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Mar292018

Debunking the Claim that Sovereign Grace Churches, Inc. Is “Unable to Authorize an Independent Third-Party Investigation”

Last Thursday, the Executive Committee and Leadership Team of Sovereign Grace Churches, Inc. put out a statement in response to Mark Galli’s article, We Need an Independent Investigation of Sovereign Grace Ministries.  I have commented on each paragraph in the Sovereign Grace statement below.  The paragraphs are in bold italic print.  I’ve underline for emphasis.  You can read the unified statement here.   Sovereign Grace Ministries (SGM) publicly changed its name to Sovereign Grace Churches, Inc. (SGC) in December 2014. 

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Sovereign Grace Churches Statement to Christianity Today
March 22, 2018 by Sovereign Grace Staff 

On Monday, March 19, 2018, Christianity Today contacted Sovereign Grace Churches to inform us that they were planning to post an online editorial asking us to do an independent investigation regarding past allegations of sexual abuse made in a 2012 civil lawsuit that involved two former churches.  On February 13 we posted this statement providing details of these allegations including a denial that any Sovereign Grace leader covered up abuse. 

This is a false statement.  Christianity Today (CT) did not limit its request to “past allegations of sexual abuse made in a 2012 civil lawsuit that involved two former churches.”  Here is what CT requested. 

On March 1, 2018, Denhollander, issued a reply of her own.  It was not a cursory or flippant statement by any means, but one of nearly 8,000 words and, from our point of view, devastating in its detailed comments on the many aspects of the case.  This does not mean we can verify every word Denhollander has written; only that she has so carefully documented so many of the disputed matters that we have concluded that this whole affair needs a fresh, independent investigation to clear the air. 

Denhollander’s charges (and mine) go far beyond the “civil suit that involved two former churches.”  That is clear in her 8,000-word, Response to Sovereign Grace Churches.  It is also clear from her interview with Martha MacCallum of FOX NEWS on her prime-time newscast on March 16. 

Within Sovereign Grace Ministries you see a consistent pattern over decades of mishandling sexual assault allegations.  You have pastors on record, including in police reports, who acknowledge that the practice was to handle things internally.  You have multiple pedophiles, who were convicted, where the pastors are alleged by these families, independent of each other, to have interfered with the police investigations.  You have allegations in almost half of the Sovereign Grace Churches across the country of this pattern and that is without any investigative reporting having even been done.  So, the big question I have is, if we had the spotlight on evangelical organizations, the way we had the spotlight on the Catholic Church, the way we had the spotlight on Michigan State University; if people were to really dig into this what would we find?  If we have that much [evidence] without any investigation at all.

Denhollander intentionally uses the word “spotlight” with the movie, Spotlight, and the investigative reporting by the Boston Globe of the Roman Catholic Church in mind.  If you haven’t already, watch the movie.  Sovereign Grace Churches, Inc. has conducted itself like the Roman Catholic Church.  You will learn a lot from the movie.

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We are grateful that Christianity Today asked us for a statement before they published their editorial; however, we were disappointed when they didn’t include our entire statement in their article, especially given the critique made of our denomination.

In print journalism, it is uncommon to include lengthy statements in magazine articles.  In response, CT provided a link to the full statement the same day the editorial was published. 

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Here is the full statement we sent to Christianity Today on March 21, 2018. 

Recent public statements have called for Sovereign Grace Churches (SGC) to undergo an “independent third-party investigation” of our history and current practices to determine if sexual abuse is being covered up and abusers protected in our churches.

That is true.  I have made “public statements” calling for an investigation of SGC’s “history.” 

An Appeal to National Leaders for Action Against C.J. Mahaney & Sovereign Grace Ministries, Inc.
Saturday, February 17, 2018 at 6:41PM

Mahaney’s Withdrawal from Together for the Gospel Is Meaningless as He Continues to Run from an Independent Investigation with the Help of Al Mohler, Ligon Duncan, Mark Dever, et al.
Friday, March 9, 2018 at 5:24PM

So, have Rachael Denhollander and many others across the nation.  It needs to be determined if sexual abuse has been covered up and abusers protected over the last 35 years in SGM.  That is my contention and I have provided thousands of pages in evidentiary support of it.  For example in C.J. Mahaney, Covenant Life Church & the Conspiracy to Cover-up the Sexual Abuse of Children.

