A Texas lawyer who once sued the pope in connection with the Roman Catholic pedophile priest scandal is now taking aim at what he sees as another system of complicity in sexual abuse — this one in the Southern Baptist Convention.
A pending lawsuit in Harris County, Texas, names Paul Pressler and Paige Patterson, key figures in a reorientation of the 15 million-member denomination’s priorities in the last century, and other parties. It seeks more than $1 million in damages for a man claiming physical and spiritual harm resulting from a period of Baptist history often called the “Conservative Resurgence.”
“In this case, I am attacking the whole system,” Houston attorney Daniel Shea said in an interview with Baptist News Global.
Shea, who has a master’s degree in church history, said he is approaching the Southern Baptist system of shifting responsibility for alleged sexual abuse by claiming the autonomy of local churches and denominational bodies as a sort of “Vatican-light.”
In 2008, Shea, a former Catholic deacon, settled a lawsuit with the Roman Catholic Diocese of Galveston and Houston, accusing Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger — who later became Pope Benedict XVI — of conspiring to obstruct justice.
Now he represents a client alleging similar mistreatment during the late 20th century movement in the SBC credited with delivering America’s largest Protestant group from the political center to the Religious Right under the banner of biblical “inerrancy.”
Gareld Duane Rollins Jr., a 53-year-old Houston resident, alleges in a lawsuit filed Oct. 18 that Pressler assaulted him over the course of 35 years, beginning when he was 14.
Pressler, a former justice on the Texas 14th Court of Appeals, denied “each and every allegation” in a document filed Nov. 17 in the county’s 127th Judicial District. His attorney, Ted Tredennick, called the lawsuit “frivolous.”
The suit also alleges a “joint enterprise” between Pressler and Patterson, now president of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas.
First Baptist Church of Houston, Southwestern Seminary and Pressler’s law firm are all listed as “co-conspirators,” “joint enterprisers” or “by reason of various theories of participatory or vicarious liability” in the lawsuit. All deny the allegations.
Shea says the course of conduct alleged in the lawsuit more or less coincides with the Conservative Resurgence period, usually identified as starting with the election of Adrian Rogers as SBC president in 1979.
Rollins alleges he met Pressler when he started high school and enrolled in a youth Bible study taught by the lay member of Houston’s First Baptist Church. Their relationship continued into adulthood, with Pressler hiring him briefly as a “special office assistant” and traveling companion in 2003 and 2004.
After his release from prison in 2016, Rollins consulted with a psychiatrist who diagnosed the cause of his addictions and arrests as posttraumatic stress disorder caused by childhood trauma.
Shea says the “joint enterprise” between Patterson and Pressler provided not only the physical opportunity for his client’s abuse, but also the theological basis for violence perpetrated against Rollins’s soul.
Among other things, Shea says, the thirst for power driving the theology of Patterson and Pressler is “a key ingredient in the abuse of children and women,” because it treats both as the property of men.
The lawsuit faults various parties for negligence by allowing dangerous people access to minors, failing to enforce common-sense policies like the “two adult rule” for youth volunteers and “making decisions to protect the reputation of the ecclesiastical institution as more important that insuring the welfare of children.”
Pressler’s former law partner, Jared Woodfill, told Quorum Report, a website covering Texas politics, that Rollins is simply “making up things to extort money from the Southern Baptist Convention.”
Shea told Baptist News Global the SBC “is not party to this suit,” but “it may be in the future.”
In addition to their general denial of wrongdoing, Southwestern Seminary and its president filed a motion Nov. 17 seeking transfer of the case from Houston to Tarrant County.
Shea said Patterson is trying to “extricate himself” from the allegations against Pressler. He said the tactic is consistent with “the general position” taken by SBC leadership in such situations that each convention entity is autonomous and immune from ascending liability.
The autonomy argument is “convenient to keep institutions from contaminating one another,” Shea said, but “the very fact that Patterson and Pressler were able to go on a rampage” throughout the convention is “proof-positive” that it is for all practical purpose a single denominational entity.
“To say that these institutions are not joined together is ridiculous,” the attorney said.
Shea said a hearing in the case is scheduled Jan. 16.