The Southern Baptist Convention Executive Committee is now involved in more than a dozen lawsuits relating to allegations of sexual misconduct and abuse. That’s in addition to the investigation by the Department of Justice.
Hallelujah. I wish it were 100. But this is progress.
For decades, SBC officials routinely claimed the denomination’s decentralized structure protected the national body against lawsuits involving clergy sex abuse. Augie Boto, former legal counsel for the Executive Committee, bragged that, thanks to SBC polity, the SBC had “not ever had a judgment rendered against it throughout its entire existence.”
It’s no wonder so many SBC officials are so resistant to sexual abuse reforms. They’re accustomed to acting with impunity, and they don’t want to do anything that might alter that status quo.
Of course, most clergy sex abuse cases never result in a lawsuit — often for no reason other than that they’re barred by short statutes of limitation — and in the past, the few that did make it to a lawsuit typically named the local church as a defendant but not the SBC. This is what’s changing.
In cases currently pending, sexual abuse survivors are suing the SBC itself and thereby challenging the SBC’s longstanding contention that it has no control over local churches — the argument the SBC has historically stood behind as a wall to immunize denominational dollars against liability concerns.
Just last week, in Arkansas, clergy sex abuse survivors filed a lawsuit naming not only First Baptist Church of Benton but also the SBC, SBC Executive Committee, Arkansas Baptist State Convention, and Central Baptist Association. It’s a dreadful case involving allegations that scores of boys were sexually victimized over the course of 20 years, and questions still need answers about who knew what and when did they know it.
The SBC and its Executive Committee also were named defendants in the recently settled sexual abuse lawsuit involving Paul Pressler. In addition to uncovering a 40-year pattern of alleged abuses by Pressler, the case produced “a lot of evidence of the truthfulness” of the allegations about Pressler’s abuse and evidence that many in SBC life had known. Despite that, for more than six years of litigation, the SBC pursued scorched earth defense tactics of “delay, filing a multitude of motions, and blaming the victim.”
“Lawsuits … bring forth evidence and information that might otherwise stay hidden.”
This is the good lawsuits can do. They not only bring a measure of justice for wounded individuals, but they also bring forth evidence and information that might otherwise stay hidden.
The truth about Pressler and his many complicit enablers didn’t come to light because of anything SBC officials did. The truth came to light because a deeply wounded survivor pursued a lawsuit — and kept pursuing it — despite all the meanness the SBC’s pontificating pooh-bahs dished out.
So I pray for more lawsuits that will name the SBC and the SBC Executive Committee.
When people see more of the truth, many may leave the SBC or lessen their giving to its Cooperative Program.
Costs to the SBC
Lawsuits also cost the SBC in terms of litigation expenses, settlements and perhaps eventually judgments.
When the cost of maintaining a craven status quo becomes greater than the cost of change, SBC officials may finally care enough to implement robust reforms.
Will one of the currently pending cases be the first to judicially hold the SBC responsible, or at least partially responsible, for the harm of sexual abuse inflicted in one of its affiliated churches?
Maybe. If it doesn’t happen in one of these cases, it will happen in some other case down the road. I have faith in the doggedness of America’s trial lawyers.
South Carolina case
In a South Carolina sexual abuse case, a court already has denied the SBC’s motion to dismiss, effectively rejecting the SBC’s effort to immunize itself from responsibility. Instead, the court recognized “that SBC plays a direct role in the presence of alleged sexual abusers in local churches and in … their undeterred migration from one SBC church to another.”
“The ruling is just one step in a long process, but it’s a good step.”
The ruling is just one step in a long process, but it’s a good step.
And here’s the cherry on top. To reach this conclusion, the court cited a (now deleted) blog posting of SBC President Bart Barber in which he 1) decried the way SBC officials have conflated “local church autonomy” with a legal argument against ascending liability, 2) declared that to be a “misunderstanding” of Baptist belief, and 3) stated the SBC could indeed affirm autonomy while still determining the truth about allegations and taking action.