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We believe it is the Church’s obligation to lead in any realm related to justice for or protection of any child who has been harmed.  Our difficulty is this: the most specific accusations involve allegations made in a civil lawsuit filed in 2012 involving two churches that are no longer part of Sovereign Grace.  As to those two churches, we have no authority, no right to their pastoral records, and no access to their internal reports.  We, therefore, have neither the right nor the ability to agree to, require, or conduct an investigation of these churches.  One of those churches has already performed its own third-party investigation, but SGC has no access to that report or details from that investigation.

The “two churches” “no longer part of Sovereign Grace” are Covenant Life Church in Gaithersburg, Maryland and Sovereign Grace Church of Fairfax in Virginia.  SGC claims, “As to those two churches, we have no authority, no right to their pastoral records, and no access to their internal reports.”  This is altogether misleading.  SGC makes it sound like they cannot defend themselves because they are cut off from vital information.  Nothing could be further from the truth.      

The civil lawsuit in May 2013 was brought against Sovereign Grace Ministries, Covenant Life Church, and Sovereign Grace Church of Fairfax (now Redeeming Grace Church) and ten pastors, nine of whom worked for one of the three institutions.  The only exception was Larry Tomczak who left SGM in 1997. 

The lawyers for all the above institutions and individuals worked together as a litigation team to get the lawsuit dismissed. They shared their information.  That’s why SGC already has knowledge of “pastoral records” and “internal reports.”  There was only one defense against the 11 plaintiffs in the lawsuit and it was carried out by a cadre of law firms working in concert with one another.  SGC has pastoral records, internal reports and much, much more. 

Let me illustrate further.  Everything in the lawsuit occurred when C.J. Mahaney was the senior pastor of Covenant Life Church and President of Sovereign Grace Ministries.  As President, he was extensively involved in directing the cover up at Sovereign Grace Church of Fairfax (SGCF).  In fact, John Loftness, Kenneth Maresco, and Steve Shank were directly involved in counseling the Fairfax church.  They worked for Mahaney in his capacity as President of SGM.  That is a matter of record.  Mahaney and his lawyers have ALL the information pertaining to the conspiracy in CLC and SGCF.  In fact, one of the local pastoral conspirators in Fairfax, was Mahaney’s son-in-law, Steve Whitacre. 

The statement goes on to say, “We, therefore, have neither the right nor the ability to agree to, require, or conduct an investigation of these churches.”  SGC can’t legally impose an investigation upon CLC or SGCF (aka Redeeming Grace Church) but it certainly has “the right” and “the ability” to privately and publicly encourage them to embrace an investigation.  This is exactly what Mark Galli called for in his article, “Third, we are asking SGC to strongly encourage the accused churches and leaders to seek an independent investigation.”  SGC has done nothing of the kind to date.

While SGC hasn’t called for an investigation, members in Covenant Life Church have asked about an investigation.  Here’s what I mean. 

On March 4, 2018, CLC had a closed meeting where members were allowed to ask questions of the pastors, but not comment.  The following question was asked to get their thoughts on the case Rachael Denhollander made in her Response to Sovereign Grace Churches on March 1.  The member also wanted to find out what points they thought were valid and required repentance and whether the pastors were open to being examined by a third-party investigation.

Member: So, as you guys [the pastors] probably know, Rachael Denhollander, she recently proposed that there be a third-party with GRACE to conduct an investigation in relation to concerns of how our church dealt with child and sexual abuse.  So, I was wondering what are your thoughts on the case she made and her points?  That is one of my first questions.  The next one related to that is, what do you believe was valid that we need to repent of?  And the third one is, would it hurt to be open to being examined to see if there be any grievous ways within us?  

The question was rephrased by the moderator and directed to Mark Mitchell, the executive pastor.

Moderator: Mark, you want to talk about the appeal that has come from Rachael that we reach out to GRACE and I think Marissa [the member] added “What is valid in that?”  “Are we open to reevaluating some of those things and the allegations?”

