News & Politics

The Sex-Abuse Scandal That Devastated a Suburban Megachurch

Inside the rise and fall of Sovereign Grace Ministries.

The Sex-Abuse Scandal That Devastated a Suburban Megachurch
C.J. Mahaney was a Takoma Park pot smoker when he found God and opened a church. Over the next 40 years, he expanded it from a hippie congregation into an evangelical empire. Photograph by James Thompson. Photo-illustration by Paul Spella.

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.”

Pam had been one of the church’s early followers back in the 1980s. And she’d given 22 years of her life to the megachurch, in the all-in manner that many members embraced. Early on, her husband, Dominic Palmer, whom she’d met there, led one of the small fellowship groups that underscore church life, and she dutifully assisted him. When the couple had children, Pam homeschooled them, as so many women in the church did. Every step of the way, a foundational principle of the church was reinforced—that Christian men knew best.

But in the years since the Palmers left Covenant Life, Pam had come to see its culture as toxic.

Former Covenant Life Church member Pam Palmer--whose daughter, Renee, allegedly was sexually assaulted as a child by a fellow congregant--organized a group of families who sued the church. Sovereign Grace Ministries. Photograph by Kate Warren.
Former Covenant Life Church member Pam Palmer–whose daughter, Renee, allegedly was sexually assaulted as a child by a fellow congregant–organized a group of families who sued the church. Photograph by Kate Warren.

After the barbecue, she went online to find out more about the revolt inside Sovereign Grace Ministries, the religious conglomerate that Covenant Life had grown into. A few years earlier, a pair of disillusioned followers had launched a blog called SGM Survivors. It was like a public square, and an increasingly crowded one at that, where former congregants of Sovereign Grace churches—there were roughly 90 at the time—gathered to vent.

Pam had visited the blog before. But this time, she encountered a whole new narrative. Parents were reporting that their children had been sexually abused by other church members. And they were sharing stories, saying they were mistreated by churches when they spoke up. Until that moment, Pam had no idea there were other families out there just like hers.

• • •

The origins of Sovereign Grace go back to the early 1970s.

Mahaney, a shaggy-haired hippie from Takoma Park who was getting stoned when he was reborn as a Christian, had just joined the Jesus movement and wandered into a weeknight prayer meeting, full of raised hands and speaking in tongues. He struck up a friendship with one of its leaders, Larry Tomczak, and the men began to collaborate. Wander into one of their services at Christ Church on Massachusetts Avenue, Northwest, in the 1970s and you could find nearly 2,000 people captivated by the music and their preaching.

Barely in their twenties, the founders made a dynamic team. Before long, they were holding Sunday services, too, forming what would become Covenant Life Church. By 1982, they’d launched their overarching ministry to “plant” new congregations, and they soon adopted what’s now known as Sovereign Grace Church of Fairfax. Over the years, the ministry expanded to Ashburn, Fredericksburg, and Germantown; Cleveland, Jacksonville, and Pasadena; and on to the Philippines, Mexico, and the UK, until it had some 28,000 adherents around the globe.

SGM churches typically have a lead pastor and a staff of deputy pastors to oversee different spheres of church life. The business has been a family affair. Over the years, many of Mahaney’s friends and relatives have held the upper rungs of power. “People were the best of friends, the closest of friends,” says Brent Detwiler, an early leader. “That continued for many, many years.”

Left, Sovereign Grace Ministries founders Larry Tomczak and C.J. Mahaney (also second from right in right photo) met in the ’70s Jesus movement and led a ministry of churches, including Covenant Life Church in Gaithersburg and SGC Fairfax, that drew thousands. Photographs courtesy of Google.
Left, Sovereign Grace founders Larry Tomczak and C.J. Mahaney (also second from right in right photo) met in the ’70s Jesus movement and led a ministry of churches that drew thousands. Photographs courtesy of Brent Detwiler.

By 1997, Tomczak had left the movement. Mahaney, by contrast, was pinnacled upon a kingdom of his own making. He was also ensconced among the country’s evangelical elite. A college dropout with no formal training, he became an in-demand public speaker and author and befriended influential New Calvinist leaders—a group that included prominent Baptist minister John Piper; Albert Mohler, president of the powerful Southern Baptist Theological Seminary; and Mark Dever, leader of the Capitol Hill Baptist Church, a go-to place of worship for evangelical Hill staffers.

