This story was updated Friday afternoon, Oct. 27, to include a response from the SBC Executive Committee officers and Thursday night, Oct. 26, to include a response from Al Mohler.
When the Louisville Courier-Journal reported yesterday that Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, Lifeway Christian Resources and the Southern Baptist Convention Executive Committee had submitted an amicus brief arguing against the rights of a sexual abuse survivor, that was the first members of the Executive Committee ever heard of it.
And some of them are furious. As are advocates for abuse survivors who have been working for years to get something done in the nation’s largest Protestant denomination to address past and present sexual abuse claims.
“This is deplorable. Unconscionable. Evil,” tweeted abuse survivor Chris Davis. “The SBC is lending its voice against a survivor in a case in which it is not named. This is legal cruelty. And it goes against all the good faith efforts within the SBC to support survivors.”
Mississippi Baptist pastor Adam Wyatt, a member of the Executive Committee, tweeted: “We had no working knowledge of this as a board. Poor excuse, I know. But it’s true.”
In a separate tweet he said: “I continue to grow very tired of seeing people speak on my behalf without ever being consulted. Today was the first time that I ever heard of an amicus brief being filed on behalf of the @SBCExecComm.”
Mike Keahbone, an Executive Committee member and a member of the current task force addressing sexual abuse, also expressed shock and dismay: “As a believer, SBC pastor, EC member, and ARITF member I stand with survivors in denouncing this action. I, along with many, were not aware of this filing and I am livid that this step was taken. We will get to the bottom of this.”
Neither the Executive Committee nor its news service, Baptist Press, have acknowledged the amicus brief filed with the Supreme Court of the Commonwealth of Kentucky in April. Two days after the Courier-Journal story, Southern Seminary President Al Mohler issued this statement: “As is often the case in questions of law, significant constitutional and legal questions arise and require arguments to be made before the courts. In such cases we must refer all questions to legal counsel. We respect the rule of law and must work through the process with legal representation, who must speak for us in this case.”
Dave Pittman, a Georgia Baptist pastor who is a sexual abuse survivor, tweeted a line from the Courier-Journal article for emphasis: “Lining up on the other side are the Southern Baptist Convention & @SBTS who are urging the court to throw out Killary’s lawsuit.”
Then he commented: “SBC fights AGAINST laws that would allow child sex abuse survivors to seek justice.”
Jacob Denhollander, a Kentucky pastor whose wife has been an outspoken advocate against sexual abuse, tweeted: “When the SBC & @SBTS raise their voice against a victim in a case that doesn’t involve them because of potential lawsuits, they are acting on a selfish consequentialist ethic: right & wrong is determined by its effect on us. They wouldn’t pass their own ethics class. Gross.”
Virginia Baptist pastor Brent Hobbs, also an outspoken advocate for abuse survivors, tweeted: “Fighting against statute of limitation extension and trying to get cases dismissed hurts the legal standing of, potentially, many SA survivors. I’m seriously frustrated that the SBC, @SBTS, @Lifeway, @SBCExecComm would be involved in this amicus brief.”
What’s at issue in the case are claims by Samantha Killary, who alleges her adoptive father, a Louisville police officer, sexually abused her throughout her childhood. She also sued two other police officers and the department for their alleged roles in knowing about the abuse and not reporting it.
However, a Jefferson County circuit court judge threw out the case because at the time of the alleged abuse, the state’s statute of limitations for reporting sexual abuse claims was only five years, which had lapsed.
In 2017, the state Legislature doubled the time in which victims could sue. And in 2021, it said claims could be brought against “non-perpetrators” such as police, government units or religious organizations that violated their duties to children.
The Kentucky Court of Appeals reinstated Killary’s suit, and now the state Supreme Court must decide whether the Legislature’s expansions of the statute of limitations and reach of child abuse claims should be applied retroactively, to cases of alleged abuse that happened before the law changed.
Although the SBC, Lifeway and the Executive Committee are not named in this case, the outcome could have significant relevance to them. All three are named defendants in a massive lawsuit brought by Hannah Kate Williams, who alleges her father repeatedly abused her while he was a student at Southern Seminary and an employee of Lifeway. She also alleges she told a seminary employee about the abuse but nothing was done.
In the amicus brief, the Baptist entities explain their interest in the current Supreme Court decision because all are “named defendants in a separate civil action pending in a Kentucky circuit court that involves allegations of childhood sexual abuse dating back to 2003.”
They are, the brief states, “non-perpetrator third parties who were allegedly made aware of the abuse and violated common law duties in responding to it.”
Late on Friday, Oct. 27, officers of the SBC Executive Committee issued a statement through Baptist Press intended to give “context and clarification” about the amicus brief. However, the officers said nothing about retracting it or apologizing for it.
The officers’ statement did note “not one SBC Executive Committee trustee was involved in the decision to join this amicus brief,” meaning the decision must have been made by staff. “Counsel for the SBC Executive Committee reviewed the brief and recommended it be joined. The filing of this amicus brief, and the response to it, have prompted the current SBC Executive Committee trustees to reevaluate how legal filings will be approved and considered in the future.”
There will be a called meeting of the Executive Committee Nov. 16, which is three weeks away.
“The SBC Executive Committee remains wholly committed to engaging with survivors and working toward eradicating sexual abuse from Southern Baptist churches, institutions and entities, and to bringing about meaningful abuse reform across the SBC,” the statement said.
However, the Executive Committee “must continue to defend itself, and its interests, within the judicial system as appropriate,” it added.
The officer note the Executive Committee and the SBC “are currently facing multiple lawsuits in Kentucky. On the advice of legal counsel, and only in response to their request, the convention and the SBC Executive Committee joined with other parties in the brief at issue solely to focus the court on a discrete legal issue that has significant impact on pending and potential future litigation in the state of Kentucky, namely, whether or not the Kentucky legislature intended the extension of the statute of limitations to apply to non-offender third parties.”