Mark Mitchell: Yea.  Good question.  The first thing that I would say is; right now, the elders need to take time, to give considerable, careful consideration to what she has written.  And we haven’t had that time yet.  …  She raises good questions.  She makes some good points in some different places.  But what we don’t want to do right now is speculate on what the right response is, but we are considering all of the things.  We will certainly consider all of the things she puts forward in her post.  But much prayerful and careful consideration still needs to be given.”

That was nearly four weeks ago.  I doubt the CLC pastors will respond in public once they complete their “considerable, careful consideration” to “all of the things she put forward in her post” which includes “good questions” and “good points.”  But whether they do is irrelevant in terms of importance.  We don’t need an internal review.  We need a thorough outside investigation of Covenant Life Church and that is the fundamental issue before them.  Will the CLC pastors welcome such an investigation?  I believe the answer is no.  Will they conclude “the right response” is an investigation by third-party professionals?  No.  I think they will conclude their internal “consideration” is the only process needed.     

Lastly, in an attempt to present themselves as helpless to do anything, Sovereign Grace says, “One of those churches has already performed its own third-party investigation, but SGC has no access to that report or details from that investigation.”  They are referring to Covenant Life Church.  The written report by Lars Liebeler was not released but I have the recordings of his two oral reports to CLC on October 12 and 26, 2014.  I transcribed the contents of both meetings.  I am very glad to provide this evidence to SGC (though I’m confident they have the recordings already).  Why?  Because it substantiates a conspiracy existed at Covenant Life Church while Mahaney was the senior pastor and later apostle over the church.  Contrary to repeated claims by executive pastor, Mark Mitchell and the CLC pastors, Lars Liebeler did not do an “independent” investigation.  Nor would he answer my questions about his credentials and the withholding of vital evidence from CLC. 

From: Brent Detwiler [mailto:abrentdetwiler@gmail.com]
Sent: Friday, December 05, 2014 9:26 AM
To: Lars Liebeler
Subject: Request for Phone Conversation

Dear Lars,

Could we set up a time to talk by phone?  I have concerns for your report to CLC that I’d like to share with you in person.  For example, you left out vital pieces of evidence regarding the events of 2007.  I’d like to discuss these concerns.  I would not make this request unless it was important.  Your investigation continues so it is not too late to amend your findings. 

Please contact me at your earliest convenience.  I’d also appreciate an answer to my previous question about your legal experience in dealing with sex abusers.

Thanks for your consideration.

Brent

From: Brent Detwiler [mailto:abrentdetwiler@gmail.com]
Sent: Tuesday, December 09, 2014 4:44 PM
To: Lars Liebeler
Subject: RE: Request for Phone Conversation

You seem to have misunderstood the nature of my request.  I don’t have additional evidence that needs to be forwarded.  I want to discuss the evidence in both our possessions and ask why you withheld some of it from your presentation to CLC.  From my perspective, you acted in a partial manner, not an independent manner, in the reporting of evidence.  That is my primary concern.

I’d also like to know about your past legal experience in dealing with sex abusers.  I think that too is germane to your findings.  I hope you will answer my questions regarding the same.

Brent

Sovereign Grace Ministries, Inc., Covenant Life Church and Redeeming Grace Church all need to be thoroughly investigated by a truly independent and professional third party. 

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Secondly, SGC is a denomination consisting of 72 churches, each of which is individually constituted and governed by its own board of elders.  While there is a specific process by which a charge may be submitted against an elder by any current or former SGC church member, SGC leadership has no authority to mandate an investigation by an outside authority upon all of our churches.  We are therefore unable to authorize an independent third-party investigation of SGC and its churches.

SGC argues it cannot “authorize an independent third-party investigation of SGC and it churches” based upon the assertion that its 72 churches are “individually constituted” (i.e. independent) and “governed by its own board of elders” (i.e. autonomous).  This is a bogus claim repeatedly contradicted by their own documents.  The churches of SGC are not independent and autonomous.  The evidence is clear.  Take for instance that found in its Book of Church Order.  This polity book mandates the “order” the churches must follow in submission to SGC.  Here are a few examples.  Much more evidence could be cited.

