Lawsuits in two states challenge the Southern Baptist Convention’s long-claimed defense that the denomination cannot be held liable for sexual abuse in churches because congregations hire their own pastors.
SBC leaders have for decades claimed that since pastors are not employees of the convention, the national body cannot step in when wrongdoing is alleged in a cooperating church. “The law does not hold persons liable for things they had nothing to do with,” attorney James Guenther, the SBC’s legal counsel for half a century, told the Nashville Scene in 2008.
The SBC has cited its belief in autonomy of the local church in refusing to set up a denomination-wide system of receiving, evaluating and reporting abuse in more than 50,000 churches and church-type missions identified as in “friendly cooperation” with the nation’s second-largest faith group behind Roman Catholics.
Lawsuits pending in Arkansas and Virginia, however, claim the SBC’s local-church-autonomy defense, while used successfully in the past to avoid ascending liability, has never been fully tested in court.
A lawsuit in Pulaski County, Arkansas, claims that a “special relationship” exists between the Arkansas Baptist State Convention and Millcreek Baptist Church in Hot Springs, Arkansas, a congregation accused of negligence in alleged child sex abuse by a former pastor.
The lawsuit says the statewide affiliate of the Southern Baptist Convention “had a contractual relationship” with both the church and accused minister. The convention “received monetary benefit” from both the church and pastor, it says, who in turn “received benefits as a member organization of ABSC.”
It claims the Arkansas convention “exercised control and had supervisory authority” over both the church and pastor which, “if properly exercised, would have prevented” the abuse.
Meanwhile, numerous churches in Virginia recently received subpoenas requesting letters, emails and other records of communications with the Southern Baptist Convention, Baptist General Association of Virginia or Southern Baptist Conservatives of Virginia. They are part of a lawsuit filed in June involving a former youth leader at a Southern Baptist church in Colonial Heights who is serving 25 years in prison for sexual battery and indecent acts with child by a custodian.
Kevin Biniazan, an attorney in Virginia Beach, said the Southern Baptist Convention refused to provide relevant documents, claiming it has no connection to the case or the Commonwealth of Virginia.
“We wrote the SBC with hopes that it would relieve any burden on its local churches by providing the requested information, but the SBC declined to participate,” said Binizian, who represents eight individuals seeking damages in excess of $9 million. “The documents requested from local churches in Virginia can be produced by the SBC, but its refusal to participate meant we needed to obtain the documents directly from its local churches.”
“We believe this claim of member church autonomy, routinely used over the years by state conventions to avoid liability for pedophile pastors, is dubious.”
The Arkansas lawsuit alleges that the accused minister’s ex-wife reported the sexual abuse of the plaintiff and suspicions about the abuse of other minors to Sonny Tucker, executive director of the Arkansas Baptist State Convention and a mandated reporter of sexual abuse under state law.
The state convention released a statement Dec. 28 saying it appears the plaintiff “does not understand the relationship between the Arkansas Baptist State Convention and the local church and pastor.”
“Apparently, the plaintiff mistakenly believes that the Arkansas Baptist State Convention somehow controls the local church and should have been monitoring this local church pastor’s actions,” the convention said. “In any event, the convention has no responsibility in this case for his and/or the local church’s actions.”
Joshua Gillespie, one of the attorneys filing the lawsuit, responded with a statement taking issue with the convention’s denial of responsibility.
“We believe this claim of member church autonomy, routinely used over the years by state conventions to avoid liability for pedophile pastors, is dubious,” he said.
“It is a calculated legal strategy used by the ABSC and other Southern Baptist state conventions to avoid responsibility for the actions of its member churches and pastors,” the attorney said. “The ABSC’s position is simply that they have zero responsibility for the protection of the children in their flock, even when they have reason to believe a child in a member church is in danger.”
“We believe that position is untenable,” Gillespie said.
The lawsuit, filed Dec. 16 and amended Jan. 8, claims that Hill at all times acted as an “agent” of Millcreek Baptist Church in furtherance of the defendants’ “goal of increasing the number of Baptist churches and church members” in the area.
“It is more than just cooperation,” Gillespie said. “The Southern Baptist Church in Arkansas is a hierarchical organization in which the money flows up.”
“Each year millions of dollars in donations collected from congregants of member churches like Millcreek make their way into the ABSC coffers yet when it comes to the sexual abuse of congregants at the hands of ABSC’s own predatory member pastors, the convention’s position is that it is not their problem,” he said.
The lawsuit seeks $10 million in compensatory damages as well as punitive damages. Also representing the plaintiff is Florida attorney Ronald Weil, who in 2014 won a $12.5 million verdict against the Florida Baptist Convention for failure to vet a church planter convicted of sex crimes in two states. The state convention appealed the judgment before eventually settling the lawsuit for an undisclosed amount.