In a stunning reversal of course, the Southern Baptist Convention’s Executive Committee acknowledged its own mishandling of a report of sexual abuse and publicly apologized to the survivor in a statement by Chairman Rolland Slade Feb. 22.
That statement was issued after an extended executive session on the afternoon of the committee’s meeting on Tuesday, Feb. 22. The statement reads in full as follows:
“The SBC Executive Committee acknowledges its failure to adequately listen, protect, and care for Jennifer Lyell when she came forward to share her story of abuse by a seminary professor. Baptist Press failed to accurately report the sexual abuse Jennifer Lyell reported to two SBC entities and local Southern Baptist churches. The SBC Executive Committee acknowledges its failures to Ms. Lyell, including the unintentional harm created by its failure to report Ms. Lyell’s allegations of nonconsensual sexual abuse were investigated and unequivocally corroborated by the SBC entities with authority over Ms. Lyell and her abuser.
“The SBC Executive Committee apologizes for all the hurt it has caused, is grateful for Ms. Lyell’s perseverance and engagement, and prays for her complete healing from the trauma she has endured.”
Lyell, whose disclosure of abuse was publicly misrepresented as consensual by a Baptist Press story that ran on March 8, 2019, released a statement indicating she would no longer comment on the matter and also expressed her gratitude to Slade, the Executive Committee officers, and the trustees who “agreed to resolve our disputes through their action today.”
But she also noted that she is “still fearful that this correction by the EC, although necessary to make public in order to be effective, will be a source of pain for others I know (who) have tried just as hard to get such engagement and response.”
This apology from the Executive Committee came shortly before the full board also voted to approve two recommendations from the Committee on Convention Finances and Stewardship Development to set aside $4 million from its operating reserves to fund the ongoing Guidepost Solutions investigation into the committee’s alleged mishandling of abuse, along with the entity’s own legal expenses in view of it.
The February meeting in Nashville marked the first time Executive Committee trustees have gathered in person since a contentious series of in-person and online meetings last fall in which it took three tries to agree to waive attorney-client privilege in the investigation.
The Executive Committee’s Feb. 22 statement is extraordinary and unprecedented.
Messengers to the SBC annual meeting last June demanded an independent investigation of claims of mishandled sexual abuse reports, deliberately overriding a plan by Executive Committee leadership to do an investigation that would not have to be reported outside its own knowledge. As a result of messenger action, SBC President Ed Litton appointed the SBC Sexual Abuse Task Force, which then hired Guidepost Solutions and is interfacing between Guidepost and the Executive Committee.
For decades, sexual abuse survivors have appealed to SBC officials for acknowledgement and for help in stopping their predators from moving from church to church or agency to agency. Those survivors repeatedly have said their requests were met with silence or denial.
Thus, the Executive Committee’s Feb. 22 statement is extraordinary and unprecedented.
Earlier on Feb. 22, Litton gave the Executive Committee an update on the work of the Sexual Abuse Task Force. That report was only a few minutes in length.
“The work is progressing,” he said of the Guidepost investigation and Sexual Abuse Task Force’s mandate from the convention.
Litton praised the staff of the Executive Committee for “its cooperation on every level.” That present cooperation came at the cost of three staff resignations and 17 trustee resignations after the committee finally agreed to waive attorney-client privilege for the investigation.
Litton emphasized his confidence in the process, telling the members, “The process is working. It’s moving.”
After the report, Litton fielded questions.
Executive Committee member Guy Frederick asked about the scope of the investigation, raising a concern about how “narrow” the investigation actually was given that Guidepost recently obtained four terabytes of data from the committee.
A member of the Executive Council’s legal counsel addressed that concern by stating the documents and information provided were “within the confines of what their mandate was.”
Survivor Hannah-Kate Williams, who the day before organized a protest across the street from the Executive Committee’s offices, asked what the task force planned to do with public and well-documented information regarding the mishandling of abuse that falls outside the parameters of the investigation.
Executive Committee member Mike Keahbone replied that the Guidepost investigation is “not the ending,” of the committee addressing abuse, but “the beginning.”
Litton urged committee members to allow the work to go forward with this admonition: “I would encourage you to allow the Lord to humble us, and to embrace it.”
Guidepost Solutions will send the findings of its investigation to the Sexual Abuse Task Force 30 days before the June 12-15 annual meeting. The Sexual Abuse Task Force will then have a week to formulate responses and recommendations, and then the findings will be released publicly.