LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) -- Five people have joined a Maryland lawsuit that claims a Kentucky-based evangelical church group covered up allegations of sexual abuse against children and failed to alert police and shield children from known sexual predators.
The new plaintiffs join three women who filed a civil lawsuit against Sovereign Grace Ministries in October. The suit accuses church leadership of encouraging parents of alleged victims to refrain from reporting abuses to police and creating "a culture in which sexual predators were protected from accountability and victims were silenced."
The church moved its headquarters to Louisville last year after three decades in Maryland. The group has struggled in recent years with fractured leadership and criticism over its discipline methods. Leaders at the church must be men and women are not permitted to teach or to have authority over a man, according its website.
A message left at the church office in Louisville on Tuesday was not immediately returned. The church said in a statement about the suit last year that the suit contains "a number of misleading allegations, as well as considerable mischaracterizations of intent."
"Child sexual abuse is reprehensible in any circumstance, and a violation of fundamental human dignity," the statement said.
Susan Burke, a Washington attorney who filed the suit, said the defendants have 30 days to respond to the accusations.
Chip Grange, a McLean, Va., lawyer for Sovereign Grace Ministries, did not return a call early Tuesday afternoon.
The suit alleges a conspiracy spanning more than two decades to conceal sexual abuse committed by church members in Maryland and Virginia.
The seven females and one male plaintiff are identified in the lawsuit with pseudonyms. Attorneys are seeking to build a class-action suit against Sovereign Grace Ministries, which has more than 80 congregations, including a few outside the U.S. Burke said Tuesday that more alleged victims have contacted her office.
In the amended complaint filed on Friday, one of the new plaintiffs, identified only as Carla Coe, accuses church co-founder Larry Tomczak and others of sexual abuse over a 25-year period, beating her "on her bare buttocks and assaulting her with "plastic and wooden sticks." The incidents occurred in Virginia and Maryland, the suit said.
A message left for Tomczak at his office in Franklin, Tenn., was not returned early Tuesday afternoon.
Another alleged victim, identified as Paula Poe, said she attended school in Gaithersburg, Md., at Covenant Life Church, a Sovereign Grace affiliate until recently. She claims she was abused by a pastor and a children's ministry worker on the church's property, according to the suit.
A plaintiff identified as Grace Goe says she was sexually abused and beaten by her father as a child in Maryland. When she and a sibling reported the abuse to church leaders at Covenant Life Church, the men told the girl's father, which led to more abuse, according to the suit.
The suit names as defendants Sovereign Grace Ministries co-founder C.J. Mahaney, Sovereign Grace board chairman John Loftness, Tomczak, Covenant Life Church, Sovereign Grace Church of Fairfax, Va., and others.
The lawsuit includes claims of intentional infliction of emotional distress, negligence and conspiracy, among other damages.
(Copyright 2013 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)
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