Young Christian men around the country began flocking to Gaithersburg for mentoring. Among them was Joshua Harris, scion of an influential homeschooling family and newly minted author of I Kissed Dating Goodbye, an abstinence-until-marriage manifesto he wrote at age 21 that today is an evangelical cult classic. Dozens of other men enlisted in SGM’s Pastors College. Its graduates were known to imitate Mahaney’s exuberant preaching style, with its clipped cadences and hands waving in the air, and to shave their heads as if to be like the pastor, who had long ago gone bald.

By 2002, Covenant Life Church occupied a sprawling complex on Muncaster Mill Road with stadium seating for thousands. The larger movement, meanwhile, would come to flourish in 26 states, with partnerships in 21 countries, a model for other organizations. As Wayne Grudem, a renowned evangelical theologian with degrees from Harvard and Cambridge, once told the Washington Times, “I know of churches around the United States who are looking to Sovereign Grace Ministries as an example of the way churches ought to work.”

• • •

The first person to speak up was a woman I’ll call Kate.

In the late ’90s, her husband was a care group leader at SGM’s Fairfax Church, a job that involved regular meetings for both husband and wife. When the couple attended, they sometimes left their children with the teenage son of another member. Entrusting their kids with fellow congregants was typical for Kate and Edward (his middle name). Like most within SGM, the family lived a life that revolved around the community.

Sovereign Grace Church in Fairfax. Sovereign Grace Ministries. Photograph courtesy of Google.
Families of SGM churches often lived in the same neighborhoods, babysat each others’ kids, and housed single church members in their basements. Photograph Sovereign Grace Church in Fairfax courtesy of Google.

By March of 1999, though, it became clear that something had gone disastrously wrong. The couple’s only daughter, Ann (her middle name), started having night terrors and became frightened of the bathroom. Down the street, Jacob, the 15-year-old babysitter, was acting out so intensely that his mother confided to Kate about how worried she was. Kate says she pressed the mom to ask Jacob (not his real name) about his behavior. Eventually, he did what the church had taught him: He confessed an awful transgression. According to Kate, he told his mother he had been “inappropriate” with Ann, who was three when the abuse occurred; it had happened while he was changing Ann’s diaper—she was asleep, he claimed, and hadn’t woken up.

Distraught, Jacob’s mother confessed her son’s sin to church pastors, and they arranged a meeting so she could admit the wrongdoing to Kate and Edward and request their forgiveness. At the meeting, the parents recall, one of the pastors paraphrased the Bible, telling them, “You shouldn’t bring a Christian to court.” The church leaders, they say, wanted to mediate. Sovereign Grace Church of Fairfax denies discouraging the family from going to the authorities and says they recommended reporting the matter.

But Kate was unsettled—she felt in her gut that Jacob’s story was lacking. Ann wore pull-ups: Why would he change her while she slept? How would he not have woken her up?

She and Edward decided to call a doctor and social services. An inquiry found evidence of sexual abuse, and that triggered a police investigation. Although it was more than 15 years ago, Kate can still picture the day a detective interviewed Ann, wearing a sundress with daisies on it, her blond hair in pigtails. Kate remembers being so thankful for the detective, how kind he was when he told Ann to point to a doll and asked her, “Has anyone ever hurt you?”

By the end of the ordeal, Jacob was charged with “object penetration” and “aggravated sexual battery,” according to court records. He pleaded guilty to one count of sexual battery and received probation and counseling.

But while the legal system was at work, a different kind of justice was being meted out at church. Kate says the pastors at SGC Fairfax seemed angry at her. She felt bullied into skipping court hearings. Once when Edward spoke with a pastor about an upcoming court date, he says, the pastor berated him for his “carnal desire” to see Jacob suffer.

Kate and Edward were angry, and struggling to forgive Jacob, but church leaders kept pushing the families to move on. According to Kate, the Fairfax pastors reminded her that everyone was a sinner—Jacob had done wrong, but so had Kate and Edward by not letting go of their bitterness.

“The pastors refused to listen to what happened to [Ann], and they kept telling me I was making a big deal out of nothing,” Kate recalls. “I told them I will not speak to you about this at all, any longer, unless you refer to this as when my daughter was raped, and if you can’t say ‘when my daughter was raped,’ then you’re saying she wasn’t.”

