Southern Baptist Convention leaders who regularly comment on current events have been largely silent about new allegations of sexual assault against “Conservative Resurgence” architect Paul Pressler, but bloggers began filling the void both within the SBC fold and from the outside looking in.
Baptist News Global reported Dec. 12 on a lawsuit accusing Houston layman Paul Pressler, 87, of sexual misconduct with a man, now in his 50s, who claims the abuse began when he was 14.
The online news organization learned of the case Oct. 21 and has been monitoring developments ever since. The first media report about it appeared Dec. 4 in Harvey Kronberg’s Quorum Report, a website covering Texas politics.
The Texas Monitor, an independent, nonprofit, digital journalism outlet that reports on public integrity in state and local government, picked it up two days later.
News of the case spread the following week to Religion News Service, which ran a story Dec. 11, followed by The Texas Tribune Dec. 12. Baptist Press, the Southern Baptist Convention’s official news agency, also published a version of the story on Dec. 12, and links to that story are now showing up on Baptist state newspaper websites.
Dave Miller of the blog SBC Voices called the allegations against Pressler, co-founder of the late 20th century movement long hailed as delivering the Southern Baptist Convention from liberalism, “a sad day for Southern Baptists.”
“We do not know the outcome of this,” Miller wrote Dec. 12. “Perhaps in time the allegations will be disproven and dismissed, or perhaps they will not. But today, one of the luminaries of the Southern Baptist Convention has felt the sting of accusation.”
Miller, senior pastor of Southern Hills Baptist Church in Sioux City, Iowa, said SBC Voices makes no judgment about Pressler’s guilt or innocence and encourages readers to do the same, but now that the allegations are public, Pressler has an obligation to respond.
“The day of sweeping these things under the rug has passed,” Miller wrote.
Readers who commented on Miller’s blog said they hope the allegations against Pressler are false. Baptists on the losing end of the SBC holy war, meanwhile, weighed in with comments posted to Baptist News Global’s Facebook page.
“If true, this should be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law,” Mitch Randall, executive director-elect of the Baptist Center for Ethics, weighed in shortly after the story appeared.
“The day of reckoning for the Southern Baptist Good Ol’ Boys club is nearing,” Amy Smith, a blogger and advocate for Southern Baptist survivors of sexual abuse, posted at #paulpressler on Twitter.
The Wartburg Watch, a blog by Dee Parsons and Deb Martin that monitors trends in conservative Christianity, discussed the case on Dec. 13.
Patheos blogger Jonathan Aigner said initial denials by Pressler and other parties quoted in news stories “blatantly smack of victim shaming.”
“We know that false allegations of sexual assault and harassment do happen, but they are exceedingly rare,” said Aigner, a former Southern Baptist. “Male-on-male sexual abuse is also notoriously underreported.”
Pressler “generally and categorically” denied all allegations in a court document. His attorney, Ted Tredennick, said the suit’s claims cannot be taken seriously.
“Mr. Rollins is clearly a deeply troubled man, with a track record of multiple felonies and incarceration, and it is the height of irresponsibility that anyone would present such a bizarre and frivolous case,” the attorney said in a statement quoted by Religion News Service.
The $1 million lawsuit also names Pressler’s wife, his former law partner, Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and Conservative Resurgence co-architect Paige Patterson, alleging they are liable because of professional, denominational or personal connections with Pressler.
Baptist Press quoted the attorney representing both Patterson and Southwestern Seminary as saying his clients “had no knowledge of, no participation in, nor any suspicion of any improper behavior by anyone as set out in the complaint.”
Jared Woodfill, Pressler’s longtime law partner at the Houston firm Woodfill & Pressler, said the lawsuit has no grounds.
“This is a frivolous lawsuit filed by an ex-con in an attempt to extort money from the Pressler family, Paige Patterson, Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, First Baptist Church of Houston and me,” Woodfill told Religion News Service. “We will fight this case until we win and justice is served.”
First Baptist Church of Houston, also named as a defendant, issued a statement saying the allegations date to the 1980s, and “we do not believe that any former or current staff members had knowledge of or involvement with any of the conduct forming the basis of the allegations,” according to RNS.
The lawsuit’s case file includes a letter from a psychiatrist who says Rollins may be suffering from post-traumatic stress brought on by childhood sexual trauma.
Rollins’ attorney, Daniel Shea, said he believes his client is telling the truth, but he would not have proceeded with the case without corroboration from Rollins’ psychiatrist. “That’s called due diligence,” the attorney said.
Christa Brown, a victim’s advocate who gives an autobiographical account of abuse she says happened to her as a teenager at the hands of a Southern Baptist youth minister in her 2009 book, This Little Light, said paragraphs describing alleged grooming of the youth ring true.
According to the lawsuit, Pressler told Rollins “they had a freedom to engage in this behavior not given to others” and that it must remain secret, because “no one but God would understand.”
“In the stories of scores of Baptist clergy sex abuse survivors, I have heard this sort of religious messaging used as a weapon for perpetrating terrible crimes against kids,” she said. “When forged with the evil intent of a child molester, the voice of God’s authority creates a weapon more powerful than any gun for ensuring the quiet compliance of kids who have been raised in the faith community’s bubble.”
Asked to comment in light of a column he wrote in 2011 about allegations similar to those in the lawsuit against former Penn State assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky, Albert Mohler, president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky., released the following statement:
“When any accusation of sexual abuse or sin is made against a Christian leader, it is the responsibility of every Christian to want to know the truth, and the responsibility of the appropriate congregation or ministry board to thoroughly investigate any accusation in order to know the truth, and once the truth is known, to take responsible action.”
“No Christian leader — indeed no Christian — should resist such an investigation,” Mohler continued. “The Christian church must take special care and demonstrate a strenuous faithfulness in knowing the truth, as the people of the truth. Any knowledge or suspicion of any sexual misconduct must be reported to all appropriate authorities, including appropriate legal authorities.”
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