Details behind the “break her down” comment cited by trustee leaders in last year’s firing of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary President Paige Patterson emerge in a lawsuit now pending in federal court.
A lawsuit in the Sherman Division of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Texas initiated March 12 and unsealed June 6 claims the Southern Baptist Convention seminary in Fort Worth, Texas, “had a custom of ignoring female students’ complaints of sexual harassment and stalking behavior by male student-employees.”
A former student using the pseudonym Jane Roe claims a seminary student also employed as a plumber on campus began stalking her soon after she enrolled in Southwestern Seminary as an undergraduate student in the fall of 2014. She told one of her professors, the lawsuit claims, who replied the young man could come and talk to the professor any time he wanted.
The man allegedly showed her a gun and told her not to say anything while raping her for the first time in October 2014. Subsequent attacks became physically brutal, the woman says, and twice he forced her to take a “morning after pill” – a form of contraception not covered by SBC insurance plans because the denomination’s leaders view it as morally equivalent to abortion.
After receiving threats from her attacker, Jane Roe says she met with Patterson and several other seminary officials, all male, in August 2015. She felt embarrassed to be prodded by a 73-year-old male to share “lurid and graphic details” of sexual assault in a room full of other men but says that Patterson “seemed to enjoy” making her uncomfortable with his questions.
Roe says she told Patterson through tears that she felt like “damaged goods” and that no godly man would want her. Patterson allegedly replied that her rape was “a good thing,” because the right man would not care if she was virgin or not.
The woman says Patterson told her he was “too busy” to deal with her rape allegation because it was the beginning of the semester. He grudgingly called police, she says, because the report was made on campus. If he had received the report off campus, Patterson allegedly said, there would be no need to involve law enforcement.
A visit to the man’s campus residence uncovered nine weapons, including an assault rifle in his vehicle parked on campus. Firearms are prohibited on campus without express permission of the president. With advice from law enforcement, the seminary expelled the male student for firearm violations, believing that because of threats made against Roe and her family the safest route was to leave her out of it.
Upon returning to campus, the lawsuit says, the seminary’s chief of security requested a meeting with Patterson to bring him up to speed. In an email dated Sept. 28, 2015, Patterson replied: “Well we’ll see. I have to break her down and I may need no official types there….”
Roe says she and her family showed up for a meeting with a female faculty member arranged to discuss a misunderstanding between the two women. Patterson was there and took over the meeting, accusing Roe of lying. He informed her he had contacted her alleged attacker to get “his side of the story” – despite the fact police had warned that confronting him about the abuse allegations could endanger the woman and her family – and the man had claimed their sexual relationship was consensual.
By the end of the confrontation, Roe says Patterson seemed disappointed to concede that he found no reason to expel her, but “So far, it’s just your word against his.”
The lawsuit says that Roe’s alleged assailant, who because of his job had keys to campus buildings including the one where she lived and worked, bragged to her that before he was admitted to the seminary he had multiple sexual partners, abused drugs and alcohol and had an extensive criminal history. He told her that he had met personally with Patterson, who assured him his past would not preclude him from being a Baptist minister and encouraged him to “fish” among Southwestern’s pool of female students for a suitable mate.
When Jane Roe tried to get the man to leave her alone, the lawsuit says, he threatened both suicide and to “bury her in the Canadian soil.” When her mother asked during the “break her down” meeting why someone with his history would be admitted as a student-employee and requested an apology, the lawsuit says, Patterson “lunged across the table, firmly pointed his finger in her face and threatened to ‘unleash’ lawyers on her if she dared question his leadership at SWBTS.”
Patterson, leader of the “conservative resurgence” campaign in the late 20th century that moved the Southern Baptist Convention previously led by moderates sharply to the right, came under scrutiny during last year’s #MeToo protest against abusive male leaders when stereotypical statements he made about women in the past resurfaced on the Internet.
The Southwestern Seminary board of trustees convened a meeting to discuss the controversy on May 22, 2018, the same day the Washington Post published a story quoting a former student at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary who claimed that Patterson mishandled her rape report shortly before he left the presidency of that school for the larger Southwestern in 2003.
After a 13-hour meeting, the full board of trustees voted to seek new leadership, while appointing Patterson as president emeritus with pay and citing evidence “that Dr. Patterson has complied with reporting laws regarding assault and abuse.”
A week later the trustee executive committee voted unanimously to terminate Patterson immediately without pay, saying that new evidence suggested Patterson wasn’t truthful in answers he gave the full board the week before about what had happened at Southeastern Seminary in 2003.
“In addition, as previously disclosed, a female student at SWBTS reported to Dr. Patterson that she had been raped in 2015,” trustee chair Kevin Ueckert said in a statement June 1, 2018.
“Police were notified of that report,” said Ueckert, lead pastor of First Baptist Church in Georgetown, Texas. “But in connection with that allegation of rape, Dr. Patterson sent an email (the contents of which were shared with the board on May 22) to the chief of campus security in which Dr. Patterson discussed meeting with the student alone so that he could ‘break her down’ and that he preferred no officials be present.”
“The attitude expressed by Dr. Patterson in that email is antithetical to the core values of our faith and to SWBTS,” Ueckert said.
Patterson has said his dismissal – while he was out of the country preaching in Germany – was unjust but at age 76 it wasn’t a battle worth fighting. A summons dated June 18 gives him 21 days to file a response to the lawsuit.
In February Southwestern trustees elected Adam Greenway, a dean at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky, to succeed Patterson as the seminary’s ninth president.
Greenway said in a statement to local media: “While we cannot address issues in ongoing litigation, it is important that the Southwestern Seminary community know that we take these matters seriously and are committed to our campus being a safe place for the vulnerable and for survivors of abuse.”