How SGM’s Covenant Life Church and Fairfax Covenant Church deal with sexual abuse

Extreme trigger warning: child sexual abuse, details of child molestation, spiritual abuse, victim blaming, and enabling of abuse perpetrators. 

I don’t really know where to start with this, so I’ll just cut to the chase. In the past week, two more accounts of sexual abuse of children at SGM churches – this time at Covenant Life Church (CLC) – have been made public. In both cases, CLC pastors were primarily concerned with the preserving the comfort and reputation of the perpetrators, as well as the reputation of their own church. In both cases the pastors put pressure on the victims’ families to handle the abuse “internally” – i.e., within the church and without the involvement of the police – and, when charges were pressed in both cases, to make statements in support of “leniency” for the perps. In both cases the pastors pressured the victims and their families to forgive and pursue “reconciliation” with the abusers.

Both accounts are at SGM Survivors. I’ve linked them below and have also posted, below the jump, excerpts that highlight the most egregious abuses of pastoral authority in these cases.

  • ExCLCer’s account of her mother’s husband’s sexual abuse of his 11 year old daughter (and ExCLCer’s half-sister) in the late 1980s.
  • SGMnot’s account of a teenage boy’s sexual abuse of her  3 year old daughter, 1993.

In one case, the perpetrator, a man who abused his preteen daughter and went to jail for it, is now out of jail and back in membership at CLC. He’s remarried in the church and has regular access to children and teenagers – his children with his current wife, and teenagers in a band that he manages. In the other case, the perpetrator was a teenage boy who is now an adult and, as of a few years ago, was still a member of CLC as an adult.

In other words, there are at least two child molesters who are/have recently been in membership at CLC without the informed consent of the congregation. One of them has regular access to teenagers who most likely have no knowledge of his history of abusing children.

Additionally, this whole time, SGM leaders have been “preaching into people’s lives” and “modeling godliness for them” – i.e., lecturing people about how they should live their lives, down to the last detail, and manipulating and terrorizing people with teachings that turn the most harmless preferences, emotions, and actions into horrible sins. This whole time they’ve been disciplining people and making people feel like crap for the smallest infractions, in the name of “pastoral care.”

And over the same time, they’ve been concealing knowledge of sexual abuse in their church. They’ve imposed gags and forced forgiveness on victims and their families. They’ve exposed their congregations to unbelievable risk by hiding the presence of rapists and predators in the church. They’ve decided that when it comes to sexual abuse, the reputation of the church and the perpetrators are what need protecting, not victims, not their families, not the congregation.

They’ve been keeping people under fear and control with their bullshit on living holy lives the whole time they were working hard to make rapists feel more comfortable in their churches.

These incidents took place around 20-25 years ago. Cue the defenses from SGM leaders that they happened “a long time ago” and were “mistakes,” but now they’ve changed. No. This is bullshit.

First off, 20 years is NOT that long ago. Secondly, time is not a defense for evil actions when the perpetrators have never willingly acknowledged their actions or that they were evil. Most importantly, these “long ago” incidents are part of an ongoing pattern of pastoral victim blaming and abuse enabling in SGM. The responses of the pastors at CLC are very similar to incidents as recent as 2007 of pastoral mismanagement of abuse cases at SGM’s Fairfax Covenant Church (FCC): Noel and Grizzly’s story, 1998 and Happymom and Wallace’s story, 1998 and 2007.

Once again, after years of pretending the ex-SGM blogs didn’t exist in public while smearing them as lies, gossip, and slander in private, SGM pastors have now been forced to admit that the blog’s accounts of sexual abuse at the Fairfax church are substantially true. Mark Mullery, the senior pastor at FCC, recently “confessed” to his congregation that the pastors did, in fact, isolate victims and their families and fail to provide them with support, treat them as being in a “conflict” with the perpetrators that needed to be “reconciled,” and pressure them into concealing the identity of perpetrators and even that someone perpetrated any abuse in the first place.

Mullery, of course, doesn’t quite state things in these terms. He doesn’t touch the allegations that the pastors pressured victims into avoiding legal recourse or being character witnesses for the perpetrators. He glosses over the real implications of the actions of the pastors. He puts on a performance about how sad and full of regret he is – and before anyone calls me judgmental or a cynic for saying his sadness is insincere, please keep in mind that FCC pastors and other SGM leaders have, for the past two years, been telling members who raised questions about these cases that the victims’ families were lying, and that the blogs were slander. Please keep in mind that Mullery is only “confessing” some of the truth at a time when SGM is in the middle of a scandal that has countless members angry, seriously questioning their leaders, and ready to leave their churches en mass. Please keep in mind that not only all of SGM, but much of the evangelical blogosphere is now aware of the ex-SGM blogs and reading accounts like SGMnot and exCLCer’s stories – and aware that these blogs have far more credibility than SGM leadership has claimed.

This is the context for this “apology.” SGM and FCC are being forced by internal pressure from members and negative external  publicity to finally acknowledge these issues. Confessing “mistakes” when you no longer have a choice but to address them is not a sincere apology.

