A criminal conviction has stoked the embers in a smoldering, two-year controversy surrounding Sovereign Grace Ministries (SGM), an association of about 80 Reformed, charismatic churches. Victims of childhood sexual abuse have claimed their pastors failed to report abuse allegations to police during years their families attended former SGM churches. The May trial of Nathaniel Morales offered legal confirmation of at least some of those victims’ claims.
In Montgomery County (Md.) Circuit Court on May 15, a dozen jurors convicted Morales, 56, of repeatedly molesting three teenage boys in the late 1980s and early ’90s. At the time, Morales was a member of Covenant Life Church in Gaithersburg, Md., where popular author C.J. Mahaney served as senior pastor, and from where Mahaney launched SGM. Morales led Bible studies, participated on worship teams, and attended sleepovers with teenage boys during his years at Covenant Life. He later moved away, married a woman with five boys from a previous marriage, and became a pastor in Las Vegas.
After hearing the verdict, victim Jeremy Cook told local ABC affiliate WJLA, “I started crying. It was … overwhelming to know that the struggle, the fight, the 25 years of trying to bring this forward, was worth it.” Morales’ sentencing is scheduled for Aug. 14. He faces up to 85 years in prison.
A separate civil lawsuit names Mahaney, Covenant Life, SGM, and other affiliated pastors as defendants, claiming they agreed to hide sexual abuse allegations from police, and allowed child sexual predators to work with children on church and private school property. The legal complaint accuses two former SGM leaders (but not Mahaney) of committing sexual or physical child abuse.
A judge dismissed the civil case last year on technical grounds, saying the statute of limitations was passed since the alleged abuse occurred many years ago. But lawyers have appealed, with a decision expected this summer on whether the case will proceed. Prosecutors could still file criminal charges against other alleged abusers since Maryland has no statute of limitations for felonies.
Attorneys routinely tell clients not to speak with media about ongoing lawsuits, and Mahaney, Covenant Life, and the other defendants have largely taken that approach. Last year, Covenant Life published a statement saying the church “had no knowledge of such abuse until many years after” it occurred.
However, testimony during the Morales trial undermined the church’s claim. Grant Layman, a longtime Covenant Life pastor who stepped down from his position in March, and the brother-in-law of Mahaney, admitted to public defender Alan Drew he knew of child abuse allegations against Morales but failed to report them to police.
Best-selling author Joshua Harris is the current lead pastor at Covenant Life, which left SGM in 2012. (Mahaney stepped down as SGM president last year and is the senior pastor of Sovereign Grace Church of Louisville in Louisville, Ky.). Harris said during a tearful Sunday morning message May 18 that when church leaders wrote the statement last year, they believed it was accurate, but they were now getting “conflicting information.” Harris said the pastoral team was cooperating with an independent investigation the church has commissioned.
The same day, a redesign of the website for The Gospel Coalition, a network of Reformed churches, revealed that Harris and Mahaney had resigned as members of the network’s leadership council. Harris said he resigned because of the ongoing lawsuit, while Mahaney did not publicly state his reason.
But Mahaney did break a nearly two-year silence about the civil allegations a few days later, when he issued a statement on his Louisville church’s website. “I have never conspired to protect a child predator, and I also deny all the claims made against me in the civil suit,” he wrote, reiterating he could not speak in detail about an ongoing lawsuit. Mahaney added, “I look forward to the day when I can speak freely.”