A small evangelical church group has invoked the First Amendment in asking a Maryland judge to dismiss a lawsuit accusing church leaders of covering up allegations of sexual abuse.
Sovereign Grace Ministries says in a motion to dismiss the lawsuit that Maryland courts can’t get involved in the internal affairs of church business.
The church group’s lawyers also say the case should be thrown out because its allegations are so vague. For instance, they say the lawsuit leaves unclear how old the plaintiffs were at the time they say suffered abuse.
The suit was filed in Montgomery County. The church recently moved its headquarters from Maryland to Louisville, Ky.
I don’t suppose many of my friends might know about this, as Sovereign Grace Ministries, and (I believe) all leaders associated with them have said little or nothing about this court case (filed in Maryland last fall), at least not publicly It has been a growing topic of concern and discussion on various blogsites (Here, and here)—who are now beginning to draw some direct and indirect fire for their addressing of the issue.
As a paramedic, there was no need to ponder whether or not one called in the police in cases of abuse–it was the law, and was certainly the standard practice, ethically, of the profession. Sadly, I saw a different standard practiced in my church, and others. Today, the topic of “when to call the authorities” comes up routinely in seminary classrooms, where ministry scenarios are discussed in light of Scripture. For the most part, the consensus of discussions that I’ve participated in has been, “You call the police when people are being hurt…” But I now push back a bit when that answer is given; Why wait until we know “people are being hurt”? Why not call the police, as an observant Christian, as ALL observant Christians should do, as soon as it is suspected that a crime has been (or is being) committed? Why wait?
I’ve seen a few reasons played out in answer to the question, but before laying out some of these reasons, I should point out that all of them advance the same troubling scenario, where the leaders of a church take it upon themselves to make the legal and ethical decisions for the members of the church, even in cases where the legal rights of those members (eg, the victims) are subsequently undefended, unrecognized or even violated. Should the abdication of a member’s citizenship rights and obligations be an understood condition for joining a church? Anyway, here goes…
The first reason? “We don’t call the police when a crime has been committed against someone, or a group, because we might be wrong, and an innocent person might be accused, found guilty, punished, etc! That’s the classic, most pragmatic reason people opposed the death penalty—wrong people get accused, and sometimes, tragically, are punished for crimes they did not commit. Of course, this line of reasoning assumes that our pastors and elders are better police detectives than professional police detectives. (I don’t recall a course in criminal investigation being offered in seminary!) Although this argument is often cited as a moral/biblical/ethical response, it often is simply a cover for cowardice and indifference to victims.
The next reason? “We can handle our own problems without calling in the (secular) authorities. After all, aren’t we going to “judge angels” one day? The church does not bow to Rome, Athens, or Washington, DC! Certainly we can discern the most proper, godly course of action here that will best mirror the redemptivepurposesofourKingJesuswhoboreoursinsonthecross…” Okay, I think that one’s just about as arrogant and goofy as can be, so please forgive my snark-writing! I suppose it’s the same sort of condition that would lead church leaders to appeal to the First Amendment as protection from prosecution for not reporting and even condoning, chronic sexual abuse of children. This is a very us and them based line of reasoning; first, it’s us Christians vs them outsiders…but in the end, it becomes us leaders and our lawyers vs them victims. Not pretty.
Finally, and there is another sad and common reason that church leaders do not immediately contact the police or governing agencies when crimes, felonies, etc. are committed on their watch: They’re scared. They know if a little truth dripped out of the church system, more truth would follow…and people (the cash crop of abusive leaders) would follow that truth right out the sanctuary, through the doors, out of the parking lot, and into the arms of another, worthier, church. Probably one just down the street. Careers and reputations would be ruined. Conference invitations would dry up. Best-sellers (okay Christian/faith bestsellers) would go for around twenty-five cents on Amazon. Reserve funds would dry up, reputations would be ruined, buildings might be lost, the church would become a “sue-magnet,” etc. You get the idea.
Corrupt leaders, pedophiles, thieves and embezzlers love this sort of churchified thinking!
I’ve also observed that such crimes of abuse, theft, deceit, etc., don’t go away. They sit there, like crows perched in the back of the sanctuary, Sunday after Sunday— quietly cackling at the hypocrisy of a leader without integrity preaching of the integrity of Christ. Few can say precisely what’s wrong—and those who know what is wrong have often long since left the troubled ministry, but many, many people begin to feel something is wrong; something has changed, some corner has been turned, a line has been crossed, and now the church seems lost, or at the very least, going in the wrong direction. If they spoke freely, they might admit that something smells very, very off in their church these days, and the guys up front with the aerosol cans of Lysol aren’t doing a very good job of hiding the stench.
Is your church beginning to smell like Lysol?
PS. Here’s the First Amendment. From Wikipedia:
The amendment prohibits the making of any law respecting an establishment of religion, impeding the free exercise of religion, abridging the freedom of speech, infringing on the freedom of the press, interfering with the right to peaceably assemble or prohibiting the petitioning for a governmental redress of grievances.