Do what is good, and you will have its approval. 4 For it is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, because it does not carry the sword for no reason. For it is God’s servant, an avenger that brings wrath on the one who does wrong. 5 Therefore, you must submit, not only because of wrath but also because of your conscience.
*I found this article a helpful journalistic review of the SGM sexual abuse scandal.