Covenant Life Church Member Arrested for Abuse
April 8, 2016
The day before Easter, members of Covenant Life Church learned police had arrested one of their former children’s ministry volunteers on charges of child sexual abuse. The news cast a familiar pall over the Gaithersburg, Md., congregation already struggling under the cloud of past child sex abuse allegations within its membership.
On March 16, Montgomery County, Md., authorities charged Larry Ellis Caffery, 66, with nine counts of child sexual abuse and two counts of false imprisonment. His arrest comes as the threat of a new class-action lawsuit looms over Covenant Life Church (CLC) founder C.J. Mahaney and leaders within Sovereign Grace Churches (SGC,), formerly Sovereign Grace Ministries, over allegations they covered up accusations of child sexual abuse involving church members decades earlier.
A 2012 civil lawsuit alleged Mahaney, CLC, SGC, and others covered up sexual abuse in SGC churches, including CLC, the former flagship church of the SGC coalition, of which it is no longer a member. A Montgomery County judge dismissed the case in 2013 on technical grounds but did not rule on the merits of the case. Mahaney denied the charges against him. In 2014, a Maryland jury convicted former CLC youth ministry volunteer Nathaniel Morales on five counts of sexual molestation related to events in the 1980s and 1990s.
A CLC spokesman said Caffery’s arrest has no connection to the church.
“The DA’s office has not reached out to us, nor has any other civil agency,” CLC communications director Don Nalle told me via email. “Let us emphasize, there is no allegation at this time that any wrongdoing happened on church property. However, because Mr. Caffery is a church member, we have alerted our entire church of the arrest.”
Ramon Korionoff, a spokesman for the Montgomery County district attorney’s office, said prosecutors could not comment on the specifics of the case during the investigation. Caffery’s alleged victim or victims have not been identified, but the charges indicate the alleged abuse involved a minor under Caffery’s care between 2004 and 2014.
In 2004, Caffery began volunteering in the CLC children’s ministry. He served every year, with the exception of 2005, until 2010, according to church records. According to his autobiography, Caffery has been married twice, and in 2005, when the book was first published, had two young children.
Most of the charges against Caffery are felonies. The false imprisonment charge does not necessarily mean an alleged victim or victims were locked up.
“False imprisonment would be when someone goes into a room with another and does not let them out,” Korionoff said.
CLC leaders have expressed sorrow over the situation—while trying to distance the church from the alleged crimes.
“I’m saddened by what’s taken place,” CLC executive pastor Mark Mitchell told Washington, D.C., radio host Kojo Nnamdi during a March 31 interview about Caffery and the abuse cover-up allegations. “And I’m saddened that another person has been the victim of criminal activity. I’m grateful that it did not take place on church premises.”
Although CLC is not under investigation and requires volunteers working with minors to pass criminal background checks, a former SGC leader turned ministry critic, Brent Detwiler, contends church leaders should have known Caffery posed a potential threat, arguing he said as much in his autobiography.
Caffery confessed in the book that he worried issues from his past might cause him to abuse a daughter if he ever had one. Nnambi cited that passage in the book and asked Mitchell if any CLC pastors knew about it.
According to Mitchell, a “senior pastor at that time” received a copy of the book and passed it on to pastor Robin Boisvert for review and possible sale in the church bookstore. At the time of the book’s release, Joshua Harris was CLC’s senior pastor, having succeeded Mahaney in 2004.
Mitchell told Nnamdi that Boisvert gave the book a cursory read and “at that time he did not pick up the detail.” But, according to Nalle, Boisvert did note the “critical tone” of one passage that was in contrast to the book’s theme of grace. He recommended the church not carry the book because “our bookstore does not generally carry members’ self-published testimonies,” Nalle said.
Caffery continued to work in the children’s ministry for another five years.
“I am sure that if that pastor had seen the lines you describe it would have been addressed,” Harris told me via email.
Currently a student at Regent College in Vancouver, Canada, Harris has “vague” recollections of Caffery’s book. He had no knowledge of Caffery’s arrest until contacted by WORLD.
“I’m so saddened by this—not only as a former pastor but as a parent who had my kids in children’s ministry during that time,” said Harris, who has three children.
Victims’ advocates argue laxity in addressing claims of sexual abuse fits a pattern of behavior for SGC pastors. During the Morales trial, former CLC pastor Grant Layman admitted he learned of child abuse allegations against Morales some time after the incidents occurred but did not report them to police.
The dismissal of the 2012 civil lawsuit alleging a sexual abuse cover-up came, in part, because the statute of limitations had expired. But Maryland lawmakers are debating a bill that would extend to 20 years the statute of limitations for filing civil lawsuits in child abuse cases. Susan Burke, the attorney who represented the plaintiffs in 2012, testified before Maryland’s Senate Judiciary Committee asking for the extension. If passed, the statute would apply retroactively, possibly allowing Burke to refile the 2012 lawsuit.
Mahaney has strongly denied ever trying to protect a child predator within SGC churches. In 2012 he started another SGC church, Sovereign Grace Church in Louisville, Ky., and remains a popular Christian conference speaker. In 2013, during the first civil lawsuit trial, Mahaney withdrew from participation in the 2014 Together for the Gospel (T4G) conference. Last week, the child advocacy group Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP) asked this year’s conference organizers to “disinvite” Mahaney from the event that begins April 12.
Calls and emails to Sovereign Grace Church and SGC in an attempt to reach Mahaney for comment were not returned.
In the meantime, Burke is preparing a second lawsuit she most likely will file in Virginia, where leaders at another SGC church, Sovereign Grace Church in Fairfax, Va., face similar accusations of ignoring warnings of child sexual abuse.