This is an apology and promise of change that is forced by negative pressure and attention. Two questions: How can anyone know the pastors actually believe they did anything wrong? How can anyone know the pastors actually understand why what they did was wrong?

The answer to both is that we can’t know. But I would bet money that they don’t believe they did anything terribly wrong, and they don’t have any clue why anyone would think otherwise. There’s nothing in Mullery’s statement that indicates anything beyond superficial understanding that they finally got caught, that people are angry and want to hear that they are sorry and will change.

This is not good enough. Not by a long shot.

Here’s the thing. Pastors have real power, influence, and authority over their congregations, and this is especially true in authoritarian and hierarchical organizations like Sovereign Grace. People look to their pastors for support and guidance in getting through difficult periods in their lives. People trust their pastors to tell them how to live in general, how to relate to others, how to raise their children and relate to their spouses and families, how to make huge life decisions. And they trust that their pastors aren’t just like any old friend they’d go to for advice, but people who have knowledge of higher spiritual truths, knowledge of God – and therefore to some extent speak FOR God.

This is a HUGE amount of power. It’s a virtually unparalleled level of trust.

So when pastors deal with victims of sexual abuse and their families, they’re coming into a situation where the things they say and do have incredible power and influence behind them, and have incredible potential to either support and help victims, or further traumatize them. By the same token, their actions can weigh powerfully in favor of bringing perpetrators to justice and whatever rehabilitation is possible, and keeping other members of the church safe from them, or in favor of protecting rapists and predators, enabling their abuse, and preserving their access to unwitting future victims.

Here is what pastors at FCC and CLC have used this power to tell victims and their families:
– Keep abuse secret and protect the identities of abusers.
– Naming your abuser is gossip and slander and unforgiveness.
– Don’t go to the police. Don’t pursue legal recourse.
– The legal and personal ramifications for the abuser are more important than the damage the abuser did to you.
– You are obligated to forgive abusers, and do so virtually instantly.
– You are sinning if you remain angry about their abuse for more than a matter of days.
– Sexual abuse doesn’t really cause long-term psychological trauma (and therefore you don’t really need care or help from us and you might even be sinning by still experiencing flashbacks, nightmares, and other effects).

Again, this is coming from people who victims and families have been taught to believe speak on behalf of God. That they are men of God. When pastors say all this, the implication is that God is saying this. Some families will believe this and accept it. But even for families who don’t accept that God, e.g., cares more about an abuser’s reputation than about their trauma, these messages add to their trauma them by forcing them to choose between their faith (as presented by people they have trusted to instruct them in the faith) and their healing and wellbeing.

This is spiritual abuse. It is a real form of abuse. I can’t state strongly enough that it is a real form of abuse to tell people who have invested unbelievable levels of trust in pastors as their spiritual leaders that their trauma doesn’t matter to God – not as much as the comfort of their abusers or their ability to “get over” the trauma, anyway. This is actual abuse and it causes further trauma to people who have experienced abuse.

And it’s rampant in Christian churches. It’s endemic in Sovereign Grace Ministries. It’s not an accident, and it’s not a mistake. This keeps happening because this is what the pastors really believe about abuse. This is the culture they have fostered – one where survivors of abuse are hounded out of the church, and abusers are perfectly happy staying.

ExCLCer’s account of her mother’s husband’s sexual abuse of his 11 year old daughter (and ExCLCer’s half-sister) in the late 1980s. Excerpts:

My mother was concerned when her 11 year old daughter had been “acting out”, having a “bad attitude” towards her husband, and the church had advised my mother to admonish her and demand she respect him as godly children should. When she found out a few years later that actually he had been sexually abusing her since age 11, she immediately called the pastors (John Loftness and Gary Riccucci).

They handled this situation in the worst ways possible…blaming the victims, covering up the crime, and supporting the pedophile financially and legally. They even sent my mother to her care group leader for counseling who told her to god wanted her to send her daughter away so that this man could stay in the house as the head of the household.
Despite all of their pleadings my mother insisted on justice and pressed charges. They had claimed they were looking for counseling for my mother and her child, when really they were biding time, retaining legal counsel for this man, to allow him to turn himself in as a show of repentance. They pressured her to ask the court for leniency for this man who had abused her childThey testified as character witnesses for him in court. He had repented and been forgiven, just like that. We were all warned not to tell anyone in the church, even though the abuser was still attending — it would be gossip.

But my mother was not submissive enough and since she refused to ask the court to not send this tithing man to jail, we were all put out of the church, out of the school, and the pastors told my mother, our “poverty was self induced” because she had not been submissive to their guidance. My mother pleaded with the church for help, but they only further demonized her.

Having been a homemaker and mother for years in the church approved way, she had little means of providing for her 9 children. She went and got a minimum wage job and worked until it almost killed her. Our electricity was cut off, our house was in foreclosure, we were pretty much starving, and she came down with pneumonia and was hospitalized. Having offered no help so far, the same pastors showed up to let her know they would make sure all of us children were taken care of while she was in the hospital.

We ended up all split apart, turned over to the state child welfare division, and spent the next several years separated in foster homes, institutions and shelters. But the pastors care and concern only ever was for the molester — they arranged for the kids to “visit their father”, and arranged for my sister, the victim, to have to sit down in a meeting to accept his apology, so he could be forgiven and resume membership in the church.

