The head pastor of an East Baltimore megachurch defended the organization’s handling of child sex abuse in two Sunday sermons, encouraging forgiveness and pushing back on claims collected by a group of former members who said church leaders had failed to address allegations adequately.

Greater Grace World Outreach Pastor Thomas Schaller said the church had not concealed abuse and always reported suspected cases, in part because “if we walk with God, we cannot cover up things.” However, the former members found several times that the church did not warn people of alleged abusers or report incidents to law enforcement.

During his sermons Sunday, devoted almost entirely to responding to allegations published in The Baltimore Banner, Schaller instead portrayed the church as the victim.

“If you are a godly person, you will be persecuted. You will be misunderstood. You’ll be misrepresented,” he said.

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About this series

This is part of a series investigating allegations of child sexual abuse at Greater Grace World Outreach.

Part I: Megachurch warned of hell, then hid its own sins

Part II: Web of sex abuse leads to trusted pastor and his sons

Part III: One family’s agonizing journey to uncover secrets and abuse at a Baltimore church

Schaller also read from a prepared list of ways in which he claimed the church had responded when it became aware of instances of sexual abuse or inappropriate behavior, including removing long-serving individuals from child ministry due to concerns from parents, spending $30,000 for counseling for an abuse victim, and suspending the ordination of a pastor who had improper contact with a minor.

But he emphasized that such instances of harm were also far overshadowed by the church’s many good works.

Greater Grace’s influence extends to 550 offshoots outside the United States and more than 1,000 missionaries around the world. A map on the site lists 354 churches in 72 countries. But the church has been dogged by controversy for decades — indeed its origins in Baltimore came after a court judgment in Massachusetts, which resulted in a “60 Minutes” segment from 1987 that described “intimidation and manipulation” at the church. Critics have in the past described the church as “cult-like.” And many took anonymous claims to a defunct website called FACTnet in the early 2000s to document allegations of abuse.

The Banner reported on a campfire conversation among former church members in which they realized that alleged sexual abuse — and a failure to adequately respond to such allegations — was more pervasive than they had known.

In all, 32 people told the group, who call themselves The Millstones, that they had been sexually abused as children by men of Greater Grace, primarily prominent church members or leaders. Some shared their stories for the first time, several before they had mustered the courage to tell their own families. The Millstones learned of 18 additional survivors through people they considered trusted sources.

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A group of former Greater Grace members call themselves The Millstones after a Bible verse that warns that, for those who harm children, “it would be better for them to have a large millstone hung around their neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea.” (Kaitlin Newman/The Baltimore Banner)

In person and from the pulpit, members were told to move on. The Banner sought repeatedly to speak with the church and individual pastors in advance of the series’ publication. All of them declined to comment beyond a statement from the church saying it took such matters seriously and complied with laws regarding sexual abuse.

“We are being misrepresented to the public. We are being attacked,” Schaller said during one sermon. “What is our reaction? Integrity preserves you. I don’t have to give an answer in one sense, because I know who I am. If we know that we have pure hearts, then we don’t have to worry about what the world says.”

Schaller began leading the church in 2005, taking the reins from founder Carl Stevens, who started the church in Maine, moved it to Massachusetts and then relocated to Baltimore in the 1980s. Schaller joined in 1972.

In one sermon, Schaller said he had been struggling in the wake of the articles, saying “my heart is heavy.” He said the church knew of some instances of abuse and dealt with them.

“But have there been others? We don’t know. How would we know that?” he said. “If we know it, we act on it.”

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The Banner documented instances of high-ranking pastors, including Schaller, failing to act or downplaying complaints that were brought to them. In one case, a church leader refused even to read a hand-delivered letter detailing abuse allegations against a pastor. A few weeks ago, a church official refused to accept a letter describing The Banner’s findings when reporters visited the church seeking comment.

He also directly attacked The Banner’s series.

“In these articles, the idea is that we are hiding — it’s implied, deceitful. Bad people. Child molesters. Adulterers,” he said. “But I am saying today, reading the Scripture, that we aren’t like that.”

“Because, if you are a hypocrite or a deceitful person as a pastor, then you don’t have authority,” he added. “You don’t have ministry. God is not with you.”

During his sermons, Schaller specifically addressed claims that they did not confront alleged abuse by two pastors in affiliated churches in Ghana.

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“We brought it to their attention, we did some work on it, and ultimately the Ghanaian leaders made their decision about how to handle it,” Schaller said. “But we were aware, and communicating, and wanting to be honest and transparent with regards to the allegations.”

Ryan and Sari Heidenreich, members of The Millstones whose sister was allegedly abused, noted that a Greater Grace elder and missions director was on the Ghana church’s board of elders and that officials continue to interact with the accused pastors.

“They claim they have done all they can, but that is simply not true,” they said in a statement to The Banner. “They have failed to take even the most basic of actions to condemn these men — and all those named in this investigation — publicly.”

Schaller claimed not to know some of the alleged victims or whether their claims were serious.

“There are some names in the articles, but I don’t know who they are or what their complaint is,” he said. “When they talk about abuse, what is it? It seems like it could be very light things, or depression, or blame us as they have exited our ministry and they have found cause to complain or accuse of something wrong.

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“Are they confirmed? What are the evidences? Is one person saying something that isn’t grounded in fact? Do we have a witness?” he continued. “Was Christ raised from the dead or not? They said he wasn’t; the body was stolen.”

However, many of the abuse allegations The Banner reported involve families who were once prominent within the church. Several of the survivors have relatives who were Greater Grace pastors or missionaries.

The Millstones, in a statement, said they were “filled with sacred rage” at Greater Grace’s “defensive and victim-blaming response to serious allegations” that they concealed “child sexual abuse for decades.”

They condemned Schaller’s efforts to cast doubt on the allegations. ”His remarks follow a decades-long pattern of [Greater Grace World Outreach] leaders disregarding and minimizing sexual abuse, compounding the silencing effect that the trauma itself has on many victim-survivors,” the statement read.

They added that Schaller’s comments “made it clear that the church has no intention of addressing the vast structural problems.”

As Schaller spoke, some watching a livestream of the sermon on Facebook and YouTube voiced messages of support. “That’s our beloved pastor. God bless you, Pastor Schaller,” one person said. “We love you Pastor Schaller! Always a heart after God!” another said.

Others expressed disappointment. “Not even a hint that he is sorry or heartbroken for all of the victims,” one commenter wrote.

As Jonathan Rasmussen began researching alleged abuse at Greater Grace, his brother shared a secret he had kept for decades. He said he, too, had been abused by a youth volunteer who taught Bible classes to kids. (Kaitlin Newman/The Baltimore Banner)

“Your lack of care and lack of education about trauma and questioning of abuse is abhorrent and is not the heart of Jesus who you claim to worship and serve!!!!” wrote Jonathan Rasmussen, a member of The Millstones. “All of these events happened. Don’t educate, repent and take ownership for the people who were in your care whether now or decades.“

Schaller concluded the sermon by acknowledging that people can experience trauma and that he hopes, if they left the church, they will find God.

“People may not like Greater Grace World Outreach Church. That’s OK; that’s their business. That’s fine,” he said. “There are plenty of churches and plenty of men of God and a lot going on in this world. Go find God, because life is hard.”

When Schaller finished the sermon, congregants gave him a standing ovation.

Resources for survivors of sexual assault & religious trauma