WASHINGTON (AP) - Three female plaintiffs claim in a lawsuit filed Wednesday that an evangelical church group covered up allegations of sexual abuse against children, failed to report accusations of misconduct to the police and discouraged its members from cooperating with law enforcement.
The lawsuit was filed in Maryland state court against Sovereign Grace Ministries, a 30-year-old family of churches, with about 100 congregations. Most of its churches are in the U.S., but it also has planted churches in about 21 countries.
The plaintiffs allege a conspiracy spanning more than two decades to conceal sexual abuse committed by church members. The alleged abuse happened in Maryland and northern Virginia in the 1980s and 1990s. The lawsuit accuses of church representatives of permitting suspected pedophiles to interact with children, supplying them with free legal advice to avoid prosecution and forcing victims to meet with and "forgive" the person that had molested them.
"The facts show that the Church cared more about protecting its financial and institutional standing than about protecting children, its most vulnerable members," the lawsuit claims.
The church did not immediately respond to a written message or to a phone message left on its general voicemail box. It wasn't immediately clear if the church had a lawyer. The suit names as defendants about a half-dozen pastors and church officials who plaintiffs say were alerted to the accusations but either failed to take action or actively covered them up. One official said he had not seen the suit and declined comment. Other defendants either did not immediately respond to phone messages or did not have publicly listed phone numbers.
In accusing church leaders of turning a blind eye to sexual molestation, the lawsuit bears parallels to the allegations of priest sex abuse and the resulting cover-up that have rocked the Roman Catholic church over the last decade. But while that scandal centered on sex abuse by priests, the accusations in this case involve molestation by church members instead of clergy.
Sovereign Grace Ministries grew from its mother church in Gaithersburg, Md., in 1982. It moved its headquarters this year to Louisville, Ky., where it's also planting a new church. The group has struggled in recent years with fractured leadership and criticism over its discipline methods, especially the church's emphasis on sins, discipline and repentance.
The suit only covers alleged abuse that occurred in Maryland in northern Virginia, but the church has faced scrutiny on other occasions for its handling of sexual abuse claims, and Susan Burke, a lawyer representing the three plaintiffs, said there are other alleged victims prepared to join a class-action suit.
For instance, an April report by a non-profit Lutheran mediation group that studied the church for nine months found that while church leaders showed "care and concern" about sex abuse allegations, a number of people interviewed felt the claims were handled irresponsibly and were left with "disappointments and hurts."
The lawsuit faults the church's "Home Group" structure, in which children are provided with day care so their parents can attend services, as fostering a poorly supervised environment that enabled the abuse to occur.
The lawsuit centers on allegations of three female plaintiffs, each identified by pseudonyms to protect their anonymity.
One of the three plaintiffs, a high school student in Virginia, alleges she was sexually assaulted when she was 3 years old and that the mother of the boy who abused her revealed the molestation to the church. But church officials discouraged her family from reporting the allegations to police and, instead, repeatedly interviewed the alleged abuser and worked with him and his mother to determine how best to prevent any prosecution and publicity regarding the abuse.
A second plaintiff, a college student in Maryland, says she was sexually abused as a toddler by a church member. She says the church pastor scolded her parents after they called the police and then tipped off the accused that he had been reported to the police. She says her parents were instructed to bring her to a meeting with her alleged abuser so they could be "reconciled," but that she was "visibly scared and crawled under the chair" after being brought into the same room with him.
The third plaintiff says her adoptive father, a member of the church, sexually abused her older sister for three and a half years. She says the church warned her mother not to pursue a prosecution, then kicked the family out of the church and denied the children reduced tuition to the school. The man was ultimately prosecuted and imprisoned, the lawsuit says.
"We view the case as an important step in holding SGM accountable for its misdeeds," said Burke, the lawyer who represents the three plaintiffs and is also suing the military on behalf of female service members who say they were raped. "No institution can put its own financial concerns above the needs of vulnerable children."