SGMnot’s account of a teenage boy’s sexual abuse of her  3 year old daughter, 1993. Excerpts:

In 1993 our daughter was sexually molested by the fourteen year old son of a close family friend from CLC, while he was babysitting for us. It was a week before her 3rd birthday. [This was about 6 years after exCLCer’s case]  I thank God I had taught our daughter what “good touch, bad touch” is, so she could tell us and possibly protect herself or others from sex abuse. The morning after this happened she came into our bedroom and told us. We were in shock, but for her sake remained calm, and asked her a few questions to verify…He had taken off both of their pants and underwear, laid on top of her, fondled her, and French-kissed her. He stopped at this point and did not penetrate her. Her reaction at the time of the attack was to not move or cry out–she was in complete terror. We immediately called the police. We knew it was the law to report any sexual abuse committed against a minor.

The first thing out of the pastor’s mouth, when we called him was, “Don’t call the police.” When we told him we already had, he communicated that these “things” should be handled in the church, and definitely made us to feel that he was displeased with us going outside the church to the secular authorities for this crime!The pastor called the father and the boy did confess that morning, after denying it repeatedly. The pastor immediately got on the phone with the police trying to arrange for the family to be able to turn the boy into police, rather than a police car to come to their house and embarrass them. From that point on, we felt that to the pastors, this crisis was all about the perpetrator and his family, to keep his identity secret and rally around him and his family, caring for THEM and counseling them as they navigated through the secular legal system and the crisis WE had caused by turning him in. 

[Recounting their meeting with a pastor days after their daughter was molested]: We felt the gist of the meeting was “yes, this is terrible, it is OK for us to be angry and hurt for a few days or weeks, but after that you need to forgive and forget”! We were told not to tell our care group or anyone. And not talk to the boy and his family.  Besides a brief phone call or two after all of this and the eventual “reconciliation” meeting, 6 months later, with that family and the pastor, we had NO counseling or follow-up care for us or our daughter. We had several close family members in CLC and we had close friends who LIVED with us at this time and we couldn’t even tell them! Essentially, we were on our own with all the deep grief, anger, and feelings of violation. We walked through this horrible crisis completely alone, with close family and friends and our care group all around us, having NO idea what we were going through!!

A week or so after the molestation, one of the other pastors called and shared how sorry he was for what we were going through and then asked me to write a letter of leniency, so that this boy would not go to jail and just get counseling [exactly what happened to exCLCer’s mom]. I agreed, mostly because he was only 14 and it was a first offense. At the time, I was extremely vulnerable with the grief of what had happened to our daughter and what this pastor said meant a lot to me, but looking back now I feel manipulated by his words to make sure that I wrote that letter. What if I had refused? [like exCLCer’s mom] Would we have been excommunicated?

….Our daughter struggled as a little 3 year old to forgive this teenager’s crime against her. She had nightmares for months afterwards. Many months later, we went for prayer to this pastor and another, and they did pray for her, but they said the nightmares “might” not be from the sexual molestation, directly minimizing my concerns, even though nightmares are a known effect of sexual abuse!

This is not over. She is now 21 and is a committed Christian, by God’s grace.  BUT she STILL has trouble sleeping alone. She STILL has had seasons of night terrors. She also has other EMOTIONAL SCARS directly related to the molestation and has pursued psychological counseling, now as an adult. Although, we have forgiven and prayed for this boy, now an adult member of CLC, last I heard, the results of his crime on our daughter may be a lifelong struggle for her to overcome!

4 Comments

  1. I just…I don’t……WHY?! Where is the love of Christ in any of this? I don’t understand. Then again, I didn’t understand why so many people told me that my assault was either my fault or that I needed to just get over it…I’ve recently been told that I’m dwelling too much on it and that’s why I’m still having nightmares and PTSD episodes. I don’t get it. I don’t.

    • I don’t understand, either. It seems the only way to be a good Christian and survivor of abuse in these churches is to pretend that abuse is just the same as any other “sin” and pretend it has no particular effect. Be a good little Christian victim, keep quiet and act happy and let everyone else coo over how much you must trust Jesus since you forgave and healed so fast.

      I think this has very little to do with Christ and more to do with trying to turn rape culture into doctrine.

  2. Because they can. They’re in power, you’re not, and they know it. Because it’s all a big game where you are bound by the rules and they aren’t. It’s about power, and in a power struggle, the biggest and strongest win, and the victims matter very little. Especially women. When the teaching is that women were created specifically for men, there is no way around it: it’s telling everyone that men have ownership over women. Once you own something, it’s less than you. Once it’s less than you, you can do anything you want. Because following Jesus and having any kind of hierarchy of power do not go together, and they like the power better.

    They are the grasshoppers. The ants that step out of line, easy to squish. And the rest of the ants have major causes of Stockholm syndrome. And until any of them decide that the hurt, oppressed, and the victims should be stood up for over the power hungry leadership, christianity is doomed as an evil and immoral religion.

    (sorry for the harshness, it’s a bad day.)