For more than two years, four pastors held multiple meetings with the two families. The church’s new senior pastor intervened when little progress was made.

Eventually, a pastor from the ministry’s flagship in Gaithersburg was consulted and another meeting called. The ministers issued a blanket apology for not being more supportive, but it was too late. “I was done with the whole thing,” Kate says. “It was a farce. It was insincere.”

After 12 years in its cloistered community, Kate left SGC Fairfax and the family moved from their street full of church members. The couple enrolled their five children in public school, and Kate got a job outside the home. In the world beyond SGM, the family thrived, including Ann, who loved theater and dance and made the high-school cheerleading team. “We had gotten into a healthier place,” Kate says.

Then one day in December 2008, it all came back when an old friend from church told her about the year-old blog SGM Survivors. At the time, the site was full of gripes about ministry culture, impassioned but all relatively minor. When Kate typed her family’s 9,000-word saga into the comments section, that changed.

“To SGM,” Kate wrote, “yes it’s me and I’m talking.”

• • •

It’s all too common, these days, to see an organization caught up in a sex-abuse scandal.

Whether it’s the military, a school, or a church, there tend to be some parallels: a culture that’s at least somewhat separate from the outside world, a self-policing elite, a rank-and-file conditioned to revere its leaders.

In the ministry Mahaney built, some of these features were readily apparent. SGM represented a society unto itself, one that functioned parallel to mainstream culture and that distrusted that wider, secular world. “They believe God’s law comes before civil law,” as one former member says.

Mahaney’s ministry wrote and licensed its own music, stocked its own bookstores, and supported Christian education. “The top tier was homeschooling. The second tier was Covenant Life School,” says Anne Ehlers, a Montgomery County teacher who attended CLC for 21 years. “To have kids in public school, that was like sending your kids to hell.”

When it came to the most mundane matters of life, almost any need could seemingly be met in-house: There were members who were lawyers and small-business owners and financial advisers. If you needed your car repaired, there was a mechanic in the next row. Ellen Klatt, an executive assistant in Virginia and a former member of SGM’s Fairfax congregation, says she once heard a woman lament, “ ‘I just wish we had a good plumber in the church.’ And it was because it was frowned upon to go outside the network. You wanted a sanctified plumber.”

Sovereign Grace Ministries. Photographs courtesy of Brent Detwiler.
Mahaney became a friend of influential evangelicals around the U.S. at the same time that young Christian men began flocking to Gaithersburg to be mentored by him. Photograph courtesy of Brent Detwiler.

Families moved from across the country to be a part of an SGM church family. Members often bought houses in the same neighborhood. It was not unusual for families to put up unwed church members in their basements and spare rooms.

“Covenant Life Church had a reputation of being really isolating,” says Tope Fadiran, a writer in the Boston area who attended as a teen. “Other conservative evangelicals thought it was a cult because of how intensely people in the church had their entire lives consumed.”

Beneath Mahaney, some members felt that the social hierarchy was clearly delineated, with pastors ranking above all, then men, then women, and children. SGM churches practice complementarian theology, which follows a biblical mandate that “wives should submit in everything to their husbands” and encourages many women to be stay-at-home mothers.

Parents were guided toward books such as Tomczak’s God, the Rod, and Your Child’s Bod, which recommended spanking children and taught that kids were to comply with orders willingly, completely, and immediately.

Even for adults, questioning leaders was not always tolerated—it meant you weren’t willing to submit to spiritual authority. Members were held accountable for virtually all areas of their lives. And the ministry’s increasingly Calvinist focus on sin at times became an excuse for members to scrutinize one another’s behavior, calling fellow congregants out if they were prideful, if their children were unruly, if their house was unkempt.

These confrontations often happened during small-group meetings—“care groups,” in church parlance. Although meant to be supportive circles, care groups could morph into harsh examinations, in which followers were goaded into confessing faults and transgressions. “It was coded in positive language, as a growth thing,” says Hännah Ettinger, a Peace Corps volunteer who grew up in an SGM church outside Richmond. “But it actually was very nitpicking, negative, self-esteem-destroying kind of stuff.”

