Reporter Shares How She Investigated Child Sex Abuse at Sovereign Grace Ministries

Worshipers fill the Covenant Life Church in Gaithersburg, Md. on Oct. 13, 2002. (Gail Burton—AP)
Worshipers fill the Covenant Life Church in Gaithersburg, Md. on Oct. 13, 2002. (Gail Burton—AP)

Child sex abuse in the Catholic Church is now widely known—Spotlight, a film about the Boston Globe journalists who documented the massive child molestation scandal and cover-up in the Catholic Church, is up for Best Picture at this year’s Oscars—but similar abuses in evangelical communities have not received the same public scrutiny.

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.”

Stanley shares some insights from her investigation with TIME. Her reporting was subsidized in part by a Fund for Investigative Journalism grant.

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.”

TIME: How did you decide to investigate the sexual abuse in Sovereign Grace Ministries?

STANLEY: More than one church leader assumed the victims and lawyer Susan Burke brought this story to me, as a kind of trial-by-media stunt. That assumption isn’t true. I had seen some local news reports about Sovereign Grace, and I approached Burke, asking if she would put me in touch with any of the plaintiffs she represented. It took months to establish trust with those involved. Many of them had been anonymous in their class-action lawsuit, and I wanted the survivors to have agency in deciding whether or not to talk to me. I started with one family, and then I met with another, and from there, I was able slowly to gain introductions to others.

Your investigation focuses on sexual abuse in one evangelical network, but it begs the question: how widespread is sexual abuse in evangelical churches more broadly?

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.

What challenges did you face getting the reporting?

Trauma reporting is challenging by its very nature. You take care not to re-victimize victims. And this was a complicated story to unravel and tell.

A lot of the reporting involved spending hours in courthouses around the D.C. suburbs, digging through case files, a process that I actually enjoy. But in these types of cases, which deal with minors and abuse, some court files are sealed, which is another obstacle.

The churches, for the most part, declined to cooperate. A lawsuit complicates who is willing to talk to you, and I am sympathetic to that. I talked to the churches in Maryland and Virginia very early on in my reporting process, letting them know I was doing the story, and I kept in touch with them about my progress until the very end, giving them chances to respond to my findings.

Some church leaders expressed that they wanted the story to go away, so the community could move on. They were tired of rehashing it. On one level, I understood that, but I was also talking to victims who had their lives irrevocably changed—they couldn’t just move on. These survivors are women and men in their twenties, thirties, and forties, whose marriages have been affected, who have been in psychiatric inpatient treatment, who live in terror of their own kids going to a sleepover. I’m sure they wish it could all just “go away” too. But it doesn’t.

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