Durban - The head of a US church group that is facing a class-action lawsuit over the alleged widescale cover-up of sexual and physical abuse of children will be in South Africa for a gospel tour in April, sparking debate among locals.
The lawsuit against leaders of Sovereign Grace Ministries (SGM) and its churches was filed in October by three alleged victims of abuse, and was amended last Friday to add five others.
SGM’s president and co-founder, Charles Joseph Mahaney, is named as one of the defendants and is also one of five guest speakers at the Rezolution 2013 “What is the gospel?” conference being held in Durban, Cape Town and Joburg in April. However, Mahaney is speaking only in Cape Town and Johannesburg.
The four other guest speakers are also from US churches.
Alan Schuster, of Rezolution, said local organisers of the conference were aware of the lawsuit, which he said SGM was “busy sorting out”.
He said the action dated back to incidents that allegedly took place 30 years ago.
“We believe in the premise of innocent until proven guilty. I don’t believe we have anything against Mahaney coming to South Africa,” Schuster said.
“He was invited as a guest speaker, and until other things come to light, we believe in his character.”
However, a Daily News reader who tipped off the newspaper about the speakers said she was concerned about the “business as usual” attitude of the organisers.
The allegations of abuse were “frightening and horrendous”, said the woman, who requested anonymity.
Reverend Ian Booth, chairman of the Diakonia Council of Churches, agreed, saying that if ever there was a question of a person’s integrity, that should be cleared before they were invited as a guest speaker.
The head of The Evangelical Alliance of SA, Reverend Moss Nplha, said the conference organisers should be cautious and instead wait until the outcome of the court case.
“Scripture says we are to flee not only evil, but every appearance of it,” he said. “I would be cautious.”
However, KZN Council of Churches spokesman, Lucas Ngoegjana, sided with Schuster, saying it was too early to make a full condemnation as it was still before the court.
SGM operates in 21 countries, including Canada, Mexico, Bolivia, western Europe, East Africa, eastern Asia and Australia.
All eight alleged victims – seven females and one male – have been given pseudonyms to protect their identities.
Mahaney and co-founder Lawrence Tomczak were said, in court papers, to be personally involved in the events that led to this lawsuit, “including but not limited to the abuse (of one of the plaintiffs)”.
According to court papers, certain individual defendants and other “predators”, who are not named, had repeatedly physically and sexually abused children.
The papers alleged that:
Although this information was known to the defendants, including Mahaney, they “cared more about protecting its (SGM’s) financial and institutional standing than about protecting children, its most vulnerable members”;
The defendants failed to stop repeated and ongoing sexual predation occurring at SGM churches and organisations, including Covenant Life Church and Covenant Life School in Maryland, US, in the 1980s and 90s;
The defendants failed to report known incidents to the police and encouraged parents not to do so either;
The defendants misled police, in cases where these incidents were reported;
Many of the eight plaintiffs and class representatives were repeatedly abused during their childhood, some as young as two and three years old, on the church premises and at church events such as picnics;
Convicted paedophiles were allowed to work unsupervised at the church with children;
Some alleged victims said they were made to “reconcile” with their perpetrators.
The class-action lawsuit listed five counts against the defendants: negligence; intentional infliction of emotional distress; conspiracy to obstruct justice; negligent hiring and supervision; and misrepresentation.
SGM said on its website: “We consider any allegation of harm to a child extremely serious and have been working… to learn the truth. We ask for patience as we investigate these new allegations.”