This was the framework in which Kate first sought justice. Indeed, it had its basis in scripture: Matthew, chapter 18. “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone,” the verse reads. If the member won’t listen, “take one or two others along with you” to confront the accused.

Matthew 18, which other churches also deploy for discipline, was practically a mantra inside SGM communities. Whenever disputes arose between members, reconciliation was considered the primary way to settle the matter and, in the process, one’s relationship with the church.

At first blush, it seems so gentle: The rest of our litigious society was busy dragging one another to court. Members of a loving, godly community could work things out for themselves. In real life, though, it doesn’t take a Calvinist to know that when you combine built-in power imbalances with a skepticism of outside authorities, all manner of chaos can follow.

• • •

When Kate first raised alarms about abuse, Mahaney was already fueling a slow burn inside his ministry.

His young protégé, Joshua Harris, had taken the reins of CLC a few years earlier while Mahaney switched his focus to the SGM network at large. Subordinates were increasingly unhappy with Mahaney’s leadership. Pastors had begun confronting him on character flaws such as pride and stubbornness. Many felt ignored—a critical fault line for a church that prized accountability, even for seemingly minor sins.

In 2011, the crisis ignited: Brent Detwiler, a former SGM board member, sent the denomination’s pastors 600 pages of ministry e-mails and documents that put the backbiting on full display. “The Documents,” as they came to be called, were later posted online and read by tens of thousands of people.

Among other things, Detwiler accused Mahaney of deceit, abuse of authority, and hypocrisy, and castigated him for sparring with cofounder Larry Tomczak before he left the ministry. SGM members were stunned to learn that when it came to their founders’ personal failings, Mahaney and Tomczak had spurned full reconciliation with each other. Mahaney seemed not to have followed his own rules. On July 6, shortly before the documents were made public, Mahaney announced he was taking a leave of absence. The SGM board then appointed an independent panel to conduct an official review. His abdication set off a scandal that was covered by such publications as Christianity Today and the Washington Post.

While the public focus was mostly on Mahaney, the Survivors blog had become a place where other families, compelled by Kate’s missive, were speaking out about sex abuse. A couple I’ll call Sarah and Richard chronicled how their son Taylor had been molested by an older boy from the Fairfax church in the late 1990s. Instead of calling the police, the family pursued reconciliation with the abuser. (The church says it never discouraged the family from contacting authorities.) Nine years later, the couple learned that a different church member had molested their daughter Rose when she was eight. (Both siblings are identified by their middle names.) This time, with Rose having a history of self-mutilation and having undergone a psychiatric hospitalization, Sarah and Richard went to the police. Rose’s abuser was prosecuted, and the church cooperated with the investigation—but the debacle sparked a turbulent (and ultimately failed) reconciliation process with the church that lasted three years.

“We share our story,” Richard wrote on the blog, “with the hope that those with similar experiences will be encouraged to write their own and bring it to the light.”

Peggy Welsh’s disturbing experience dated all the way to 1987. That year, her husband, David Adams, admitted to sexually abusing her daughter (whom he had adopted) over several years from the time she turned 11. Peggy wanted a divorce, but she says the pastors at CLC in Gaithersburg, to whom she’d dutifully reported David’s transgressions, discouraged it. She was pregnant with the couple’s ninth child—how would she support them all?

Peggy balked at the prospect. She took her concerns to Mahaney’s brother-in-law, Pastor Gary Ricucci: How could she stay married to a man attracted to children? Ricucci protested the characterization, she says, and told her, according to civil court papers, that David “was not attracted to his 11-year-old daughter but rather to the ‘woman’ she ‘was becoming.’ ”

David took a plea deal on two child-abuse-related counts, was sentenced to five years in a state prison, and enrolled in a sexual-disorders program. According to a psychological evaluation he underwent in prison, his assault of his daughter “consisted first of fondling and later of oral sex,” during “times when he thought she was asleep.”

Not quite two years into his prison term, Ricucci wrote the court on CLC letterhead in support of releasing David early on probation. CLC was finalizing housing arrangements for him, Ricucci wrote, and the church was ready to “provide [him] support.” The following month, David was sent home.

He married a different woman from Covenant Life, who’s now a teacher at the church’s school, and they had two daughters. He started a bluegrass band with other CLC musicians, at times including teenagers in the lineup. With David on banjo, the group plays at festivals, restaurants, and church events around Washington.

