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Ominous Signs in Amended Lawsuit Portend Worse Things to Come for Sovereign Grace Ministries

The first complaint (i.e., paragraph) cited in the amended class action lawsuit gives a succinct overview of the charges being brought against the 14 Defendants by the eight Plaintiffs.

“Plaintiffs and the Class were seriously harmed by Sovereign Grace Ministries, Inc., Covenant Life Church, Inc., Covenant Life School, Inc. and the individual Defendants.  The facts show that certain individual Defendants and other predators not named repeatedly physically and sexually abused children.  Although these facts were known to Defendants, they cared more about protecting its financial and institutional standing than about protecting children, its most vulnerable members.  Defendants failed to stop repeated and ongoing sexual predation occurring at SGM churches and organization, including Covent Life Church and Covenant Life School.  Defendants failed to report known incidences of sexual predation to law enforcement, encouraged parents to refrain from reporting the assaults to law enforcement, and interposed themselves between the parents of the victims and law enforcement in order to mislead law enforcement into believing the parents had “forgiven” those who preyed on their children. Defendants’ acts and omissions were not isolated events. Defendants’ repeated acts and omissions created a culture in which sexual predators were protected from accountability, and victims were silenced.” (Complaint 1)

Repeated Sexual Assaults Alleged on Church Properties by Church Workers

The original lawsuit was filed on October 17, 2012.  A couple weeks later, Joshua Harris accurately pointed out to Covenant Life Church some “saving graces” regarding the legal complaints it contained.   

“Before we move on to the primary focus of our meeting I do want to say a few things about the issues surrounding the lawsuit.  I hope you understand that because this is an open suit, we cannot discuss details of the case.  But I think it’s helpful to make a few simple points.… Third, our church has not been sued and there are no allegations in the Complaint that any past or present pastor of CLC has committed child abuse.  Neither is there an allegation in the Complaint that any other employee or agent of Covenant Life committed any child abuse.  Fourth, there is no allegation in the Complaint that any act of child abuse occurred on Covenant Life property or under its supervision and control.” (Joshua Harris, CLC Members’ Meeting, Nov 4, 2012)

Tommy Hill, Director of Administration and Finances, put out the same kind of statement on two different occasions.

“Though not yet served, Sovereign Grace Ministries (SGM) leadership has obtained a copy of the civil lawsuit filed last week against SGM and several pastors of its associational churches…. It is important to note that it does not allege any act of child abuse by a pastor or staff member of SGM or of an associated church.” (Tommy Hill, SGM website, Oct 26, 2012)

“Sovereign Grace Ministries (SGM) leadership has obtained a copy of the civil lawsuit filed Oct. 17 against SGM and several pastors from its associational churches.... The suit does not allege child abuse by any current or former pastor of SGM or any church associated with SGM.  The suit does not allege child abuse by any employee or staff of SGM or any church associated with SGM.  The suit does not allege any child abuse occurred on any SGM property or any church associated with SGM.” (Tommy Hill, SGM website, Nov 14, 2012)

All of this has changed with the amended filing on January 11, 2013 and the addition of five new plaintiffs.  The expanded complaint references a pastor/teacher, children’s ministry worker, and the male son of a church pastor being involved in repeated acts of sexual assault and abuse on church property and at church events. 

In one place it says, 

“There is a class of male and female persons harmed by Defendants’ negligent and intentional misconduct in hiring and failing to supervise sexual predators, concealing, tolerating, failing to report allegations of physical and sexual abuse.” (Complaint 96)

The Operation of a “Pedophilia Ring”

The amended suit also alleges a “pedophilia ring” operating in Covenant Life Church and Covenant Life School.  There are four references in the complaint.

“Upon information and belief, Paula Poe was not the only victim of this pedophilia ring operating with the School and Church.” (Complaint 41)

“Upon information and belief, the pedophilia ring’s victims included children who subsequent went on to prey upon other younger children.” (Complaint 42)

“Upon information and belief, the juvenile perpetrator [i.e., the male son of a church pastor in Fairfax, VA] may have been one of the victims of the pedophilia ring operating at the [Covenant Life] School [in Gaithersburg, MD] prior to sexually molesting Karl Koe.” (Complaint 57)

“Upon information and belief, the juvenile perpetrator [a different person than the one mentioned above] who molested Norma Noe may have previously been a victim of the pedophilia ring operating at the [Covenant Life] School.” (Complaint 86)

In this regard and others, the lawyers asked the Judge to allow them to proceed to the discovery phase in order gather evidence that will help them quantify the number of juvenile and adult pedophiles operating in this alleged ring and also the number of victims who have been sexual abused and assaulted.