Book of Church Order
1. General Principles

1.5 Sovereign Grace local churches seek to give their spiritual unity in Christ as much concrete institutional expression as is practical.  In this way we bear visible witness to our union under one head, Jesus Christ.

1.6 Moreover, no local church is omnicompetent or self-sufficient to carry out the mission which Christ has entrusted to the entire church (Matt. 28:19-20).  Each local body stands in need of other local bodies in a relationship of interdependence.

1.7 This interdependence is more adequately expressed when local churches associate together in wider ecclesiastical bodies with shared resources, mission, mutual care, support, edification, and cooperation in government.  Such cooperation is necessary for the protection of doctrinal fidelity and standards of holiness, the direction of a common mission, and the disposal of common funds. 

1.8 Therefore the elders of local churches are accountable for their life and doctrine, not only to their own local congregations, but also in part to the broader ecclesiastical body as represented by her officers.

1.9 The Sovereign Grace churches express these principles of spiritual unity primarily through the Regional Assemblies of Elders and the Council of Elders. … The Regional Assemblies of Elders and the Council of Elders also help maintain the integrity of our corporate witness through the exercise of specified extra-local functions.  These assemblies, to which elders agree to hold themselves accountable, serve as a protection to local congregations.

1.10.1 Sovereign Grace Churches, based upon mutual love and confidence, has voluntarily determined to approve and appropriate the Sovereign Grace Statement of Faith, Partnership Agreement, and Book of Church Order as governing statutes and guidelines ordering their fellowship locally and with other Sovereign Grace churches.

1.12 We affirm that Sovereign Grace exists to promote the shared values of: … Interdependent churches united in fellowship, mission, and governance

SGC is a denomination with a common government.  It is not a network, association or convention of “independent” or “autonomous” churches.  It has a strict hierarchy to which all the elders and churches must submit.  It is laughable that SGC is trying to pass itself off as having “no authority” over the elders or churches to avoid an outside investigation.  

8.0 Accountability for Pastors
8.5 Sovereign Grace

In all of the ways specified in this Book of Church Order, elders in a local church are accountable to the other elders in their Region and ultimately to all the elders in Sovereign Grace.  Regional Assemblies with their Judicial Review Committees and the Council of Elders, along with the Sovereign Grace Court of Appeal, provide accountability for the life and doctrine of elders in Sovereign Grace.

In contrast, the elders of independent and autonomous churches are accountable to no one outside the congregation.  Here is another example that disproves the assertion SGC has no authority or jurisdiction over its elders and churches.  This solemn oath must be signed by ever pastor ordained in SGC.

9.0 The Ordination of Elders

9.3.6.3  I declare sincerely before God that I believe that all the articles and points of doctrine contained in the Sovereign Grace Statement of Faith fully agree with the Scriptures, and I own that Statement as the statement and confession of my faith.  These are doctrines I promise to teach and defend in public and in private.  I promise further that if in the future I come to have reservations about any of these doctrines, I will share these reservations with my eldership and the Regional Assembly of Elders.  If ordained, I will submit to the explicitly mandated polity practices of the Sovereign Grace Book of Church Order.  I affirm that the form of government contained in the Sovereign Grace Book of Church Order is a wise and suitable application of Scriptural principles.”

I wrote the Statement of Faith in 1987, then expanded it in 1998.  It must bother them to swear allegiance to something I put together.  I wish they would “believe” other things I’ve written like that contained in this post!  

All elders must also “submit” to the thousands of “explicitly mandated policy practices.”  Finally, they must submit to “the form of government” contained in the Book of Common Order.  Here is a summary of that government in my words.  

The Council of Elders (which has a Polity Committee, Theology Committee,  Nominating Committee, and Court of Appeal) with a Chairman is over the Executive Committee with an Executive Director which is over the Leadership Team which is over the Regional Leaders which are over the Regional Assemblies of Elders (each region has a separate Ordination Committee, Judicial Review Committee, Church Planting Committee,  Nominating Committee, Budget Committee) which are over the local elders which are over the local churches.  

