NASHVILLE, Tenn. – A prominent leader in the Southern Baptist Convention said he was wrong to support a Kentucky pastor accused of covering up sex abuse.
The Rev. Albert Mohler first addressed the issue Thursday in an interview with the Houston Chronicle . Earlier this week, that paper and the San Antonio Express-News published an investigation detailing hundreds of sex abuse cases in Southern Baptist churches.
In a public statement released on Friday, Mohler apologized and asked for forgiveness for his support of C.J. Mahaney, founder of the Sovereign Grace Ministries network of churches, now called Sovereign Grace Churches. They are not affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention but Mohler and some other prominent Southern Baptists have worked closely with Mahaney in the past.
Mohler's Friday statement says he cut all ties with Mahaney last year after meeting with advocates for the victims. Although he issued a statement at the time calling on any ministry facing sex abuse allegations to submit to an independent investigation, he did not mention Sovereign Graces Churches by name.
"I wish I had spoken more forcefully," Mohler's statement reads.
Mahaney and his ministry were sued in 2012 by former church members who said pastors had covered up the abuse they suffered as children. The lawsuit was dismissed for technical reasons including the statute of limitations.
Despite the dismissal and denials of wrongdoing from Sovereign Grace leaders, the ministry has continued to be dogged by accusations of abuse and cover-up. An administrative assistant at Mahaney's Sovereign Grace Church of Louisville, Kentucky, said in an email that the pastoral team there was working on a statement but it was not available Friday evening.
Heather Thompson Bryant was the lead plaintiff in the lawsuit against Sovereign Grace. She said seeing prominent Christian leaders defend Mahaney and vilify victims felt like a "violation." And she is concerned that the way she was treated has prevented other victims from coming forward.
Mohler is president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky, and one of the people who helped organize a conservative takeover of the Southern Baptist Convention decades ago.
In his statement, he addresses "survivors who were hurt by my errors" saying he is "grieved." And he encourages survivors who have not spoken up to report their abuse to "proper legal authorities."
The Nashville-based Southern Baptist Convention is the nation's largest Protestant denomination with 15 million members and 47,000 affiliated churches.
Last year, the SBC formed a sexual abuse study group but it has not yet announced what concrete steps it will recommend.
Past proposals to create a database of sexual predators within the denomination were shot down. Southern Baptist leaders said it would be impossible because Southern Baptist churches are autonomous and the convention that binds them together is one of voluntary cooperation. Instead, they urged SBC churches to conduct background checks.
Critics say the autonomy of local churches should not prevent the SBC from taking action.
Christa Brown said she was abused by a Southern Baptist minister as a child and has been pushing for change in the denomination for years. She notes the convention has acted against individual churches in other circumstances.
"If they can interfere with churches that hire women pastors or are too welcoming to LGBT people, why can't they do anything about churches that keep sexually abusive pastors in the pulpit?"