WASHINGTON (AP)—Three female plaintiffs claim an evangelical church group covered up allegations of sexual abuse against children, failed to report accusations to the police and discouraged its members from cooperating with law enforcement, according to a lawsuit filed Wednesday.
The lawsuit was filed in Maryland state court against Sovereign Grace Ministries, a 30-year-old family of churches with more than 80 congregations. Most of its churches are in the U.S., but it also has planted congregations in other countries. The alleged abuse happened in Maryland and northern Virginia in the 1980s and 1990s.
The plaintiffs allege a conspiracy spanning more than two decades to conceal sexual abuse committed by church members. They accuse church representatives of permitting suspected pedophiles to interact with children, supplying them with free legal advice to avoid prosecution and forcing victims to meet with and "forgive" the person that had molested them.
"The facts show that the Church cared more about protecting its financial and institutional standing than about protecting children, its most vulnerable members," the lawsuit claims.
The church said in a statement late Wednesday that it had not been served with the lawsuit and couldn't comment on the allegations. But it said it considered child abuse "reprehensible and criminal."
"Sovereign Grace Ministries takes seriously the Biblical commands to pursue the protection and well being of all people, especially the most vulnerable in its midst, little children," the statement said.
The suit names as defendants about a half-dozen pastors and church officials who plaintiffs say were alerted to the accusations but either failed to take action or actively covered them up. One official said he hadn't seen the suit, and other defendants either did not immediately respond to phone messages or did not appear to have publicly listed phone numbers.