(Within Baptistland, Barber has been roundly criticized for that blog posting but I think it reflects what always has been true: The SBC twists “local church autonomy” into functioning not as a theological construct, but as a tactical construct to protect against liability.)
Significantly, the South Carolina court relied on Barber’s blog posting even though Barber also filed an affidavit, making the usual “no authority” assertions, including the tired trope that the SBC “exists only in the form of an annual two-day convention.” The judge was not impressed: “The court cannot accept on faith Mr. Barber’s assertions (in his affidavit) in light of the Barber blog post and other SBC documents tending to show SBC has a greater role in local church activities than Mr. Barber’s affidavit suggests.”
Thus, the court is allowing the lawsuit to proceed. The plaintiff will have a chance to prove up her allegations that the SBC undertook a duty, for the protection of others, to control the handling of sexual abuse reports, to distribute local church policies and procedures related to sexual abuse and to investigate the accused pastor’s alleged misconduct.
In part, these allegations mesh with what the SBC has in fact already admitted. Its 2022 resolution “on lament and repentance for sexual abuse” stated: “We have failed to educate and thus adequately prepare church leaders to respond to abuse” and “our institutional responses have at times caused irreparable personal harm to survivors of sexual abuse.”
Further, the resolution publicly apologized for the SBC’s “failure to hold perpetrators of sexual abuse adequately accountable” and for “the unspeakable harm this failure has caused to survivors through both our action and inaction.”
“Let’s hope this South Carolina court will hold the SBC to the words of its public lament.”
Let’s hope this South Carolina court will hold the SBC to the words of its public lament. Just because it makes the performance of an apology doesn’t mean it should get off the hook for accountability. To the contrary, for far too long, the SBC has managed to avoid accountability in courts of law, and we have seen the result of that in countless decimated lives and in an institution inured to its own moral responsibilities.
Even now, we continue to see further evidence of the SBC’s recalcitrance. Institutionally, it belatedly undertook an obligation to create a database of convicted, admitted and credibly accused clergy sex abusers. Yet, even though the SBC collectively raises about $11 billion per year in revenues, it failed to designate the necessary resources for the fulfillment of that obligation and failed to put in place people with the necessary expertise to make it happen. So, instead of a functional database, we get obfuscation and stalling. Despite nearly two more years of delay, not a single abusive pastor has been added to any SBC database.
And let’s not forget that the SBC’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission filed a brief with the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals saying the SBC is a “hierarchy” and “the umbrella Southern Baptist governing body over all of the various groups of churches.”
When the brief came to public light, it gave rise to a firestorm and the ERLC amended it. But as someone who has filed many appellate briefs, I can tell you that filing a brief is not an off-the-cuff sort of thing. And no good attorney would cavalierly use words like “hierarchy” and “umbrella organization.” So, I find it hard to believe the brief was just a mistake.
Instead, I think the brief reflects the reality that, for decades, SBC officials have treated “local church autonomy” as a malleable construct, ignoring it when it doesn’t serve their ends of power and invoking it when it serves their ends of protecting denominational dollars from liability. They’ve tried to have it both ways.
They want hierarchical power without hierarchical accountability. And that dog won’t hunt.
It doesn’t yet appear the SBC is up against the ropes. I expect it still has plenty of stalls, dodges and tricks up its institutional sleeves. (We saw one of those tricks with its filing of that awful amicus brief in Kentucky, arguing against even the possibility of accountability for institutions that enable child sex abuse and apparently trying to prevent Kentucky courts from even hearing the kind of case that was filed last week in Arkansas.) However, it does appear the SBC is bleeding just a bit, and that’s a good thing.
To see even a drop of blood from the SBC is something that’s been decades in the making. I hope many more survivors will keep punching away with ever more lawsuits whenever possible.
Bringing more and more truth to light is the only way forward.
Christa Brown, a retired appellate attorney, is the author of This Little Light: Beyond a Baptist Preacher Predator and his Gang and a forthcoming memoir, due out in May 2024, called Baptistland. Follow her on Twitter @ChristaBrown777.