One day last June, I saw them perform at a park in Montgomery Village while two dozen children climbed on a nearby playground. Toward the end of the set, as three children stood by the stage, David said, “I want to see you dancing.” A little girl in a dress twirled to the last song.

When contacted by phone, David declined to answer questions, but he did say of his past: “You don’t move on. You just incorporate it into your life and you deal with this forever.”

Peggy and her children experienced far different treatment from the church. For a time after David went to jail, Peggy says, CLC subsidized the children’s schooling and sent over food and babysitters. But the support eventually stopped, and Peggy struggled to make ends meet while she worked low-wage jobs. “We went from middle class to destitute in a very quick period of time,” another of her daughters, Dara Adams, says.

Peggy’s house was a disaster, later going into foreclosure, and she felt judged by the church, whose members scolded her for her home’s disarray. Although still legally married to David, she did start dating. Her pastors at CLC warned her that adultery was immoral, she says, and asked her to leave. She did.

Reading much of this on the blog in 2011, Pam Palmer was filled with anger, and regret. Police records show that similarly to Kate’s experience, a teenage CLC member was arrested and charged with molesting Pam’s daughter, Renee, after he had been hired to babysit one night in 1993. It had been almost 20 years and Pam still couldn’t forget three-year-old Renee cowering under a chair, frightened at the sight of her molester, during a reconciliation meeting that she says Pastor John Loftness convened.

Why had she and Dominic agreed to meet and forgive the young man, as the church taught? Why hadn’t she gone to any of his court hearings?Pam says another CLC pastor urged her to write a letter to the court requesting leniency for her daughter’s abuser, and she was upset that she had done so. What if these assaults were still going on? she thought.

She joined the uprising. “I share this with my heart breaking,” Pam wrote on the SGM Survivors blog. She went on, “I wanted everyone to know that the serious effects of any sexual molestation at any age are devastating to the victim and their family for many years. It doesn’t just ‘go away’ after forgiving!”

• • •

SGM had been thriving until very recently.

In fact, the sexual abuse might have been dismissed by all but the families who survived it, but Mahaney’s downfall brought attention to the ministry’s secrets. SGM’s Washington-area churches now had no choice but to respond.

In Fairfax, the church leadership called a meeting with its congregation. The mood was repentant: A group of pastors acknowledged the stories of abuse and issued a tearful apology to the families. According to an audio recording of the meeting, senior pastor Mark Mullery blamed the church’s model of reconciliation. “This resulted in the victim’s family being corrected when they should have been gently cared for as sufferers,” he said.

“We were proud,” Mullery went on, his voice breaking. “We didn’t know, we didn’t know. We were ignorant.” As he continued, he took a long pause and, with a high-pitched cry, said, “I’m so sorry.”

Sovereign Grace Ministries wrote and licensed its own music, stocked its own bookstores, and encouraged Christian education. "To have kids in public school, that was like sending your kids to hell," says a former member. Photograph of Covenant Life Church in Gaithersburg courtesy of Google.
Sovereign Grace Ministries wrote and licensed its own music, stocked its own bookstores, and encouraged Christian education. “To have kids in public school, that was like sending your kids to hell,” says a former member. Photograph of Covenant Life Church in Gaithersburg courtesy of Google.

The tone at CLC in Gaithersburg was different. At a meeting that addressed what had happened to the families of Pam Palmer and Peggy Welsh, pastors maintained that Loftness, Ricucci, and the church had served the families well. They also cited a 17-page memo attributed to Loftness that codified the church’s child-sex-abuse protocols.

It’s a troubling document. Upon hearing about a case of suspected child sex abuse, ministers are advised to notify church elders immediately. They should also call a lawyer, preferably one with “ethics grounded in Scripture,” for legal advice. The document encourages pastors to “establish fact” during a “time of investigation.” It notes that pastors must notify authorities about suspected child molesters if their state’s laws require it. (Not all do.) It also says it may be necessary to call police if the accused is an immediate threat to children—“but this is unlikely,” the memo says. Otherwise, it’s up to the parents to report abuse.

“When Christians appear in a courtroom and they come from the same church community that has fostered trust and spiritual unity,” the guidelines state, “they will likely find the legal process to be highly offensive.” Reconciliation between a repentant abuser and a victim is presented as the ultimate goal.