“Discovery is needed to ascertain the size of the class, but based on the number of persons contacting putative class counsel, a class is needed for efficient adjudication.  Many of the victims are not willing to come forward in a public setting as a result of the nature of harms done to them.” (Complaint 99)

C.J. Mahaney and Steve Shank

C.J. was the senior pastor at Covenant Life Church (CLC) when the alleged sexual abuse occurred in relation to Norma Noe [Renee Palmer-Gamby], Robin Roe [Dara Adams-Sutherland], and Grace Goe [Olivia Llewellyn].  He was interacting with Defendants Loftness, Ricucci and Layman and providing them counsel.

Steve Shank had apostolic responsibility for Sovereign Grace Church of Fairfax (SGCF) when the alleged sexual abuse occurred in relation to Jane Doe, Karen Coe, and Karl Coe.  He was interacting with Defendants Frank Ecelbarger, Benny Phillips [I mistakenly refer to Phillips as a Defendant.  He is referenced in Complaint 120 in relation to Jane Doe but is not named as a Defendant], David Hinders, Lou Gallo, Mark Mullery, Vince Hinders and providing them counsel.  Steve was also in contact with C.J. regarding these matters.

The pastors at CLC and SGCF did not act on their own.  C.J. and Steve played significant roles in providing them counsel and direction in these situations.  This should come out in the discovery phase and then in the court trial if the case proceeds.  In my opinion, Steve Shank should be added as a Defendant. 

Both C.J. and Steve were aware of difficulties regarding Carla Coe and Defendant Tomczak.

Condemnations of Plaintiffs and Lawyers by Sovereign Grace Board and Leadership Team

Tommy Hill is the spokesman for the nine member Board of Directors and the four man Leadership Team comprised of C.J., Dave Harvey, Jeff Purswell and himself.  Recently Dave was removed from the Leadership Team by his local pastors for unspecified disciplinary reasons that have been concealed.  He was replaced by Mark Prater. 

Tommy is also the Director of Administration and Finances for SGM.  He works the most closely with C.J., who is the President of SGM, and John Loftness, who is the Chairman of the Board for SGM.  Both are named Defendants in the lawsuit.  Tommy has issued four statements on their behalf regarding the lawsuit.  Here are his comments regarding the complaints or allegations.

October 17, 2012

“To date, Sovereign Grace Ministries has not been served with any such lawsuit nor does it have a copy of the lawsuit.  Sovereign Grace Ministries is not in a position to comment on the allegations of the reported lawsuit.” 

October 26, 2012

“This recent complaint makes broad allegations that SGM pastors were negligent in providing spiritual counsel and pastoral care in situations involving persons who had previously suffered child sexual abuse…. SGM is not in a position to comment on the specific allegations at this time, but we are beginning a careful legal review of each allegation.  Upon initial review it appears the complaint contains a number of untrue or misleading allegations, as well as considerable mischaracterizations of intent.”

November 14, 2012

“This complaint makes broad allegations that SGM pastors were negligent, resulting in errors and omissions in pastoral counseling and spiritual care, which was voluntarily sought and provided years ago to some families of child abuse victims…. SGM leaders provided biblical and spiritual direction to those who requested this guidance.  This care was sought confidentially, as is a right under the First Amendment.  We are saddened that lawyers are now, in essence, seeking to violate those rights by asking judges and juries, years after such pastoral assistance was sought, to dictate what sort of biblical counsel they think should have been provided.  SGM believes that allowing courts to second guess pastoral guidance would represent a blow to the First Amendment, that would hinder, not help, families seeking spiritual direction among other resources in dealing with the trauma related to any sin including child sexual abuse.  SGM is not in a position to comment on the specific allegations at this time, but upon review it appears the complaint contains a number of misleading allegations, as well as considerable mischaracterizations of intent.  Legal counsel is preparing responsive pleadings.” 

