A federal judge ruled May 3 that a sexual molestation lawsuit against former Southern Baptist Convention leader Paul Pressler must return to state court in Texas.
The case moved automatically to federal court when Second Baptist Church in Houston — one of seven organizations or individuals named in an alleged joint enterprise that purportedly enabled Pressler to perform immoral acts — claimed in March that it centers on federal, rather than state law.
Gareld Duane Rollins, 53, claims that Pressler raped and molested him over the course of 35 years. His attorney, Daniel Shea, argues that the doctrinal agenda behind the SBC “Conservative Resurgence” — led by Pressler and co-defendant Paige Patterson — covered a corrupt political power move that gave Pressler access to young boys.
Shea says without the campaign in the 1980s and 1990s to purge moderates from leadership and move the nation’s second largest faith group toward the Religious Right, Rollins would not have suffered the physical and psychological injuries he claims.
Joined by the 15.2 million member Southern Baptist Convention, also a defendant, the church argued the lawsuit requires a secular court to intervene in a dispute over doctrine and church governance, barred by the ecclesiastical abstention doctrine established by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1871.
After hearing oral arguments April 13, U.S. District Judge Kenneth M. Hoyt took the matter under advisement for three weeks before ruling that the lawsuit, while “admittedly saturated with theological dogma … does not automatically raise a federal question.”
Hoyt ordered the case back to the 127th Judicial District of Harris County, Texas, in Houston.
Pressler denies all allegations in the lawsuit and added a counterclaim April 17 accusing both Rollins and Shea of breach of contract. Shea represented Rollins and his mother in a lawsuit against Pressler in July 2004.
“Even though Mr. Pressler steadfastly denied each and every claim, the parties chose to privately settle the matter in a court-approved confidential settlement rather than engage in protracted litigation,” says the counterclaim.
Pressler says Shea breached the confidential settlement when he filed the current lawsuit last October.
Shea says he reopened the case because of uncertainty about what would happen to the $1,500 a month for 25 years that Pressler agreed to pay Rollins should Pressler, 87 and reportedly in poor health, die before 2029.
Rollins, a member of a youth Bible study Pressler once led who later worked briefly at his law firm, is a convicted felon with a history of substance abuse. Even if Rollins’ allegations were true, Pressler says, they would be too old to prosecute due to statute of limitations.
Rollins claims he did not realize the impact childhood sex abuse had on his life of crime until he made an “outcry statement” to a prison psychologist in 2015.
Pressler contends that Rollins agreed in the 2004 settlement to waive all claims “known or unknown” up until that time and that he alleges no “bad acts” by Pressler since.
The tentative date for the Texas trial date is Dec. 2, but it likely will be rescheduled due to the detour through federal jurisdiction.
Others accused of being part of the joint enterprise include Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and its president, Paige Patterson.
Patterson — currently making national headlines for comments he made 18 years ago about domestic violence and divorce — and the seminary denied in a court document April 17 “that they were parties to, were responsible for or are legally liable for any alleged physical assault” against Rollins.