Sovereign Grace sent the following letter to members recently:
Dear [Member Name],
Last October, we informed you of a lawsuit filed against Sovereign Grace Ministries (SGM), two of the local churches that were at one point affiliated with SGM (Covenant Life Church and Sovereign Grace Church of Fairfax), and eight individually named pastor-defendants.
As a valued partner in Sovereign Grace’s mission to plant and build churches with the gospel of Jesus Christ, we write to update you on this matter and provide you with the latest details as we prayerfully trust the Lord and submit to the legal process.
The allegations in this lawsuit are vague and largely unclear, but to the extent they can be summarized, they claim that several church members were the victims of physical or sexual abuse by a number of alleged perpetrators at various times and places across a number of years and that a number of pastors failed to report this to the secular authorities. The suit alleges that some of the pastor-defendants failed to properly report the alleged abuse to the secular authorities after the victims’ parents told them of it. There is one pastor-defendant accused of abuse, and these accusations appear to be that he physically disciplined one of his children. We do not believe there was a “cover-up” of sex abuse or pedophiles at the two local churches involved and we trust that the local churches carefully reviewed any reports of abuse to see that the proper response was made. We would encourage any pastor or church member to step forward if they were aware of any such behavior.
Our actions on the legal front do not reflect a denial of real pain for the victims or an effort to avoid the rightful course of justice in these cases. Rather, we are simply exercising our right and obligation to oppose any litigation that claims, without any evidence, that SGM was involved with some sort of conspiracy to wrongfully or neglectfully respond to reports of sexual abuse. We do this while remaining devoted to caring for the victims of abuse and to encouraging our local churches to develop policies and practices to ensure they remain places of safety and healing. In the interest of pursuing truth, we are obligated to answer and defend accusations against our ministry, even at the risk of a perception of marginalizing our regard for any victims and their families. We regret this challenge and, again, commit to do all that we can to seek truth and minister to all who are affected by these allegations. If the process of review and evaluation of this case uncovers any issues of which we are not aware, the Board stands ready to address those concerns in a manner that pleases God and respects and cares for those affected.
We will keep you informed of any progress in the ongoing litigation and ask for your continued prayers for a just resolution to this lawsuit. We have received questions about the use of the 1st Amendment as a defense. Please make sure to read that section below. Here are the updates:
Motion to Dismiss Filed February 25, 2013
CarrMaloney, SGM’s counsel assigned by its insurer, determined there were a number of valid reasons to file a motion to dismiss the case with respect to SGM. As their motion states: “Plaintiffs’ First Amended Complaint is a vague, confusing document that fails to state any legal or factual basis for the claims against Defendant (SGM).” Because Plaintiffs’ complaint is so vague, it is difficult for SGM to know the specifics of the incidents that have been alleged. Further, the alleged reporting of abuse would have been handled at the local church level and therefore would have been a matter strictly left to the local churches, not SGM. SGM does not have the authority to control local churches or govern their internal affairs.
Below is a summary of SGM’s Motion to Dismiss, as filed on February 25, 2013. The entire motion is 25 pages long and is a matter of public record. Because many of the deficiencies in Plaintiffs’ allegations are applicable to all defendants, several of the arguments SGM made were similar to those made by the other defendants. The following is a summary of our arguments. (The sections below in quotes and italics are taken directly from SGM’s Motion to Dismiss.)
- “[Plaintiffs’] complaint is so vague and factually deficient that it is nearly impossible to tell who committed the acts of abuse and when and where the alleged acts of cover-up occurred, much less how old the alleged victims were both then and now. Plaintiffs appear to have done this in a deliberate effort to deprive SGM of the factual grounds that it is entitled to for various defenses, including statute of limitations.”
- “By alleging the alleged tortious conduct was a product of the churches’ teachings that conditioned the church members to “unquestioningly obey” their “spiritual leaders,” Plaintiffs have put the spiritual and doctrinal affairs of SGM and the local churches directly at issue. Plaintiffs allegations therefore violate the Free Exercise Clause of the 1st Amendment and must be dismissed.”
- According to Maryland law, Plaintiffs have failed to state valid claims or have no legal basis for any of the alleged torts against SGM on grounds of negligence, infliction of severe emotional distress, conspiracy to obstruct justice, negligent hiring and supervision, or misrepresentation. In addition, the Motion to Dismiss includes a number of grounds for dismissal relating to each individual plaintiff, including statute of limitations and lack of legal standing,
- Even if Plaintiffs are able to show that their case satisfies the legal criteria for stating valid claims, they still have no grounds to impute liability to SGM based on the alleged acts of the other defendants. It appears they are alleging that SGM owned and operated both CLC and SG Fairfax, and that they can therefore impute to SGM any liability these churches have for the alleged cover-up actions of their pastor-defendants. However, SGM does not own, operate, or control any churches. And, at the time of the alleged conduct, SGM did not employ any of the defendants who are alleged to be “personally involved in the events that led to this lawsuit.” Therefore, there are no legal grounds to impute liability for the actions of the individual-defendants to SGM, which is simply a religious denomination, and does not control or govern the local churches.
1st Amendment Defense
The second point summarized above addresses the 1st Amendment defense. Plaintiffs claim that the alleged abuse and/or cover-up was a product of the local churches’ religious teachings and doctrines that ordered the church members to “unquestioningly obey” their pastors. Our First Amendment defense points out that such a claim cannot stand because it asks the court to inquire into the legality of the churches’ beliefs. It is a matter of religious liberty to not involve the courts in determining whether the doctrinal teaching and pastoral counseling of a ministry or church is done correctly in their eyes. That is why this is included as part of the legal defense.
I want to strongly emphasize that we are NOT in any way using the 1st Amendment as a defense to somehow protect sex abuse or a conspiracy to cover up crimes of any kind. We fully respect the gift from God of established legal authority according to Romans 13. And we strongly encourage all our churches to fully comply with all laws pertaining to the reporting of crimes in their state.
With these commitments firmly established and understanding the nature of this lawsuit, we must use all appropriate legal means to address the spurious and defamatory charge of a cover up of sexual abuse as well as all the destructive legal implications that come with this lawsuit.
Please note that our November 17, 2012 statement referenced this First Amendment issue prior to the filing of the Amended Complaint. I hope this explanation adds any needed clarity as to why it is necessary for our legal counsel to make this defense.
Now that SGM legal counsel has filed their Motion to Dismiss and the Plaintiffs have responded to the motion to dismiss, a hearing is scheduled on May 17, 2013 to consider the defendants’ arguments for dismissal. After this hearing, the judge will rule on the motion, normally within two months of the hearing. So, as we have communicated before, this is more of a marathon than a sprint. If the suit is not dismissed, the actual court date is currently scheduled to begin on February 3, 2014, but there are many things that could happen before then including judgment being granted in favor of some or all defendants based on the evidence presented during discovery.
We are all pained by a process by which we are perceived as “guilty until proven innocent” through a “trial” seemingly already taking place in the court of public opinion, resulting in myriad questions being asked based on incomplete information presented online. But, we are providing this information to ensure you that we are doing all we can to address these charges and address them in a way that honors God, and the members of Sovereign Grace churches. Thank you for your prayers and support.
Director of Finance and Administration