After demeaning the allegations, absolving the pastors, putting the onus on the counselees, implicating the victims' lawyers, and hiding behind the First Amendment (the lawsuit is not about church doctrine, it alleges the cover up of criminal activity); SGM has suddenly dropped their braggadocio and self-righteous pronouncements.  They are singing a completely different tune since the amended lawsuit was filed on January 11, 2013.  The spin is nauseating!  Here is Tommy’s recent statement.  The axe is falling. 

 January 15, 2013 

“SGM has been carefully reviewing each allegation since the initial claims first surfaced last October.  We consider any allegation of harm to a child extremely serious and we have been working diligently in an effort to learn the truth.  We ask for patience as we continue to investigate these new allegations.  Please continue to pray with us for all those affected by this lawsuit.” 

Ambassadors of Reconciliation 

On my blog in “Random Thoughts on Recent Events” (October 26, 2012), I said the following about AoR’s exoneration of SGM.  

“Ed Kober and Ed Keinath defended SGM in ‘Cases Involving Sexual Misconduct’ on page 19 as found in their April 10, 2012, Ambassadors of Reconciliation Report to the Sovereign Grace Ministries Board of Directors.  They said the following.    

‘Some raising their concerns alleged that SGM consistently handles such cases in irresponsible ways.  While we did not complete detailed reviews of cases involving sexual misconduct, we were able to review documentation in some situations that demonstrated the SGM leadership understood the gravity of the situations.  SGM leaders offered care and concern, they sought professional legal and counseling help for SGM and key leaders involved, and in some cases they helped connect parties to Christian mediators.’

“This amounted to a complete vindication of Sovereign Grace Ministries.  AoR should also be name as a defendant in the lawsuit.  If the allegations in the lawsuit are true, then at least some of the plaintiffs made this clear to Ted and Ed.  They did nothing but commend SGM in their report.” 

I assume Ted Kober, President of AoR, and Ed Keneith, his co-worker, will be deposed and subpoenaed on behalf of the Plaintiffs to find out everything they knew about “Cases Involving Sexual Misconduct” (to use their pathetic description of sexual assault and molestation).  From my perspective, had Ted and Ed acted in a righteous manner, instead of an unrighteous manner, this class action lawsuit may have been avoided.  Instead of reconciliation, they brought division, when they dismissed the Plaintiffs/victims and commended the Defendants in their report to the SGM Board of Directors.  This must have crushed the Plaintiffs/victims and their loved ones.

More Amendments to Lawsuit in the Future

What has been alleged in the civil suit is ever so serious!  I can’t imagine Judge Sharon V. Burrell dismissing the case on Constitutional grounds or for a lack of credible evidence which grows every week.  That doesn’t mean I believe every complaint.  I still view them as allegations.  They each have to be proven before a jury of peers. 

But here’s the point.  No Plaintiff/victim would subject himself/herself to such adverse circumstances unless they felt compelled by justice and no Washington D.C. lawyer would accept the case unless they were confident it was legitimate and therefore winnable. 

It is one thing to play the role of plaintiff on an internet blog where you can make all kinds of allegations under an anonymous name without presenting evidence.  It is another thing to be subpoenaed, deposed while recorded, and cross examined under oath by competent lawyers.  We are talking about the big leagues, not tee ball.

I don’t think the Plaintiffs are in this for the money though they are entitled to reparations and restitution under biblical and civil law if the Defendants are found culpable.  That is why I don’t believe they will settle out of court for financial damages alone.  They want “equitable relief” more than “monetary relief.” 

“’A plaintiff can either ask for monetary relief, or equitable relief.  Monetary relief is when the plaintiff asks for a cash award to remedy the situation.  Equitable relief is when the plaintiff asks for the court to order the other party to do or not to do something.’  If SGM or any of the defendants are liable, I hope the plaintiff’s ask for both kinds of relief.  I assume they can require SGM to take action that prevents the cover up of child molestation in the future.” (Brent Detwiler, “Random Thoughts on Recent Events,” October 26, 2012) 

This recent amendment to the class action lawsuit could be the first of several over the coming months.  The lawyers have now widened the field to include non-sexual physical and psychological abuse with the introduction of Plaintiff Carla Coe.  I assume complaints regarding spousal abuse will also be added to the class action in the future.  I said the following in October 2012. 

