Megachurch pastors leave Reformed evangelical network amid child abuse scandal

by Sarah Pulliam Bailey

(RNS) Two pastors have left on a Reformed evangelical group after a pastor from the Maryland megachurch they founded confessed to covering up sex abuse claims, the latest chapter in a public struggle over evangelicals coming to terms with abuse within their ranks.

Pastors Joshua Harris and C.J. Mahaney left the Gospel Coalition council after a trial involving child abuse at Covenant Life Church in Gaithersburg, Md., which both men had overseen.

A criminal trial that concluded last week raised questions about which pastors at Covenant Life knew what about the abuse and why steps weren’t taken to stop it.

Nathaniel Morales, 56, was convicted Thursday (May 15) of sexually abusing three young boys between 1983 and 1991 when he was a youth leader at Covenant Life.

During testimony, former Covenant Life pastor Grant Layman suggested that he withheld information from the police about the abuse allegations against Morales

“Did you have an obligation to report the alleged abuse?” public defender Alan Drew, who represented Morales, asked during cross-examination. “I believe so,” Layman said. “And you didn’t,” Drew responded. “No,” Layman said.

Layman, who is Mahaney’s brother-in-law, stepped down from his role at Covenant Life in March.

Mahaney founded Covenant Life in 1977 before passing the leadership of the church in 2004 to Harris, author of the once bestselling “I Kissed Dating Goodbye” book. Mahaney now leads Sovereign Grace Church of Louisville.

Mahaney and Harris are no longer listed on The Gospel Coalition website, which boasts of leaders such as Al Mohler, president of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary; Tim Keller, pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City; and Mark Dever, pastor of Capitol Hill Baptist Church in Washington, D.C.

An employee of the Gospel Coalition declined to comment. Mahaney and Harris could not be reached for comment.

Harris, the current head pastor of Covenant Life, said in a tearful sermon on Sunday (May 18) that he has asked the church’s board to consider placing him on administrative leave while the church continues to investigate the issue. “We have a zero tolerance policy of abuse of any kind,” Harris said, urging people to go to the police if they know of any abuse.

Harris said that because of a separate civil lawsuit, church leaders are unable to speak openly about what pastors who knew what when. “Right now, we’re still getting conflicting information,” Harris said.

In a statement released last year, church leaders said they didn’t know about the abuse until “many years later.”

Nearly a year ago, several leading evangelical pastors and authors came to the defense of Mahaney after he was accused in a lawsuit for covering up sexual abuse of children. Mahaney announced that he would pull out of a conference called Together 4 the Gospel due to ongoing lawsuits, though he was seated in the front of the audience with conference leaders.

Mahaney’s Covenant Life was the flagship for Sovereign Grace Ministries, an association of 80 Reformed evangelical churches, based in Louisville, Ky.

Mahaney took a leave of absence from the ministry in 2011 after other pastors in the Sovereign Grace network charged him with “expressions of pride, unentreatability, deceit, sinful judgment and hypocrisy.” Six months later, the group reinstated Mahaney, declaring full confidence in him.

The same month that a lawsuit was filed, Mahaney told the Sovereign Grace board that he would step down to focus on pastoral ministry. Two months later, the Maryland church voted to leave the Sovereign Grace network.

In a sermon a year ago, Harris acknowledged that he had been sexually abused as a child, telling the congregation amid the ongoing lawsuit, “Please don’t allow the circumstance to draw you away from faith in Jesus.”

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