That is “the form of government” they claim, “is a wise and suitable application of Scriptural principles.”  I believe it is unbiblical and extra-biblical and violates the simplicity of church government taught in the epistles and modeled in the Book of Acts.  I don’t think Sovereign Grace Churches, Inc. will ever thrive (issues of godliness aside) under this hierarchical structure which imposes literally thousands of regulations on the local elders and churches.  It is ever so burdensome.  It reads and feels like the Talmud.  Sovereign Grace is clearly a corporation with an extensive corporate structure.         

SGC leadership has the authority to require obedience to all their detailed regulations regarding life, doctrine and practice.  If these mandates are not obeyed, SGC even has the authority to remove entire elderships (BCO 25.2.10, 25.2.11), individual churches (BCO 25.2.11.3) or entire regions of churches (BCO 26.2.3) from SGC.  In addition, they have the authority to investigate, discipline, disavow, and censure pastors.  To censure means to sternly rebuke in public including letters sent to all the churches that can be read.  You can do none of the above if churches are genuinely independent and autonomous.  Why?  Because you have no authority over them – that is the meaning of the word “autonomous.”  You are self-governing.  You are not under SGC law or polity. 

For instance, compare SGC to the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC).  This information is found on their link to Frequently Asked Questions.

I believe our pastor (or my church) has acted inappropriately. What can the SBC do about it?

Since each local Baptist church is autonomous, the Convention has no authority to monitor or investigate the actions within that church or allegations against its pastor or any member of the church.  The proper governing body to exercise discipline over any Southern Baptist is the congregation of which that Southern Baptist is a member, whether the person is the pastor of the church or any other member of the church.  The SBC is not a church and has no authority to renounce, censure, investigate, or otherwise attempt to discipline members of any local church.

Why is the SBC so committed to the autonomy of the local church?

We recognize that in the New Testament there was no centralized ecclesiastical authority over the churches that forced the churches into any form of compliance.  There was encouragement, exhortation, and admonition, but there was never enforcement.  We strongly adhere to that principle.  Jesus Christ is the head of the local church—we are not.  Each church is responsible before God for the policies it sets and decisions it makes.

The leaders of Sovereign Grace Churches, Inc. lie when they claim each of its “72 churches” are “individually constituted [i.e. independent] and governed by its own board of elders [i.e. autonomous].”  This is pure spin. 

Here is another quote from the BCO that repudiates SGC’s claim. 

19.2.1 The Sovereign Grace churches together voluntarily form a unified ecclesiastical body (Sovereign Grace Churches) to glorify God as an expression of the bride of Christ.  The churches share spiritual and material resources for the furtherance of our common mission, under a common government, which guards our fidelity to our common Statement of Faith and standards of corporate holiness.

Notice, the “common government” is authorized and responsible to guard “our fidelity to our common…standards of corporate holiness.”  Nothing in the BCO forbids outside involvement to that end.  Of course, it can ask for a professional investigation of infidelity pertaining to all the allegations against it.

C.J. Mahaney, Jeff Purswell (Chair of the Theology Committee), Phil Sasser (Chair of the Polity Committee), et al., know they have nothing in common with the Southern Baptist Convention and yet they pretend to be a convention like them when it comes to reasons they can’t do an investigation.  The churches in SGC are not independent and they are not autonomous.  They share an elaborate common government that is regional and national and can require obedience to all its mandates under the threat of rebuke, de-ordination, excommunication, removal, etc.   

That is why I don’t believe these are truthful statements.  “SGC leadership has no authority to mandate an investigation by an outside authority upon all of our churches.”  And, “We are therefore unable to authorize an independent third-party investigation of SGC and its churches.”  These assertions are based upon the premise that SGC churches are independent and autonomous which is not the case.  

All the things the Southern Baptist Convention cannot do, Sovereign Grace Churches, Inc. is required to do in its Book of Church Order under its common government.  SGC is pretending to be something they are not, in order to prevent a thorough outside investigation.   

The leaders of SGC pretend they can do nothing even though, “You have allegations in almost half of the Sovereign Grace Churches across the country.”  All that can be done is to follow a “specific process by which a charge may be submitted against an elder by any current or former SGC church member.”  Notice, the onus is on church members!  The Council of Elders, the Executive Committee, the Leadership Team, and the Regional Leaders are not going to lift a finger and submit a charge against Mahaney, one another, or other leaders who have conspired to commit and cover up the physical and sexual abuse of children.   

