Written by Peter Smith
Januayr 14, 2013
A lawsuit against a Louisville-based denomination has added new allegations that ministers not only covered up the physical and sexual abuse of members but in some cases were abusers themselves.
The lawsuit accuses a co-founder of Sovereign Grace Ministries, who left in a bitter split with the current president in 1997, of physically abusing a female over a 25-year period.
The lawsuit was originally filed in October in Montgomery County, Md., where the denomination was based from its 1982 founding until 2012.
The original lawsuit alleged that church pressured victims and their families not to report sexual abuse by other members.
But the amended lawsuit, filed on Friday, adds both plaintiffs and defendants and alleges for the first time that church staff members themselves were among the abusers, and that some of the abuse occurred on church property.
The lawsuit also adds new allegations of physical abuse, in addition to sexual abuse.
Lawsuits give only one side of a complaint.
Tommy Hill, director of administration for the denomination, said in a statement Monday: “Sovereign Grace Ministries considers the abuse of any child to be reprehensible and evil. We ask for patience as we carefully review and investigate these new allegations. We continue to pray for all those affected by this lawsuit.”
The amended lawsuit, which seeks class-action status, was filed by Washington attorney Susan Burke on behalf of five new plaintiffs in addition to the original three. All use pseudonyms.
One of the new plaintiffs says she was repeatedly molested by two ministerial staff members when she attended school and worship at Covenant Life Church in Gaithersburg, Md., the denomination's former flagship church.
The two staff members formed a pedophile ring in which young victims went on to abuse even younger ones, the lawsuit said.
Two Virginia siblings alleged they were sexually abused by a teenage son of a pastor, in one case after the perpetrator had already been charged with rape and had served time in juvenile detention, the lawsuit says.
Sovereign Grace Ministries relocated its headquarters to Louisville last year after more than a year of controversy over what critics say is an authoritarian and spiritually abusive culture. The denomination also launched its first Kentucky congregation then, Sovereign Grace Church of Louisville.
Sovereign Grace last year reported having more than 90 churches worldwide, many of them clustered in Atlantic coast states, with about 28,000 members. But several congregations have broken or distanced themselves from the denomination in recent months.
The lawsuit names defendants on both sides of the controversies.
New defendants include Covenant Life Church — where the denomination had long been based and where denominational president C.J. Mahaney had earlier been pastor — and Sovereign Grace Church of Fairfax, Va.
Covenant Life left the denomination last month.
Mahaney is among 10 current or former individual church leaders named as defendants.
The amended lawsuit repeats allegations in the original lawsuit that the tightly disciplined church fostered an environment of unquestioning obedience, discouraging victims and their families from going to secular authorities and pressuring them into reconciling with perpetrators who professed repentance.
The suit alleges that church leaders misled authorities and worked to minimize the criminal-justice penalties against abusers.
The amended lawsuit names Larry Tomczak, now of Franklin, Tenn., who co-founded Sovereign Grace with Mahaney but left in 1997 amid a dispute. Mahaney and other Sovereign Grace leaders had threatened to spread damaging information about Tomczak’s then-teenage son, who had confessed to misconduct, according to a later church report.
The amended lawsuit alleged that Tomczak physically abused a girl into her adult years over a 25-year period with bare hands and plastic and wooden sticks. It accused him of forcing her to strip, even as an adult, and receive beatings on her bare buttocks. Eventually, “she fled and escaped from the abuse,” the lawsuit said.
Tomczak said in a voice-mail message in reply to a news query: “I, like any parent, am saddened by any allegations of this nature, and I have to just trust the courts to sort things out. I had absolutely no participation or involvement in any of these areas.”
Tomczak said he would be filing a motion to have his name dismissed from the suit.
The lawsuit alleges that as recently as 2011 defendants have been giving “guidance to members on how best to prevent secular authorities from observing bruising” and other signs of abuse.
Another plaintiff alleges she was physically and sexually abused by her father, who would “submerge her into an ice bath to hide physical manifestations of the beatings.”
She and her sister reported abuse to church employees, who informed her father, leading to more abuse, the lawsuit alleges.
Messages left with Covenant Life and Sovereign Grace Church of Fairfax were not immediately returned Monday.
Sovereign Grace’s move to Louisville built on growing ties between the denomination and Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, with which it shares many theological beliefs despite denominational differences.
Mahaney and seminary President Albert Mohler have regularly shared platforms at conferences associated with the New Calvinism — which emphasizes divine power, sinful humanity's need for a savior in Jesus, tightly disciplined churches and male authority in churches and homes.
Reporter Peter Smith can be reached at 502-582-4469.