The lawyer for former Southwestern Baptist Theological President Paige Patterson says his client did not get a fair hearing before his May 30 firing by the school’s trustees.
Fort Worth attorney Shelby Sharpe issued a statement June 4 addressing what he called “widespread misrepresentation and misinformation” about Patterson’s handling of alleged campus rapes that reportedly led the trustee executive committee to reverse a vote by the full board of trustees a week before honoring him as president emeritus.
Trustee chairman Kevin Ueckert released a statement June 1 saying the board’s executive committee voted unanimously to terminate Patterson because the Southern Baptist leader lied in response to a question about reports that an alleged rape, occurring during his time as president of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in 2003, went unreported to police.
Ueckert, lead pastor at First Baptist Church in Georgetown, Texas, also cited an e-mail related to a separate 2015 rape allegation at Southwestern Seminary quoting Patterson as saying he wanted to meet the accuser privately so he could “break her down.”
Sharpe called it “an isolated statement” without “adequate context” that he said Patterson explained to the full board’s satisfaction during a 13-hour closed-door meeting May 22. The attorney wondered what happened in the week between the full board giving Patterson salary, benefits and a retirement residence and the determination that those words were “antithetical to core values” of the seminary by the executive committee.
Sharpe said board officers did not give Patterson a chance to respond to documents cited as the reason for his removal. As a result, the lawyer said, the committee “did not have in hand all relevant documents” before firing Patterson, who at the time was out of the country preaching in Germany.
Had Patterson been included in the process and given an opportunity to respond, Sharpe said, “a much more amicable and less public outcome could have been achieved.”
Observers called the downfall of a leader credited with charting the Southern Baptist Convention’s current conservative course a #MeToo moment for the nation’s second-largest faith group behind Roman Catholics.
Patterson has not indicated whether he intends to follow through with his assignment to preach the keynote sermon at next week’s Southern Baptist Convention annual meeting in Dallas, but several people have predicted that if he does not withdraw voluntarily there will be action on the floor seeking to revoke the invitation.
Investigation of the 2003 incident also renewed attention to a dispute over documents that Patterson took with him when he moved from Southeastern to Southwestern Seminary in 2004. Southeastern’s administration says Patterson took correspondence that should have remained in student files.
Sharpe said the documents belong to Patterson and offered to submit to binding arbitration in keeping with the Bible’s direction on “how Christians are to settle disputes rather than using the secular court system.”
Southeastern officials said President Danny Akin needed “documents deemed as being owned by the seminary” for an internal investigation into the alleged campus rape in 2003. Southeastern officials said they do not believe letters in question “were maliciously removed” but “there is a misunderstanding” about their ownership.
“It is not our intention to settle this matter in a court of law, and SEBTS has never expressed the desire to pursue action in the courts regarding these documents,” the seminary said in a statement June 4.
The wife of Patterson’s former chief of staff published a blog May 31 saying Southern Baptists have heard only one side of the story and that Patterson, “while a sinner with feet of clay like each us, is not guilty of all of which he has been accused in recent days.”
Ueckert called the blog “inappropriate and unethical,” accusing author Sharayah Colter of unauthorized dissemination of official documents, but he said those documents had nothing to do with Patterson’s termination.
“In this difficult situation, the executive committee based its decision on the current performance of the president and did not allow the legacy of Dr. Patterson or the #MeToo pressure to steer the outcome,” the board chairman said. “We did not react; rather, we decisively exercised our responsibility based on the seminary’s biblically informed core values and integrity.”