NASHVILLE, Tenn. (RNS) A pastor known for promoting corporal punishment has been accused of physically abusing a woman for 25 years, beginning during her childhood.
The Rev. Larry Tomczak, an associate pastor at Bethel World Outreach Church near Brentwood, Tenn., was named in a Maryland lawsuit that was filed against leaders of Sovereign Grace Ministries, a denomination Tomczak helped found in the 1980s and later left.
The suit was originally filed in October by three alleged victims of abuse and was amended Friday (Jan. 11) to add five others. All eight were given pseudonyms.
It alleges that Tomczak, who lives in Franklin, Tenn., and other church leaders covered up sexual abuse in the denomination and at a Christian school in Gaithersburg, Md., in the 1980s and 1990s.
Tomczak also is accused of repeatedly assaulting a woman (who is given the pseudonym Carla Coe) with plastic and wooden sticks. The alleged abuse began when she was a child and lasted more than two decades. When the woman was an adult, the lawsuit claims, Tomczak beat her bare backside.
The suit doesn't say where those incidents occurred or how he met the woman.
Tomczak denies all of the allegations of physical abuse. He also said that as a parent, he was saddened to hear of the allegations. But he said he knew nothing about sexual abuse in the denomination.
"I had no involvement in any of this," he said.
A book called "The Little Handbook on Loving Correction," for sale on Tomczak's website, advises parents to use a stick to spank their children. He stands by that advice today.
"That book has helped thousands of parents around the world," he said.
Church leaders at his Tennessee congregation were out of town and not available for comment.
The amended lawsuit is the latest bad news for the controversial Sovereign Grace Ministries, which has about 100 churches. Tomczak split from the group in the mid-1990s because of a conflict with his co-founder, the Rev. Charles Joseph "C.J." Mahaney.
Mahaney and other Sovereign Grace leaders had threatened to spread damaging information about Tomczak's then-teenage son, who had confessed to misconduct, according to a later church report.
In 2011, Mahaney, who has close ties to Southern Baptist leaders like Al Mohler, president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky., took a leave of absence after complaints were lodged about his leadership style.
He was later reinstated as leader of the denomination, which moved to Louisville from Maryland last year. But conflict in the group has continued. In recent months, several churches have split off from Sovereign Grace.
The denomination issued a statement condemning any abuse of children and saying that leaders will investigate the claims in the suit.
"We consider any allegation of harm to a child extremely serious and we have been working diligently in an effort to learn the truth," the statement reads. "We ask for patience as we continue to investigate these new allegations. Please continue to pray with us for all those affected by this lawsuit."
David Clohessy, executive director of the St. Louis-based Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, a support group for clergy abuse victims, said that Sovereign Grace seems to have no structure in place to deal with abuse allegations.
"These kinds of insular, secretive churches, outside the mainstream, with little or no hierarchy seem especially problematic," Clohessy said.
According to the lawsuit, victims were told not to report the abuse to the authorities.
That's a common mistake made by churches, Clohessy said. "Instead of saying,'Get some therapy and call the police,' they are told to forgive their abusers," he said.
(Bob Smietana writes for USA Today and The Tennessean in Nashville. Peter Smith of The (Louisville, Ky.) Courier-Journal contributed to this story.)