In response to this comment, Mark Galli from Christianity Today makes this perspective observation. 

“That being said, we call upon SGC to conduct an independent audit of how it has, in fact, processed charges when they have been brought to its attention—this is precisely one of the points of contention.”

Bingo!  Hundreds of credible charges of serious wrong doing have been brought against C.J. Mahaney over the last seven years.  How have they been processed?  Likewise, hundreds of credible charges have been brought against the top leaders in SGC.  How have then been processed?  For example, those found in these articles.  We need an outside audit!

C.J. Mahaney, Covenant Life Church & the Conspiracy to Cover-up the Sexual Abuse of Children
Tuesday, February 13, 2018 at 12:42PM

Hush Fund Set Up by Top SGM Leaders to Meet the Demands of a SGM Pastor Whose Son Was Sexually Abused 
Monday, March 30, 2015 at 1:56PM

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Clearly any specific allegations of child sexual abuse should be reported to criminal and child protection authorities, regardless of the passage of time.  We recognize the critical importance of treating child sexual abuse seriously and its victims with compassion.  To this end, SGC has taken specific steps in recent years to better understand and address the risk of child sexual abuse.  Since 2014, we have provided the MinistrySafe child safety system to SGC churches free of cost, including training, screening forms, policies, and proactive reporting practices.

Providing MinistrySafe guarantees nothing because SGC churches are under no obligation to use their services.  It is up to “each church partner” whether they “address the risk of child sexual abuse.”  It is therefore optional.  SGC mandates thousands of regulations in the BCO but it doesn’t require “a safe and prudent child protection policy.” 

19.2 Partnership Agreement for United States Region

19.2.3.4.a Each Church Partner will be responsible for determining its own risk management strategy, including maintaining appropriate levels of insurance coverage, implementing a safe and prudent child protection policy, and other measures.

I have no confidence SGC churches will report or treat victims with compassion.  That could change if they hold accountable all those who have not reported or treated victims with compassion in the past.  The corruption in SGC is pervasive.  Until it comes clean, no one should trust it to do what is right.

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To ensure that any survivor of child sexual abuse in our churches feels protected and cared for, we have sought ways to further strengthen our practices.  We are exploring the involvement of an organization with expertise and objectivity in dealing with issues of abuse to assist our pastors and elders in this regard.  This is intended to help ensure that allegations are reported, cases are handled legally and wisely, and abuse survivors are provided proper care.  It is our desire and goal to maintain consistency in all SGC churches where child sexual abuse issues are encountered, and, specifically, to provide compassionate care and support to those who have experienced past sexual abuse.

This is an astounding paragraph!  The Executive Committee and Leadership Team can’t call for an investigation, but they can go about “exploring the involvement of an organization with expertise and objectivity in dealing with issues of abuse” to “help ensure that allegations are reported, cases are handled legally and wisely, and abuse survivors are provided proper care.”  What a contradiction - an outside organization hired to ensure pastors obey the law and abuse victims are not mistreated! 

Bob Kauflin, Jeff Purswell, Mark Prater, Ian McConnell, and others in SGC leadership want to involve this professional organization “to strengthen our practices” and “to maintain consistency in all SGC churches” but they don’t want to involve a professional organization to investigate whether past “allegations were reported, cases were handled legally and wisely, and abuse survivors were provided proper care.” 

SGC leaders clearly believe they can authorize the former, but they categorically reject they can authorize the latter.  The incongruity is obvious.   

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In sum, we desire to walk transparently, to grow in our ability to better address this risk, and to honor Christ in the way we care for those who have experienced abuse. 

If so, then embrace a thorough outside investigation and stop hiding behind the false narrative that it cannot be done because Sovereign Grace churches are independent and autonomous.  

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My efforts are designed to help Christians judge righteously, think biblically, and live courageously.  Your financial support makes that possible.  Please consider a gift today at BrentDetwiler.com.  Thank you! 

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