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Apr272013

Louisville-based Sovereign Grace Ministries wants lawsuit ended, says it's shielded from abuse claims

Louisville-based Sovereign Grace Ministries wants lawsuit ended, says it's shielded from abuse claims
Written by Peter Smith of The Courier-Journal
Apr. 26, 2013

The Louisville-based Sovereign Grace Ministries is arguing that constitutional protections of freedom of religion should shield the denomination from an expanding lawsuit alleging that its demands for unquestioning obedience led to the shielding of sexual predators. 

The plaintiffs in the case are disputing the church’s claims and have filed notice they plan to expand it with additional charges — including one alleging abuse by a Maryland pastor who recently had been chairman of the Sovereign Grace board. 

The lawsuit was originally filed in October 2012 in Montgomery County, Md., the longtime base for the church. 

The lawsuit alleges that the church fostered a climate of fear and unquestioning obedience and that it pressured young victims and families involved with Sovereign Grace churches in Maryland and Virginia to forgive abusive members who had professed repentance and not to report them to police. 

The lawsuit was expanded in January with new allegations. In all, eight plaintiffs are suing, all using pseudonyms. 

In legal filings seeking to get the case dismissed, Sovereign Grace lawyers said the allegations are so vague “that it is nearly impossible to tell who committed the acts of abuse and when and where the alleged acts of cover-up occurred.” 

In addition, the church lawyers said that by accusing Sovereign Grace of demanding unquestioned obedience to pastoral leaders, the plaintiffs “have put the spiritual and doctrinal affairs of SGM and the local churches directly at issue” — matters off limits for secular courts under the religious-liberty clauses of the First Amendment. 

The plaintiffs’ lawyers, Susan Burke and William O’Neill, replied in court documents that the suit is about “a church network systemically protecting predators from accountability.” 

“The First Amendment prevents the courts from becoming entangled in religious doctrine; it does not bestow a ‘get out of jail free’ card on wrongdoers who happen to be cloaked in religious garb or who claim to operate with religious authority,” the plaintiffs said, citing numerous court rulings against other denominations in sexual-abuse cases. 

The plaintiffs’ lawyers said in legal filings that they plan to amend the lawsuit yet again in the near future, adding plaintiffs and accusations. 

The documents said, without giving specifics, that the plaintiffs would allege abuse by John Loftness, pastor of Solid Rock Church in Prince Georges County, Md. 

Loftness resigned as chairman of the denomination’s board earlier this year, citing church and family responsibilities. He referred a request for comment to a denominational spokesman, who has not returned emailed requests for comment. 

The plaintiffs are asking for about $50 million in damages and class-action status on behalf of all victims. 

Sovereign Grace is a network of dozens of churches that is influential in the New Calvinist movement among some evangelicals, which emphasizes the power of God over human free will, tightly disciplined churches and male authority in homes and churches. 

It moved its headquarters to Louisville from its longtime base in Gaithersburg, Md., in 2012 amid a growing split with its former flagship church there. 

Several congregations — including two large ones also named as defendants in the lawsuit — have left the denomination amid controversies that included disputes over the leadership practices of the denomination’s longtime president, C.J. Mahaney, who stepped down earlier in April. 

Mahaney is pastor of Sovereign Grace Church in Louisville, the movement’s only Kentucky congregation, which was launched last year. 

Sovereign Grace Ministries is also seeking dismissal on the grounds that the abusers and local church elders were not denominational employees and that many of the alleged offenses happened too long ago to be allowed under the statute of limitations. 

The plaintiffs responded by citing an affidavit from a former leader in the denomination, Brent Detwiler of North Carolina, who said Sovereign Grace leaders did control the training and licensing of pastors and worked with churches in decisions over pastors’ hiring and firing. 

Reporter Peter Smith can be reached at (502) 582-4469. 

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