“I fear there are many cases of spousal abuse in Sovereign Grace Churches that have been terribly mishandled by SGM pastors.  This too must be investigated.  I want to encourage any woman who has been battered to get help.  If your pastor did more to protect your abuser than you, or counseled you against contacting the police, or confronted you for being unforgiving, or told you not to separate, then please speak up.  Such abusive pastoring must stop.  I am glad to help you, confront your pastors for you, and put you in touch with people who can uphold you.” (Brent Detwiler, “Sexual Abuse and Spousal Abuse in Sovereign Grace Ministries,” October 22, 2012)

Law Enforcement and Criminal Charges

I believe the civil lawsuit will go to trial given the growing body of evidence.  But that is not the end of it.  This kind of filing “In Montgomery County Circuit Court, Maryland – Civil Division” does not go unnoticed by law enforcement agencies on the Federal, State, and Local level.  One can assume there are criminal investigations going on of which we have no knowledge totally independent of the civil proceedings. 

The plaintiffs in the civil case are not bringing criminal charges but that does not mean criminal charges will not be brought by law enforcement.  If all the allegations in the civil lawsuit are true, then criminal acts have been committed and criminals have been protected.  Of the 11 abusers referenced in the Complaint only four were prosecuted no thanks to the pastors that hindered the impartial administration of justice.  The other seven were allegedly protected.   

The lawsuit also alleges a “pedophilia ring” that may have operated across state lines.  Whether that is true or not, I’m certain the Judge in this case has a legal obligation to alert the highest law enforcement agencies in the land to this and other allegations contained in the lawsuit.  

In this regard, I’d recommend the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) in Baltimore, Maryland be contacted by anyone who knows of past or present criminal activity covered up by Sovereign Grace Ministries or their churches.  Go to  There is little doubt in my mind that criminal charges will be forthcoming.  That could result in jail time, not only for perpetrators, but for those who unlawfully protected the perpetrators.

Financial Implications for Defendants

Four institutional Defendants are named: Sovereign Grace Ministries, Covenant Life Church, Covenant Life School, and Sovereign Grace Church of Fairfax.

These 501(c3) non-profit corporations each carry liability insurance to indemnify (cover) the organization against lawsuits like the one being filed.  Typically a church in SGM has coverage for about 1 million dollars in damages.  The policies for SGM, CLC and SGCF may provide for greater payouts. 

When a lawsuit is filed, the Insurance Company begins their own investigation.  Regardless of findings, they will cover the expenses/damages for the institutional Defendant (i.e. church or ministry). 

The same is not true for the individual Defendants.  If they determine the Defendants are liable, then the Defendants will have to pay all legal fees and damages from their own financial resources.  That could easily lead to personal bankruptcy and the garnishing of wages in the future.

In this regard, it is important to know whether or not Sovereign Grace Ministries is paying for legal representation for the individual Defendants if they are not being covered by the Insurance Company.  For instance, is SGM paying the legal fees for C.J. Mahaney (President), John Loftness (Chairman) and Gary Ricucci (Pastor for the SGM Pastors College). 

Every leader and church member in SGM should demand an accounting.  Are monies donated to the charitable cause of SGM being used to cover legal expenses because those expenses are not being covered by the liability insurance?  This is a crucial question!  No church or individual contributor should give another dime to SGM until these questions are openly answered in public. 

Reputational Implications

If the lawsuit goes to trial, it will destroy the reputation of C.J. Mahaney and Sovereign Grace Ministries.  Of that I am certain.  C.J. is ultimately responsible having been the President of SGM for 22 years (1991 to present) and the senior pastor of CLC for 25 years (1980-2004).  He has not been uninformed or uninvolved in most, if not all, of the complaints alleged. 

There are ominous signs in the amended lawsuit that portend worse things to come.