“It read like an eighth-grade report,” says the mother of a victim who received the memo. “There was nothing in there that had any significance or anything helpful.”

As church leaders rationalized, Pam Palmer began reaching out to the other women, and they formed a support network of sorts—a club no one would wish to join. “I just knew somebody had to do something,” she says. Pam researched the sexual-misconduct policies in place at other churches. She also found Susan Burke, a Baltimore litigator known for taking on the US military over its handling of sexual assault and harassment. That might be the type of person we need,Pam thought.

The fathers were initially reluctant. Kate’s husband “felt like as a family we needed peace,” she says. When the group met for the first time in October 2011 at Peggy Welsh’s Rockville home, Pam’s husband stayed behind. “It took me a while to get onboard,” he recalls. It wasn’t until he witnessed the number of victims coming forward that he changed his mind.

Around Peggy’s kitchen table, the families told other stories they knew—of families who were afraid to come forward. Everyone present had gotten criminal justice, but they knew of many who hadn’t. The next time the families met, Burke joined them. As one of the mothers later told me, “I’m an evangelical Christian woman, but I said on the blog: Someone needs to sue these bastards.”

• • •

The lawsuit hit in October 2012.

In a class-action suit filed in Montgomery County, Susan Burke alleged that SGM, Mahaney, and seven pastors had engaged in a cover-up of child molestation. SGM “cared more about protecting its financial and institutional standing,” the suit claimed, “than about protecting children, its most vulnerable members.”

There were three plaintiffs initially, but it wasn’t long before others came forward. One alleged that there was a pedophile ring at Covenant Life and that men, including a pastor, had molested her. Another alleged that cofounder Larry Tomczak had her strip and beat her for more than 20 years, allegations he calls “baseless” and “absolutely false.” A woman who stated she’d been molested by her father alleged that in 2000, the pastors at the Fairfax church encouraged her mother to stay with him. They blamed the mother, according to the suit, for being “a bad wife who had failed to satisfy her husband sexually.” Eventually, 11 plaintiffs in all signed on.

SGC Fairfax executive pastor Vince Hinders denied the allegation in an e-mail, adding: “We want you to know that we never covered up or tried to cover up child abuse of any kind in our church.” Don Nalle, a spokesman for CLC, said by e-mail: “Our heart and practice is to comfort and protect those who have experienced abuse or neglect, including victims of sexual abuse. We believe our history as a church and the facts bear that out. We vigorously deny any and all assertions that Covenant Life Church participated in conspiracy or obstruction of justice as alleged in the civil lawsuit.” Of 16 former and current SGM pastors contacted for this story, none would answer questions on the record about the suit’s allegations, and some did not return messages. A lawyer for Mahaney, Loftness, and Ricucci declined to comment. Mark Prater, executive director of Sovereign Grace, said in a public statement: “Let me be clear that we deny—in the strongest terms possible—that any Sovereign Grace leaders conspired to cover up abuse as alleged in this lawsuit.”

Like the Catholic Church before them, Protestant ministries are increasingly having to confront sex-abuse scandals that get aired in public. SGM, with little experience in crisis management, found its reputation eroding—a situation that only worsened after the bombshell announcement that Montgomery County prosecutors had indicted a 55-year-old man named Nathaniel Morales on child-sex-abuse charges in December of 2012.

I’m an evangelical Christian woman, but I said on the blog: Someone needs to sue these bastards.

Morales had been an active member of Covenant Life Church in the 1980s and early ’90s, known for his beautiful singing voice and for his mentorship of the congregation’s young men, leading Bible studies and taking them to movies and ball games. But during that same period, he sexually assaulted three teenage boys who had been part of the church. According to evidence revealed at his criminal trial, he targeted boys who came for sleepovers at a CLC family’s home, where he lived in the basement. Morales’s patterns were as stealthy as they were insidious: He would approach his victims at night, and they’d awake to find him fondling or orally raping them. One man said that Morales goaded him with guilt: Morales claimed that if his advances were resisted, he would have to seek out prostitutes and men in bathrooms and could get AIDS.

