Covenant Life Church member arrested for abuse

Religion | The former children’s ministry volunteer once wrote about his fear of becoming an abuser
by Bonnie Pritchett
Posted 4/07/16, 02:48 pm

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 another 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.

Bonnie Pritchett

Bonnie is a correspondent for WORLD. She is a graduate of World Journalism Institute and the University of Texas School of Journalism. Bonnie resides with her family in League City, Texas.

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  • Cyborg3's picture
    Posted: Thu, 04/21/2016 02:26 pm

    It is sad to hear when anything like this goes on in the church, though one should not presume guilt until the evidence is in. It will be interesting to find out who is supplying the evidence, and where it came from.

  • VolunteerBB
    Posted: Thu, 04/21/2016 02:26 pm

    In my experience, people running the churches are so afraid of offending someone, or being seen as a gossip, that they turn the other way when confronted with concerns like these.  I have experienced similar situations in my church, the leadership is just too timid to do anything about it, no matter how many times something is brought to their attention.  I am glad that those who "kept quiet" are being prosecuted if it can be proven that something was on their radar and they did nothing.  Just because we are Christians does not mean we are supposed to keep quiet when speaking up is the thing to do.  And to be labeled as "judging" people when we should be accepting everybody equally, that is why these people can get away with stuff like this...and other things no so bad, everyone is afraid of being labeled.  Well, God tells us we must discern good and evil.  And knowing the right thing to do but not doing it is the same thing as sinning.  If someone asks you point blank why a person was kicked out of their church, or why they are looking for another job in another church, you better tell them the truth and not sugar coat it.  Do you really want another church to go through what you did?

  • gapstander
    Posted: Thu, 04/21/2016 02:26 pm

    When the ways of the world invade the church -meant to be refuge and shelter offering salvation, safety, recourse and comfort for God-seekers- all we see is self-seeking, self-preservation, pride of face and world, plain selfish and callous apathy with regards to the ones suffering in this situation when he says he is grateful it did not happen in his comfort zone. That was dreadfully painful to read, besides the victim's or victims' suffering.

  •  William Peck 1958's picture
    William Peck 1958
    Posted: Thu, 04/21/2016 02:26 pm

    The church says "there is no allegation at this time that any wrongdoing happened on church property.", but then they also say "I’m grateful that it did not take place on church premises.” The affirmative of the latter statement doesn't actually align with the first statement. But their overall message is, "Thank God it didn't happen on our property."

  •  William Peck 1958's picture
    William Peck 1958
    Posted: Thu, 04/21/2016 02:26 pm

    @World - no reports on the Set Free Summit ?

  •  Brendan Bossard's picture
    Brendan Bossard
    Posted: Thu, 04/21/2016 02:26 pm

    I was a member at a church with leaders for whom I still have the highest regard.  We had an unfortunate situation in which a man who had very serious anger issues was allowed to assist in children's Sunday school.  We had to pull teeth in order to get the aforementioned leaders to stop letting him help in the classroom, even though red lights kept going off in his behavior like the grand finale of a fireworks display.God does not ask us to abandon common sense in the name of grace.  There are all sorts of opportunities to serve at church which do not involve putting the vulnerable at risk.  And in an age of paranoia about child safety, it seems that the Church has been tone-deaf.  In Pennsylvania, where I live, all church employees or volunteers are mandated reporters.  I wonder how many church congregations are aware of this.It is also shameful that any matter, even one concerning sexual abuse, cannot be resolved within the congregation.  Either the leaders have done a truly sloppy job of addressing the issue, or the plaintiffs have not really tried to address the matter Biblically.  I suspect the former to be true, but do not know enough about the case to come down firmly on that.  I just hope that the CLC can get through this fully healed.

  • CE
    Posted: Thu, 09/29/2016 07:06 am

    All charges against Larry Caffery have been dropped by the Prosecutor and the case is now closed.  Most of the charges were dropped in May, 2016, just a couple of months after they were brought.  The rest of the charges were dropped in June, 2016, a month later.

  • Web Editor
    Posted: Thu, 09/29/2016 09:30 am

    @Anonymous: We posted a separate story once the charges were dropped. Here's a link in case you missed it:

  • CE
    Posted: Wed, 09/28/2016 02:36 pm

    "The threat of a new class action lawsuit" DOES NOT "loom over Covenant Life Church". Judge Burrell, who ruled on the class action suit in question (and who did, in fact rule on the merits of the case presented to her) took the unusual extra step to dismiss the case with prejudice, effectively barring it from ever being brought in Maryland again - even if the statute of limitations is changed. Since CLC is not located in Virginia it is highly unlikely that the Virginia courts will think they have jurisdiction over CLC.

    Someone didn't check facts before the story was published.