The Legal Road Ahead

The legal defense team of Gammon and Grange will now file their responsive pleadings.  They will argue for dismissal of the class action by the Judge on various grounds (e.g. the First Amendment).  The lawyers for the Plaintiffs then provide the Judge their own response to these pleadings.

Sometime in the spring, Judge Sharon V. Burrell will rule on the merits of the case and make a determination whether or not it may proceed to discovery.

“Discovery is the pre-trial phase in a lawsuit in which each party, through the law of civil procedure, can obtain evidence from the opposing party by means of discovery devices including requests for answers to interrogatories, requests for production of documents, requests for admissions and depositions. Discovery can be obtained from non-parties using subpoenas.”

The evidence gathered during the discovery phase will be presented to the Judge over the summer I assume.  She will then make a ruling on whether or not the case may be tried by a jury based upon its merits.

If it goes to trial, I suspect a date will be set for the end of this year or early next year.  I imagine the trial will last several weeks given the growing number of Plaintiffs and Defendants. 

The jurors will have their hands full.  It will be a ton of information to assimilate and evaluate.  In the process, they must assess the liability of each individual Defendant and each institutional Defendant.  Then they assign damages to be paid out by each Defendant if found liable.  They will also rule on requests for equitable relief.  

Of course, it is possible some or all of the Defendants may settle out of court.  It is also possible the Judge will dismiss the case, or certain Complaints in the case, after the responsive pleadings.  Or the Judge may rule that the case, or certain Complaints in the case, may not go to trial after discovery.  It is not a done deal and innocent Defendants should not end up in trial court.

This is yet again another opportunity for C.J. and SGM to humble themselves under the mighty hand of God or experience even greater expressions of his holy opposition.  There has been no grieving, mourning or wailing in SGM over the past 18 months.  

The Leadership Team and Board of Directors refuse to submit to God and acknowledge their grave sins on different fronts while many SGM pastors tolerate and condone what should have been exposed and condemned through just means.  The devil has encamped around SGM.  He will not flee until there is widespread mourning and gloom.  Instead of SGM being lifted up by God, it has been brought low by God in a short period of time. 

James 4:4-10 Or do you think Scripture says without reason that the spirit he caused to live in us envies intensely? [6] But he gives us more grace. That is why Scripture says: “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.” [7] Submit yourselves, then, to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. [8] Come near to God and he will come near to you. Wash your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded. [9] Grieve, mourn and wail. Change your laughter to mourning and your joy to gloom. [10] Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will lift you up.

I have summarized below the alleged activities of abuse that are contained in the [first] amended lawsuit.

Three Original Plaintiffs

Jane Doe (C7, 62-73)

“A female high-school student residing in Virginia who was sexually assaulted when she was three.” (C7)

“Between August 1998 and March 1999, a church member repeatedly sexually assaulted and sexually molested Jane Doe.” (C62)

Charge:                   Repeated sexual assault and molestation
Timeframe:              August 1998 – March 1999
Age:                        3 years old
Parents:                  Church officials who ran a Home Group
Location:                 Not specified
Perpetrator:            Church member
Defendants cited:    Ecelbarger, Hinders, D., Gallo

Norma Noe [Renee Palmer-Gamby] (C8, 74-86)

“A 22-year old female college student residing in Maryland who was sexually assaulted when she was two years old.” (C8)

“On or about March 17, 1993, a church member sexually molested Norma Noe.  Norma Noe was two years old at the time of the sexual assault and living in Gaithersburg, MD.” (C74)

Charge:                   Sexual molestation
Timeframe:               March 1993
Age:                         2 years old
Location:                  Not specified
Perpetrator:             Juvenile church member
Conviction:               Parents of victim immediately called police and reported assault, convicted for sexual molestation.
Defendants cited:    Loftness, Ricucci, Layman

Robin Roe [Dara Adams-Sutherland] (C9, 87-95)

“Is a young woman residing in Maryland whose sister was sexually assaulted by a pedophilia stepfather.” (C9)

“Plaintiff Robin Roe’s adoptive father…is a sexual deviant who sexually abused her older sister for three and one-half years.” (C87)

Charge:                    Sexual assault and abuse for 3 ½ years
Timeframe:               Discovered by mother in November 1987
Location:                  Not specified
Perpetrator:             Stepfather and current member of Covenant Life Church
Defendants:             Ricucci, Loftness

