Sovereign Grace Ministries and Evangelicalism’s Abuse Problem

This is Part One of a series on sex abuse in American Protestantism.

Today, evangelical blogger Rachel Held Evans published her perspective on the sexual abuse scandal that has engulfed Saving Grace Ministries. Sovereign Grace Ministries, which represents over 80 churches,  wields some influence in the Evangelical world primarily through Covenant Life Church. Until it severed ties with Sovereign Grace in December 2012, Covenant Life Church functioned as Sovereign Grace’s flagship church. According to a lawsuit filed in Montgomery County, Maryland, Sovereign Grace faces accusations that its leadership deliberately and consistently concealed incidents of child molestation at Covenant Life and other congregations throughout the 1980s and 1990s. Victims are male and female. Perpetrators, all male, range from church members to the co-founder of the denomination. In addition to this lawsuit, a former church member has just been indicted on charges that he abused four boys.

A website founded by former members of Covenant Life Church and other Sovereign Grace congregations provides detailed insight into the nature of the abuse perpetrated by church members and leaders (trigger warning for graphic depictions of sexual assault). A common, disturbing theme emerges from these stories:  the belief, as articulated by church leadership, that sexual abuse perpetrated by church members on other church members ought to be investigated by the church. The solution? For perpetrators, repentance; for victims, forgiveness. The denomination did not acknowledge the authority of secular jurisprudence. Members of Sovereign Grace congregations were instead considered subjects of a different, but higher, law. As one mother reported, the denomination’s leadership defined rape primarily as a sin, not a crime.

In my series on Cedarville University I reported, briefly, that one of its trustees, Michael Loftis, had resigned from the presidency of the Association of Baptists for World Evangelism (ABWE) after his failure to investigate sexual abuse by missionary doctor Donn Ketcham. Doctrinally, ABWE and Sovereign Grace Ministries are distinct. ABWE is a Baptist organization. Sovereign Grace defines itself as Reformed and charismatic. Nevertheless, there are notable similarities between the abuse scandals that plague both ministries. Donn Ketcham’s abuse became known to the leadership of ABWE in 1989; ABWE expelled him from his ministry in Bangladesh and forced his fourteen year old victim to confess to the sin of adultery. ABWE leaders did not report Ketcham to secular authorities. Instead, he confessed to his sending church, and returned to Michigan, where he continued to practice medicine.

In 2002, after Loftis assumed the presidency, several more victims approached him directly to report abuse by Ketcham. Loftis promised counselling and an internal investigation. Neither occurred. In 2011, victims frustrated by ABWE’s inaction went public and demanded the promised investigation. Only then did ABWE report Ketcham to Michigan’s Medical Board.

Yes: Ketcham’s pedophilia had been known to ABWE since 1989. Loftis himself had known about the abuse for nearly ten years before he permitted ABWE to investigate the claims and report Ketcham to the authorities. During that period of time Loftis had joined Cedarville University’s Board of Trustees. The same university awarded Ketcham an honorary doctorate and sold his sermons in the campus store.

Like Sovereign Grace, ABWE’s response to sexual abuse within its ranks revealed a preference for church discipline and the belief that theological solutions, like the abuser’s professed repentance, could suffice to resolve abuse cases. These patterns aren’t limited to either Sovereign Grace or ABWE. Similar problems have been reported at a New Tribes Mission boarding school in Senegal. Like at ABWE and Sovereign Grace, New Tribes Mission leadership knew of but did not report cases of sexual abuse. And at Cedarville University, which bestowed an honorary doctorate on a known pedophile and still permits Michael Loftis to serve as a trustee, alumni have revealed that the school has never complied with Title IX regulations on the reporting of rape and sexual assault. Specifically, the university never established an official reporting policy for these cases. According to anecdotal cases, student victims who choose to report abuse despite the lack of an official policy on the subject are expected to file complaints with Campus Safety. As with most universities, Cedarville’s Campus Safety officers are university employees. At Cedarville, this means officers are often students, and all must adhere to the university’s doctrinal statement, which effectively renders them members of a parachurch organization. Once again, sexual abuse victims find themselves subject primarily to religious authority.

In her piece on Sovereign Grace, Held Evans states that the cover up is evidence of the evangelical world’s broader failure to appropriately handle sexual abuse and references a piece by conservative blogger Tim Challies that called on Christians to refrain from passing judgement on Sovereign Grace’s leadership. She is quite correct to criticize Challies for his language: Challies repeatedly refers to the abuse claims as ‘allegations,’ which inherently questions the validity of those claims. Challies never calls for transparency. He does not acknowledge the difficulties faced by abuse victims who choose to report their assaults, nor does he profess empathy for the trauma endured by these victims. Consequently, his post implies a refusal to believe the validity of their claims. In this, he is complicit in sustaining a pernicious culture of silence that prohibits the church from pursuing a victim-centered approach to sexual abuse.

His response is typical. Donn Ketcham’s victims report encountering similar attitudes, as do victims of abuse at New Tribes Mission. I have personally witnessed the same attitude among members of the Cedarville University community. When the open discussion of abuse is routinely decried as divisive gossip, which reinforces this culture of silence and creates a hostile environment for victims seeking support.

In my next post, I’ll explore the sexual attitudes that contribute to these harmful attitudes.


5 thoughts on “Sovereign Grace Ministries and Evangelicalism’s Abuse Problem

  1. Excellent article, Sarah. It boggles the mind that Cedarville does not follow Title IX. Horrifying, actually. One correction to your information. In 1989 Russ Ebersole gave missionaries and other churches the IMPRESSION that Ketcham had “confessed to his sending church.” In fact, Ebersole had only told the church that Ketcham was let go for “moral failure” and trusted Ketcham to confess the truth to the church and pastor. Turns out … he never did. (Are we surprised?) And the first that church and pastor ever knew of Ketcham’s pedophilia was when was launched in 2011. Even more covering. Can you imagine expecting a pedophile to confess to anyone of his own volition? What arrogance and ignorance. Ebersole was forced to resign at some point in the past two years for his role in the debacle, but the public was not informed until some time after.

    These organizations like to keep their secrets and like to protect their own, long after they are gone.

  2. I had no idea that Ebersole lied. I don’t think any of us at Cedarville knew that. But I’m not at all surprised by the information. The university’s also been lying about Ketcham’s honorary doctorate. According to a press release sent out by provost John Gredy, the Board of Trustees voted to rescind Ketcham’s degree in 2011. Gredy is contradicted by reality: the university sold Ketcham’s sermons and listed him as a recipient of an honorary degree on its website until this year. Hardly indicative of an institutional concern for victims of his pedophilia. We’re still fighting to have Michael Loftis removed from the Board of Trustees.

    In addition to all of this, an alumni revealed that two former professors (male) had abused male students for years. One abuser confessed to this alumni and swore he’d call the provost and confess to him as well, but as you noted, predators do not typically confess of their own volition and as far as I know, this ‘official’ confession has yet to occur.

    I doubt Cedarville is the only Christian college in violation of Title IX. It’s time for American Christians to talk openly about sexual abuse, and hold their ministries accountable for failing to protect the vulnerable.

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