The men and their families had kept the abuse a secret from many for years—but not from pastors, according to court testimony. “We were told and strung along for quite some time that the church was taking care of it, that they would handle all of this,” Jeremy Cook, one of the abused, told me. An investigation commissioned by CLC revealed that between 1990 and 2007 at least five members of the church’s staff were told of Morales’s abuse. None notified the police.

Instead, Morales left Washington, and in 1994 he married Marcia Griffeth, a mother of five boys. The family moved around the United States, working at various churches along the way. On the day in 2012 that her husband was arrested at a Walmart in Nevada, Griffeth was there. In the days and months to come, two of her sons would make a terrible disclosure to her: They’d allege it had happened to them, too.

Today, Griffeth views her family’s peripatetic existence differently. Morales always convinced her that God was telling him to move on, but now she thinks he was running away from other alleged victims. “I blame the church for covering everything up,” she says. “I wish they would have reported it to the authorities sooner.”

In the end, Morales was turned in only because one of his victims, as is typical of many child-sex-abuse survivors, finally went to police after years of suffering in silence. Morales was found guilty and, more than two decades after his crimes, was sentenced to 40 years in prison.

For the mothers behind the SGM class-action suit, the Morales verdict was vindicating. Most of them attended the trial in solidarity. In their minds, the most consequential moment happened during a back-and-forth between Morales’s lawyer and former CLC pastor Grant Layman, one of Mahaney’s brothers-in-law:

Q: . . . [A]s a pastor, when you become aware of sexual child abuse, did you have a responsibility to report that to the police department? That’s a yes or no.

A: I believe so.

Q: And you didn’t do it.

A: No, sir.

Pam Palmer calls this exchange “the Perry Mason moment,” because it seemed to corroborate their claims of a cover-up—right there in open court.

But for the purposes of their class-action lawsuit—and for demonstrating that SGM as an institution had failed its members—it wasn’t that simple. The pastors’ responsibility to report abuse cases rests on so-called mandatory-reporting laws that require certain people to alert authorities of suspected child abuse. In about half of US states, clergy are specifically named as mandatory reporters. Maryland and Virginia, however, exempt them in some instances.

As of now, the families are in limbo. A Montgomery County judge dismissed their suit based on technicalities, including the state’s restrictive civil statute of limitations for child-sex-abuse cases. The proceedings never delved into whether the allegations were true. Burke describes the saga as “heartbreaking and grueling.” She plans to file a new suit in Virginia against the Fairfax church on behalf of at least two plaintiffs. “Out of all the cases I have worked on,” she says, “this one is the toughest.”

• • •

Sovereign Grace Ministries is no longer the force it used to be.

Since the scandal, more than 30 churches have left the denomination—including Covenant Life and SGC Fairfax. The ministry’s revenue declined by 46 percent between 2012 and 2014, and its assets dropped from $6.2 million to $2.8 million. It’s also no longer a Washington institution: Leaders have moved their headquarters from Montgomery County to Louisville, Kentucky.

At least a dozen CLC and SGC Fairfax pastors have left their posts, including Joshua Harris, Mahaney’s handpicked successor. In an emotional sermon in January 2015, Harris recounted how Mahaney had trained and anointed him. Harris explained that he had come to see flaws in that system. His next step, he said, was moving to Canada to attend seminary—the sort of formal education, he said, that neither he nor Mahaney had ever gotten and that both men had once dismissed.

In Gaithersburg and Fairfax, the aisles are a lot emptier than they once were. At CLC, Sunday attendance in 2014 dropped to 1,715 members—a little more than half what it was in 2011. On a relatively sparsely attended Sunday at SGC Fairfax this past summer, Mark Mullery—the senior pastor who apologized to the families—preached from the book of Revelations about the end of life, when everyone will be judged. “No fancy lawyers to get anybody off the hook,” he quipped, to laughs. Slowing down for emphasis, he added, “What you do matters.”

Mahaney, though, has come out remarkably unscathed. In 2012, he moved the organization with him to Kentucky, where he started a new congregation, Sovereign Grace Church of Louisville. Though he’s no longer the ministry’s president, its leadership team includes two pastors who work at his church. Mahaney himself still headlines conferences that help promote the movement.

His direct role in the sex-abuse crisis is difficult to trace—usually his deputies were tasked with handling the matters and the reconciliation processes. “I have never conspired to protect a child predator, and I also deny all the claims made against me in the civil suit,” he said in a rare statement after the Morales verdict came down.

