The lawsuit was filed in Maryland state court against Sovereign Grace Ministries, a 30-year-old family of churches with more than 80 congregations. Most of its churches are in the U.S., but it also has planted congregations in other countries. The alleged abuse happened in Maryland and northern Virginia in the 1980s and 1990s.
The plaintiffs allege a conspiracy spanning more than two decades to conceal sexual abuse committed by church members. They accuse church representatives of permitting suspected pedophiles to interact with children, supplying them with free legal advice to avoid prosecution and forcing victims to meet with and "forgive" the person that had molested them.
"The facts show that the Church cared more about protecting its financial and institutional standing than about protecting children, its most vulnerable members," the lawsuit claims.
The church said in a statement late Wednesday that it had not been served with the lawsuit and couldn't comment on the allegations. But it said it considered child abuse "reprehensible and criminal."
"Sovereign Grace Ministries takes seriously the Biblical commands to pursue the protection and well being of all people, especially the most vulnerable in its midst, little children," the statement said.
The suit names as defendants about a half-dozen pastors and church officials who plaintiffs say were alerted to the accusations but either failed to take action or actively covered them up. One official said he hadn't seen the suit, and other defendants either did not immediately respond to phone messages or did not appear to have publicly listed phone numbers.
"Each time a pastor in Sovereign Grace Ministries chose to put the reputation of his church first by using his position to enable a pedophile to avoid appropriate criminal justice, that pastor jeopardized the safety and well-being of all children," the mother of one of the plaintiffs, all identified in the complaint by pseudonyms, said Wednesday.
The Associated Press does not generally identify possible victims of sexual abuse, and is not naming the mother to avoid identifying her daughter.
The lawsuit bears parallels to the allegations of priest sex abuse and the resulting cover-up that have rocked the Roman Catholic church over the last decade. But while that scandal centered on sex abuse by priests, the accusations in this case involve molestation by church members instead of clergy.
Sovereign Grace Ministries grew from its mother church in Gaithersburg, Md., in 1982. It moved its headquarters this year to Louisville, Ky., where it's also planting a new church. The group has struggled in recent years with fractured leadership and criticism over its discipline methods, especially the church's emphasis on sins, discipline and repentance. The lawsuit singles out the church's "Home Group" structure, in which children are provided with day care so that their parents can attend services, as fostering a poorly supervised environment that enabled the abuse to occur.
While the suit deals specifically with alleged abuse in Maryland and northern Virginia, the church has faced scrutiny on other occasions for its handling of sexual abuse claims, and Susan Burke, a lawyer representing the three plaintiffs, said there are other alleged victims prepared to join in the case too. And an April report by a non-profit Lutheran mediation group that studied the church for nine months found that while church leaders showed "care and concern" about sex abuse allegations, a number of people interviewed felt the claims were handled irresponsibly and were left with "disappointments and hurts."
The lawsuit centers on allegations of three female plaintiffs.
One of the three plaintiffs, a high school student in Virginia, alleges she was sexually assaulted when she was 3 years old and that the mother of the boy who abused her revealed the molestation to the church. But church officials discouraged her family from reporting the allegations to police and, instead, repeatedly interviewed the alleged abuser and worked with him and his mother to determine how best to prevent any prosecution and publicity regarding the abuse.
A second plaintiff, a college student in Maryland, was sexually abused as a toddler by a church member, the lawsuit claims. A pastor scolded her parents after they called police and then tipped off the accused that he had been reported, according to the lawsuit. Her parents were instructed to bring her to a meeting with her alleged abuser so they could be "reconciled," but she was "visibly scared and crawled under the chair" after being brought into the same room with him, the suit says.
The third plaintiff says her adoptive father, a member of the church, sexually abused her older sister for three and a half years. She says the church warned her mother not to pursue a prosecution, then kicked the family out of the church and denied the children reduced tuition to school. The man was ultimately prosecuted and imprisoned, the lawsuit says.
The lawsuit, filed in Montgomery County, Md., includes claims of intentional infliction of emotional distress, negligence and conspiracy, among others. It says there are other victims, both male and female, who have raised allegations but are not yet identified as named plaintiffs.
"We view the case as an important step in holding SGM accountable for its misdeeds," said Burke, the lawyer who represents the three plaintiffs and is also suing the military on behalf of female service members who say they were raped. "No institution can put its own financial concerns above the needs of vulnerable children."