ROCKVILLE, Md. (CN) - Sovereign Grace Ministries church allowed sexual predators to molest children for more than 20 years while telling the victims they were "sinners" and intimidating their families to avoid "secular" prosecution, three alleged victims claim in a class action lawsuit.
In some cases, the church in Gaithersburg, Md. Forced the victims to forgive their attackers, according to the complaint.
The class, led by Jane Doe, Norma Noe and Robin Roe, sued Sovereign Grace Ministries and eight of its officials in Montgomery County Court.
Doe, a high school student, says she was sexually assaulted when she was 3 years old.
Roe, a college student, says she was sexually assaulted when she was 2.
Sovereign Grace Ministries operates churches in Gaithersburg, in Louisville, and in 21 countries, according to the complaint.
The women claim the church "failed to report known incidences of sexual predation to law enforcement, encouraged parents to refrain from reporting the assaults to law enforcement, and interposed themselves between the parents of the victims and law enforcement in order to mislead law enforcement into believing the parents had 'forgiven' those who preyed on their children."
The women say the abuses occurred under the auspices of the church, which was "responsible for more than 800 children at its Gaithersburg church, many hundreds of others elsewhere."
The church allegedly facilitated the abuse throug its "Home Group structure," which requires members to attend weekly Home Group meetings "in various residential premises." For instance, the church did not require that its pastors be licensed or ordained, and did not have any policies to deal with sexual predation, the complaint states.
"The Church directed members to unquestioningly 'obey' the church in all matters, including methods of parenting, place of residence and employment," according to the complaint.
The women say the church knew as early as 1987 that there was a sexual abuse problem in its congregation. But rather than report the sexual abuse to authorities, the church handled it problem internally, teaching its members to "fear and distrust all secular authorities, and expressly directed members not to contact law enforcement to report sexual assaults," the plaintiffs say.
Doe says she was repeatedly assaulted when she was 3 by a church member who was babysitting her.
"Upon learning of the crimes, the church failed to report the crimes to the secular authorities. Instead, the church engaged in a lengthy pattern of fraud and deception to try to prevent anyone from learning the full extent of the ongoing criminal activity," according to the complaint.
Doe says the church let her molester continue babysitting while it told police that it was providing accountability measures to ensure that the member was not given access to other children.
"In fact, the church did not put any 'accountability measures' in place, but instead permitted a known child molester to frequent the 'children's ministry' without any supervision, babysit children of members, and otherwise interact with children at church events, including a weekend retreat, without any supervision whatsoever," Doe.
Noe says she was molested when she was 2, and when her parents reported it to the church, a church official, defendant John Loftness, told them not to call police.
When the parents told Loftness they already had contacted police, he said, "that is going to be a problem," and that such matters were handled internally, not by secular authorities, according to the complaint.
Noe says Loftness tipped off her molester that her parents had reported the abuse, and "took steps to ensure that other church members in the neighborhood were not alerted to the crime."
Then the church forced her to be "reconciled" with her predator at a meeting, traumatizing her and her parents, Noe says. She says the family was told not to tell other members about the abuse or the identity of her attacker, and that church officials let him continue working with children.
The third plaintiff says she reported the abuse of her sister by her stepfather, a Sovereign Grace member, to a church leader, who reported it to defendant church leaders Gary Ricucci and Loftness, who went to the aid of the predator, not the victim.
"Rather than assisting the victims, the church retained a lawyer for the sexual predator," plaintiff Roe says.
"The church even suggested to Robin Roe's mother that she send Robin Roe's sister, the victim, out of the house in order to 'bring' the predator home as 'head of the household.'"
Roe says the church booted her out after she told another member about the assault. She claims the church's conduct and misrepresentations landed her in a juvenile halfway house.
Roe says the church kicked her mother out, too, for refusing "to acquiesce in the church's attempt to obstruct justice."
The complaint contains numerous other allegations of sexual abuse and the church's alleged coverups, including the mother of a 10-year-old girl who had been abused by her father for years being reprimanded "for the sin of 'gossiping,'" after she turned to her friends for support.
"The church also told the 10-year-old victim that she was a 'sinner' for having been victimized.
"The church blamed the mother for the father's pedophilia and instructed her to engage in sex with her husband more frequently to prevent him from 'being tempted,'" the complaint states.
Also named as defendants are Sovereign Grace officials Charles Mahaney, David Hinders, Louis Gallo, Frank Ecelbarger, Grant Layman and Lawrence Tomczak.
They are accused of covering up numerous allegations of sexual assault and refusing to cooperate with police.
The women say they continue to suffer physical and emotional distress, shock, embarrassment, loss of self-esteem, disgrace, humiliation and the loss of enjoyment of life. And they say the bills for medical and psychological treatment, therapy and counseling are adding up.
They seeks damages for intentional infliction of emotional distress, negligent hiring, conspiracy to obstruct justice and fraud.
The class is represented by Susan Burke of Washington, D.C.