Five Additional Plaintiffs

Paula Poe [Heather Thompson-Bryant] (C3, 37-42)

“Female who was repeatedly sexually assaulted during her childhood at the School at CLC and at various church events.” (C3)

“Was repeatedly sexually assaulted by two men.  The primary perpetrator was a pastor and teacher [Steve Griney].  The secondary perpetrator was a children’s ministry worker [Mark Hoffman].” (C37)

Charge:                    Repeated sexual assault
Timeframe:               Not specified
Location:                  Covenant Life school, Church premises and Church events
Perpetrator 1:          Pastor/teacher
Perpetrator 2:          Children’s ministry worker

Carla Coe (C4, 43-47)

“Female who was repeatedly abused by Defendant Tomczak, primarily in Maryland and Virginia.” (C4)

Charge:                     Non-sexual physical & psychological abuse
Time:                         25-year period
Location:                   Maryland and Virginia
Defendants:              Tomczak                                       

Grace Goe [Olivia Llewellyn] (C5, 48-52)

“Female who, along with her siblings, was repeatedly abused.” (5)

“Was physically and sexually abused by her father when she was a minor and living in Maryland.” (48)

Charge:                    Repeated physical and sexual abuse
Age:                         Minor
Location:                  Maryland
Perpetrator:             Father
Defendants cited:    Covenant Life Church, Ricucci, Loftness

Karen Koe (C6, 58-61)

“Brother and sister, both of whom were sexually assaulted as children residing in Virginia.” (C6)

“Was sexually molested by a juvenile sexual predator when she was eight years old.” (C58)

Charge:                     Sexual assault and molestation
Victim:                       Age 8
Location:                   Virginia
Perpetrator:              Juvenile sexual predator (who was previously charged with raping a minor and served time in juvenile detention); parents alerted police and was convicted on felony charges
Defendant:                Gallo

Karl Koe (C6, 53-57)

“Brother and sister, both of whom were sexually assaulted as children.” (C6)

“Was seven years old when he was repeatedly sexually molested (approximately ten times) by the male son of a Church pastor.” (C53)

Charge:                     Repeated sexual molestation
Victim:                       Age 7
Perpetrator:              Male son of a Church pastor (approximately age 12 or 13)
Location:                   Multiple locations including bathroom at Sovereign Grace Church of Fairfax
Defendants:              Ecelbarger, Gallo, Mullery, V. Hinders

Two Examples Not Included as Plaintiffs

Example 1 (C99-108)

“A young girl was repeatedly sexually abused by her father, a member of the SGM church located in Fairfax, Virginia.  When the girl reached the age of ten, she told her mother about the ongoing and long-standing sexual abuse.” (C99)

Charge:                     Repeated incestuous sexual assaults
Victim:                       Reported to mother at age 10
Perpetrator:              Father – a member of Sovereign Grace Church of Fairfax
Location:                   Not specified

Example 2 (C109-111)

“A child was molested by a person of the same sex.  The parents immediately advised Defendants of this attack.  Defendants told the parents that the sexual predator had been caught molesting several other children on occasions in the past.”

Charge:                     Sexual molestation
Victim:                       A child
Perpetrator:              A sexual predator of the same sex
Location:                   Not specified

Previous Posts on Subject

Sovereign Grace Leaders Conceal Spiritual Abuse Like Penn State Leaders Concealed Sexual Abuse
Friday, July 13, 2012 at 4:51 PM 

Statements by Sovereign Grace Ministries and Covenant Life Church on Reported Lawsuit
Thursday, October 18, 2012 at 10:20 AM
Copy of Lawsuit Brought Against Sovereign Grace Ministries and Eight Defendants
Thursday, October 18, 2012 at 3:39 PM
Sexual Abuse and Spousal Abuse in Sovereign Grace Ministries
Monday, October 22, 2012 at 5:45 PM
Random Thoughts on Recent Events
Friday, October 26, 2012 at 11:03 AM
Class Action Lawsuit Naming Sovereign Grace Ministries Is Expanded
Monday, January 14, 2013 at 7:22 PM


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