Sovereign Grace Ministries

Sex abuse in Protestant life: Is Rachael Denhollander the tip of a newsworthy iceberg?

Sex abuse in Protestant life: Is Rachael Denhollander the tip of a newsworthy iceberg?

When former gymnast Rachael Denhollander stood up in court at the end of January and stunned the country with her speech to her abuser, Larry Nasser, she was a media star. Here she was the first woman to publicly accuse Nasser and the last -- after a long string of some of America’s best-known gymnasts -- to tell him what she thought of his years of criminal sexual contact.

As my GetReligion colleague Bobby Ross reported, her speech was notable for many reasons. She talked about God’s forgiveness, tossed in a C.S. Lewis quote near the end, then added that she lost her church over the matter.

That's news. Only Christianity Today really went after what happened and named the organization: Sovereign Grace Ministries, whose flagship church -– Covenant Life Church in Gaithersburg, Md. –- got hit with a sexual abuse lawsuit. Sovereign Grace Ministries issued a rebuttal on Feb. 13. 

Sadly, no reporters are pursuing what Denhollander is alleging: That Sovereign Grace Ministries is really the tip of the iceberg and that sexual abuse of the young in Protestant churches may dwarf the horrors exposed, starting 16 years ago, in the U.S. Catholic Church.

Blogger Warren Throckmorton is going after the story and has posted more from Denhollander’s Facebook page about the issue. And I want to cut and paste a few of her remarks, because it speaks to what reporters are not getting about this issue. She says.

This call does not rise from a sort of Javert-like obsession with SGC, but from the knowledge that evangelical churches are plagued with serious problems related to how we respond to and counsel victims of sexual assault. In fact, experts have stated that both the amount of abuse, and the failure to report it, is likely worse than in the Roman Catholic Church – a religious organization often used by evangelicals as a byword for sexual assault scandals.

The italics are mine. For those of you who’ve read any religion reporting in the past decade and one-half, including many posts on the blog, the story of sex abuse in the Catholic Church has gone on for many years and still continues. So, how does one process the claim that what has happened among Protestants may have been worse?

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Journalism 2018: The name on the masthead frequently is not as crucial as the one on the byline

Journalism 2018: The name on the masthead frequently is not as crucial as the one on the byline

It seems like just yesterday that I was complaining about an incomplete, slanted Washington Post story on a controversial religious topic.

Actually, it was last Monday.

In that post (titled "Not the right kind of paper to report both sides? About that story on fired Catholic teacher"), I noted — not for the first time — that it's often difficult these days, even in the Post, to tell what's supposed to be real news and what's simply clickbait and/or aggregation.

Today, I come to you with another Post story on a controversial religious topic. Except this time I intend to offer praise, not criticism.

Welcome to the world of Jekyll-and-Hyde media criticism.

Yes, this new story has one of those clickbait-style headlines at which the Post specializes online:

This former gymnast raised an army to take on Larry Nassar. Can she take on sex abuse in churches next?

But unlike the previous story, this one — by a different writer and perhaps handled by different editors (who knows?) — addresses the complex topic in a fair, impartial manner.

he lede:

Rachael Denhollander’s children recently asked her a question that continues to show her the cost of coming forward against sports physician and convicted sex offender Larry Nassar, a campaign which has given her a platform to speak out about a sexual abuse scandal in Sovereign Grace Ministries, a network of churches mostly based across the United States.
Last month, Denhollander’s statement in Nassar’s sentencing turned her into a Christian celebrity. In her victim statement in court, the former gymnast said her advocacy for sexual assault survivors “cost me my church.” Her own children recently asked her about this, why they stopped going to the church they belonged to for five years.
“It was painful to have to search for a church again because we really, really loved the people at our former church,” she said.
“That simply was part of the cost of coming forward” as one of Nassar’s victims, she added, and also speaking out against how churches handle sex abuse allegations.
Denhollander, who declined to name her former church, said she and her husband, Jacob, left the Louisville church in 2017 because of elders’ lack of response to the concerns she has described as “the intentional failure to report sexual assault perpetrated in multiple churches, by multiple elders, at Sovereign Grace Ministries.” Their church was not part of Sovereign Grace Ministries (now Sovereign Grace Churches), she said, but it did support the organization, which had been accused of covering up cases of child molestation. A class-action lawsuit was dismissed in 2014 for reasons including statute of limitations issues, and current leaders of Sovereign Grace Churches say those accusations are “completely false.”

The piece is fact-based and allows those accused of wrongdoing an opportunity to present their case.

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Washingtonian lands boffo take on sex abuse in an evangelical Protestant empire

Washingtonian lands boffo take on sex abuse in an evangelical Protestant empire

The piece I’m about to describe is a news feature that I very much wanted to write once, earlier in my religion-beat career.

In the mid 1970s, I attended charismatic prayer meetings at the Assemblies of God congregation called Christ Church, located on Massachusetts Avenue in Washington, D.C., where 2,000 of us packed the sanctuary. The two preachers were two gifted young men named Larry Tomczak and C.J. Mahaney. I was a college student at the time and their sermons were electric. I heard later that the meetings had morphed into a church.

Twenty years later, I moved back to the area as a reporter for The Washington Times and I learned the congregation was now known as Covenant Life Church and was located in Gaithersburg, a DC suburb in Maryland. It was quite successful. Then I heard rumors that Tomczak had been forced out. In late 2003, I did a large piece on Covenant Life for the Times (they had just finished a new sanctuary) and it was then that I contacted Larry and got his side of the story. I also interviewed Mahaney and visited the huge church. I had the uneasiest feeling about the place -- and Mahaney himself -- and couldn’t get out of there fast enough.

So I wasn’t too surprised to hear a few years later that major rifts had developed there. I began reading blogs about the place. Then Mahaney quit in 2011, which is when I pitched an idea to a magazine for a major piece on his rise and fall. It was turned down because it seemed like too much inside baseball to the editors.

Five years later, this piece appeared Feb. 14 in the Washingtonian magazine:

Pam Palmer was at a barbecue when she heard the news.
It was 2011, five years after her family had left Covenant Life Church. But the Gaithersburg congregation and its founder, C.J. Mahaney, remained on her mind. Now one of her relatives was telling her that amid controversy Mahaney had surrendered the top post at the organization he had built into an international empire. “Literally,” Pam says, “that moment changed my life.”

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