Washingtonian lands boffo take on sex abuse in an evangelical Protestant empire

The piece I’m about to describe is a news feature that I very much wanted to write once, earlier in my religion-beat career.

In the mid 1970s, I attended charismatic prayer meetings at the Assemblies of God congregation called Christ Church, located on Massachusetts Avenue in Washington, D.C., where 2,000 of us packed the sanctuary. The two preachers were two gifted young men named Larry Tomczak and C.J. Mahaney. I was a college student at the time and their sermons were electric. I heard later that the meetings had morphed into a church.

Twenty years later, I moved back to the area as a reporter for The Washington Times and I learned the congregation was now known as Covenant Life Church and was located in Gaithersburg, a DC suburb in Maryland. It was quite successful. Then I heard rumors that Tomczak had been forced out. In late 2003, I did a large piece on Covenant Life for the Times (they had just finished a new sanctuary) and it was then that I contacted Larry and got his side of the story. I also interviewed Mahaney and visited the huge church. I had the uneasiest feeling about the place -- and Mahaney himself -- and couldn’t get out of there fast enough.

So I wasn’t too surprised to hear a few years later that major rifts had developed there. I began reading blogs about the place. Then Mahaney quit in 2011, which is when I pitched an idea to a magazine for a major piece on his rise and fall. It was turned down because it seemed like too much inside baseball to the editors.

Five years later, this piece appeared Feb. 14 in the Washingtonian magazine:

Pam Palmer was at a barbecue when she heard the news.
It was 2011, five years after her family had left Covenant Life Church. But the Gaithersburg congregation and its founder, C.J. Mahaney, remained on her mind. Now one of her relatives was telling her that amid controversy Mahaney had surrendered the top post at the organization he had built into an international empire. “Literally,” Pam says, “that moment changed my life.”
Pam had been one of the church’s early followers back in the 1980s. And she’d given 22 years of her life to the megachurch, in the all-in manner that many members embraced. Early on, her husband, Dominic Palmer, whom she’d met there, led one of the small fellowship groups that underscore church life, and she dutifully assisted him. When the couple had children, Pam homeschooled them, as so many women in the church did. Every step of the way, a foundational principle of the church was reinforced -- that Christian men knew best.
But in the years since the Palmers left Covenant Life, Pam had come to see its culture as toxic.

Wait, there is more.

After the barbecue, she went online to find out more about the revolt inside Sovereign Grace Ministries, the religious conglomerate that Covenant Life had grown into. A few years earlier, a pair of disillusioned followers had launched a blog called SGM Survivors. It was like a public square, and an increasingly crowded one at that, where former congregants of Sovereign Grace churches -- there were roughly 90 at the time -- gathered to vent.
Pam had visited the blog before. But this time, she encountered a whole new narrative. Parents were reporting that their children had been sexually abused by other church members. And they were sharing stories, saying they were mistreated by churches when they spoke up. Until that moment, Pam had no idea there were other families out there just like hers.

What must have gotten the Washingtonian editors interested in the piece was the sex abuse stuff. Why else would they have used this headline: “The Sex Abuse Scandal That Devastated a Suburban Megachurch: Inside the Rise and Fall of Sovereign Grace Ministries.”

That was the angle I was unaware of in 2011 or rather, I had no idea it was so widespread. Central to the headline is also the idea that church sex abuse isn’t just a Catholic problem. As has been pointed out in this column,  Protestants are getting into the act, too.

What also helped this reporter is that she got 10 months to work on this project, which was funded by a grant from the Fund for Investigative Journalism. She did a bang-up job on Mahaney, Covenant Life and its parent organization, Sovereign Grace Ministries (SGM). I once spent four years researching a book about an Episcopal church that was riven apart by the sexual sins of its leaders. When it was published in 2009, I gained a lot of enemies. Believe me, it’s a thankless task delving into this stuff.

The reporter got a lot of things right, such as how Covenant Life and SGM were a center for the neo-Calvinist movement that swept evangelicalism a decade ago. Disciples showed up to emulate Mahaney, even to the point of shaving their heads bald like his was (which was one of the things that creeped me out during my 2003 visits to the church). Although the piece focused mainly on the sex-abuse charges, it included quite a bit about the complementarian and Calvinist theologies that, when twisted, helped set the stage for this disaster. The reporter's master's in divinity from Harvard no doubt helped in this complex territory.

Oddly, she did not dwell on how Tomczak was forced out by Mahaney, who blackmailed Larry into remaining silent. Tomczak has been very open about this. She repeats an allegation against Tomczak later in the piece, so it’s curious why she doesn’t tell his side of the story earlier on. But she did contact 16 current and former SGM pastors for her piece, all of whom refused to talk with her on the record. Sadly, as the article points out, it took a court summons for some of these pastors to admit they had done nothing about the abuse.

Thankfully, the reporter journeyed to Louisville, where Mahaney has moved the SGM headquarters plus established a new church, to show how this founder has emerged relatively unscathed by his fall. Although she was refused an interview, she at least got inside one of his services.

If you wish to learn more about how the article was assembled, Time magazine ran a Q&A with the author. There, the reporter goes into more details about Maryland’s bizarre limit on when you can file a civil suite over child abuse. The state mandates that you cannot be over 25 when doing so, which is totally unrealistic. Sadly, local Catholic dioceses have fought raising the age limit, which is something I wish the reporter had pointed out.

Do read the Washingtonian story. It’s yet another narrative about how the blogs are playing a crucial role in taking down people like Mahaney, Mark Driscoll and others and how an SGM Survivors blog was instrumental in helping the reporter contact sources. It's a story that should have run five years ago, but at least the magazine allowed the necessary space for it to run now.

Photos of C.J. Mahaney and the interior of a church are taken from websites affiliated with SGM, also known as Sovereign Grace Churches.

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