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Former Children’s Ministry Volunteer at Gaithersburg Church Arrested on Charges of Sexual Abuse

Washingtonian's February story.

Larry Caffery, a former children’s ministry volunteer at Covenant Life Church, was arrested on child sexual-abuse charges last month. The Gaithersburg congregation and its former parent organization, Sovereign Grace Ministries, were at the center of an investigation Washingtonian published in February.

More than a dozen people have alleged they were sexually abused as children by members of Sovereign Grace Ministries. At least seven people have seen their abusers convicted.

Caffery, 66, was charged in March with 11 counts related to sexual abuse, child abuse, sexual offense, and false imprisonment. Caffery’s attorney Mallon Snyder says he denies the allegations against his client. (His case was not part of Washingtonian’s original reporting.)

When reached by phone, the mother of the alleged victim said of her daughter, who is a minor: “I hope she does heal from this, so she can have a full life. That’s what I hope.” The mother is no longer a member of Covenant Life, but she said she does not blame the church for the alleged abuse, nor does she believe the abuse happened on church property.

Caffery made a disturbing statement about sexual abuse in his spiritual memoir Years of Grace, Life of Mercy, first published in 2005. He wrote, “There had been sexual abuse in my family as I was growing up, and I had a fear that if I had daughters I might sexually abuse them.” He prayed that he would have sons.

A pastor at Covenant Life Church read Caffery’s book after it was published, but he raised no alarms. The church says the minister missed the passage, and Caffery continued to volunteer in children’s ministry from 2006 to 2010. Executive Pastor Mark Mitchell was asked about the oversight on Kojo Nnamdi’s radio show on March 31 (Mitchell and I both appeared to discuss the Washingtonian report). He clarified that the pastor gave the book “a cursory read” and “did not pick up the detail.”

Later, in a 13-minute video message to Covenant Life members, Mitchell stated that “any discovery of something of that nature in the future would disqualify someone from serving” in children’s ministry. He also said that after the arrest the church initially withheld Caffery’s name from members in order to protect the alleged victim’s privacy. “It was not any attempt to cover up as some are concerned about and some have even alleged,” he said.

“We’ve changed. We’ve grown, and we believe that our children’s ministry today is as safe as ever,” Mitchell said in the online video. “Now, in the past, like I said, you know, we’ve added things. And so we believe that today we have procedures and policies that are very robust. So we want our parents to really feel as though your kids are safe.”

In a statement to Washingtonian, Covenant Life spokesperson Don Nalle wrote, “The case is being handled by law enforcement and our staff will cooperate in any way they may request. To date, no agency has contacted us. These charges are not related to church property or activities. We have communicated to our church body that anyone with knowledge of wrongdoing—in this or any case—should call civil authorities.”

Caffery has been released on bail. His preliminary hearing is scheduled for this Friday, April 15.

This week also marked the return of Covenant Life’s founder and former senior minister, C.J. Mahaney, to the public eye. On Tuesday, he took the stage at Together for the Gospel, a massive pastors’ conference that he co-founded a decade ago.

His appearance has been beset by controversy: The victims’ advocacy group SNAP protested the event, asking organizers to disinvite Mahaney, and other Reformed evangelical leaders expressed concerns. Mahaney has previously denied allegations made against him in a dismissed civil lawsuit concerning the mishandling of sexual abuse cases. Among his supporters are two prominent DC pastors who are also headlining the Louisville conference: Mark Dever of Capitol Hill Baptist Church and Thabiti Anyabwile of Anacostia River Church.

Mahaney preached on suffering to thousands in an arena on Tuesday. “Affliction, persecution, slander and betrayal, being struck down. It is all part of the biblical pastoral job description,” he said in a sermon that was streamed online. “To be a pastor is to know cold, dark nights.”

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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.