Former church official Brent Detwiler, however, believes Mahaney knew more than he’ll ever let on. “Nobody worked longer or closer with C.J. in all the history of Sovereign Grace Ministries than I did,” Detwiler says. He believes it’s impossible for all these pastors to have known about abuse and not to have told Mahaney how they were handling it. “It just didn’t work that way.”

Now known as Sovereign Grace Churches, the ministry’s new headquarters are in a business park just outside Louisville. One Friday this past October, I stopped by and was swiftly turned away. Mahaney didn’t respond to my follow-up e-mail, but that Saturday night, his brother-in-law Ricucci did. There would be no interview with either of them, he wrote.

The following morning, the church celebrated its third anniversary. Mahaney’s congregation filled the ballroom of a suburban Marriott with nearly 300 people, most of them good-looking adults under 35, singing along with the worship band. Elementary-school-age children squirmed in their seats until they were released to go to Sovereign Grace Kids. It was as if Mahaney, now 62, had recreated an earlier time in his ministry—once again assembling a new, makeshift church, an audience full of idealistic young families.

He preached from the book of Job, about a man who loses nearly everything he has. The part of the text that preoccupied him dealt with Job’s tone-deaf friends. They came to Job during his suffering and called him a sinner. Job was blameless, but his friends couldn’t see that: They thought he must have deserved to have so much taken from him.

Removing his glasses, Mahaney wiped a tear away with his sleeve and pulled out a tissue. “They turn on him and they attack him and it’s relentless,” he said in a near whisper, hunched over the podium.

As his preaching reached a crescendo, Mahaney raised his hands and flapped his arms as if conducting an orchestra. He shouted, “Job’s friends were wrong! Job was right!”

He lowered his voice again, telling his congregation they wouldn’t make such a big mistake. “This is a church,” he said, without irony, “where those suffering will be truly comforted.”

• • •

Kate’s daughter, Ann, now a junior in college, has grown into a bright all-American girl, tall with long brown hair.

She’s been through counseling and, thankfully, doesn’t remember the abuse. She says she has agreed to be part of a future lawsuit, to encourage others to “stand up and tell their stories.”

At 21, Richard and Sarah’s daughter Rose also feels strong enough to be part of another lawsuit. When I met her at her parents’ home in Virginia, she wore her blond hair half shaved, her arms etched with tattoos. “Her warrior look,” her mother calls it. The family’s son Taylor, too, is healing: Joining the original lawsuit persuaded him to go to therapy with his wife, and they’re working through how the ordeal affects their intimacy and marriage. Richard and Sarah have written to state lawmakers to lobby for Virginia clergy to become mandatory reporters. Taylor says, “We’re blessed to have badass parents who fight”—before Rose finishes his sentence: “for their children and for other children.”

Peggy Welsh moved to California in 2012. She’s been a mother since she was 16, but this choice, she says, was for her: “I’m going to die in California, but I’m going to get there early enough to enjoy it.”

Pam Palmer’s life, meanwhile, has indeed been transformed. She has become an activist. Last March, she testified before a Maryland Senate committee to support a bill that would lengthen the civil statute of limitations in child-sex-abuse cases by 13 years. The ordeal prompted her to go back to school to earn her bachelor’s degree in psychology, and she hopes to become a therapist for abuse survivors.

Over dinner last summer, Pam marveled at what a homeschooling, “stay-at-home Christian mom” managed to do—bring a group of people together to stand up against a denomination led by men.

“I don’t believe now that that’s the way Jesus meant the church to be set up,” she says. “Do you think that cover-up of sex abuse would happen over and over again if women were involved in policy?”

A Washington-based contributor to the New Republic, National Journal, and the Daily Beast, Tiffany Stanley (@tifflstanley on Twitter) has a master’s in divinity from Harvard. Her reporting on this story was partially subsidized by a grant from the Fund for Investigative Journalism.

This article appears in the February 2016 issue of Washingtonian.

Tiffany Stanley

A Washington-based contributor to the New Republic, National Journal, and The Daily Beast, Tiffany Stanley has a master’s in divinity from Harvard. Her reporting on this story was partially subsidized by a grant from the Fund for Investigative Journalism.