Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Abuse and Cover-up Suits Filed Against Soverign Grace Ministries and its Leader as Congregations Jump Ship

We rightfully expect men and women of the cloth to practice what they preach. Maybe we know better now after the litany of sexual abuse cases in the Catholic church and the crumbling of religious rocks like Jim Baker and Robert Schuller. The Rev. Larry Tomczak seems to be on a path to join them, listed as a defendant in a civil case for alleged abuse.

I want to be clear that I am not judging Tomczak as a human being or a man of God, but as an individual in crisis who has sucked his nondenominational church down with him. Sovereign Grace Ministries, which relocated headquarters to Louisville, Kentucky, last year, reports having 90 churches worldwide, many of them clustered in Atlantic coast states, with about 28,000 members. (http://www.sovereigngraceministries.org/)

A bit more background is important. In Tomczak's own words, "Over the course of a year or two, a church was started that is now Covenant Life Church. Thirty-some years later it is a prosperous local church in the Gaithersburg MD area, with about 3,000+ members.... Over the course of two decades we were privileged to be involved in planting or 'adopting' about 25 churches. This fellowship of churches eventually became known as 'Sovereign Grace Ministries.'"  (http://www.sovereigngraceministries.org/blogs/sgm/post/A-letter-from-Larry-Tomczak-on-his-reconciliation-with-CJ-Mahaney.aspx)

 Tomczak found himself on a different doctrinal path than some of the other leaders. "As time went by I felt I was experiencing abuses of spiritual authority and methodologies that were harmful and inconsistent with Scripture. Other leaders in SGM shared similar experiences with me. Because of this, as well as some pruning the Lord was doing in my personal life in terms of character, and some family issues with one of our children, (co-founder CJ Mahaney) and I reached a place where there was not just tension, but an impasse.... As I attempted to exit, it caused tension and things did not go well for us."

Tomczak and Mahaney kept their distance from each other from 1992 until they reconciled in 2010. Tomczak now is an associate pastor at Bethel World Outreach Church near Brentwood, Tennessee. But there appears to be much more to the story, and a new crisis has made headlines.

Sovereign Grace is criticized by some of having an authoritarian and spiritually abusive culture. Several churches have broken off or distanced themselves from Sovereign Grace in the past year. A lawsuit filed against the church last year accuses Tomczak specifically of physically abusing a female over a 25-year period, including on her bare bottom as an adult. She isn't named, nor are the places where the alleged beatings occurred, nor is how he met her. One website I researched claimed it was one of his daughters. Hmmm....

One of several books Tomczak wrote is The Little Handbook on Loving Correction. In it, he advises parents to spank their children with a stick or wooden spoon or other object; never with the hand. Hands, he believes, are only for nurturing. Children must feel pain so they don't repeat their wrongdoings. Then, he wrote, pray with them.

Now a second suit has been filed, increasing the number of plaintiffs from three to eight and expanding the list of defendants.

"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." (http://www.courier-journal.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=2013301140087)

One new defendant is the school operated by the denomination. Another is Covenant Life, the parent church. Ten current and former individuals with Sovereign Grace also are named.

A new plaintiff claims she was repeatedly molested by two ministerial staff members when she attended school and worship at Covenant Life Church in Maryland. The two staff members are accused of forming a pedophile ring in which young victims went on to abuse even younger ones. Two Virginia siblings allege they were sexually abused by Tomczak's then-teenage son. The lawsuit claims one abusive act by the son occurred after the teen had already been charged with rape and had served time in juvenile detention. Part of Tomczak's departure from Covenant is attributed to co-founder CJ Mahaney and other Sovereign Grace leaders who threatened to spread damaging information about Tomczak’s son, according to a later church report.

The lawsuit alleges that as recently as 2011, defendants gave advice to members on how to prevent authorities from seeing bruises and other signs of abuse. One 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."

Tomczak so far hasn't ducked and run from the media. He replied with a voice-mail message in response 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 added he will file a motion to have his name dismissed from the suit.

Sovereign Grace also has responded in general terms to requests for a quote. "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.'”

Covenant Life Church, where the congregation had long been based until it withdrew from the denomination last month, also is named as a new defendant. It posted an open letter to members on its blog. (http://www.covlife.org/blog)

"We’re currently working with legal counsel to investigate these allegations," the blog said. "But our counsel has confirmed with counsel for the Plaintiffs that these unnamed persons are not current employees of the school or pastors at the church.

"It will take time for us to review and investigate these new allegations. We ask for your patience—it’s very likely that this is going to be a lengthy process. Please continue to pray.

"We are sickened by the thought of such abuse—sexual abuse in any form is evil and unconscionable. We are grieved by these allegations. We also recognize that we don’t have all the facts. We would encourage everyone to withhold judgment until an appropriate legal process can be completed."

I'm glad to see the parties involved aren't as silent as many in similar crises have been. Remember, it's pretty much never okay to say "No comment." There's always something you can say. And be sure to stay in close touch with your phone calls and emails so you won't be accused of being unavailable for comment.

Despite being as open as possible under pending litigation, the church, school, and the named individuals are probably in for a very tough time. "David Clohessy, executive director of the St. Louis-based Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, a support group for clergy abuse victims, said that Sovereign Grace seems to have no structure in place to deal with abuse allegations.

“'These kinds of insular, secretive churches, outside the mainstream, with little or no hierarchy seem especially problematic,' Clohessy said." Regarding the alleged cover-up of abuse, Clohessy pointed out, "That’s a common mistake made by churches. Instead of saying, ‘Get some therapy and call the police,’ they are told to forgive their abusers.”  (http://www.religionnews.com/2013/01/16/pastor-who-pushes-corporal-punishment-accused-of-abuse/)

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Larry Tomczak is no longer on staff at Bethel World Outrach (an Every Nation Church which has also had it's own set of scandal throughout the years)