The president of the Southern Baptist Convention has apologized for signing off on an amicus brief in a Kentucky sexual abuse case — a brief that has ignited a firestorm of protest from sexual abuse survivors and their advocates, some of whom are now calling for churches to “defund the SBC.”
“I did not give this decision to file this brief the level of consideration that it deserved,” Bart Barber said in an online statement posted Monday morning, Oct. 30, one week after the story broke in the Louisville Courier-Journal. “Some of the most important information affecting my decision was information I failed to seek.
“Knowing what I know now, I know that I should have asked more questions. I should have taken the opportunity to request a meeting between the interim CEO (of the SBC Executive Committee), myself and our legal counsel to gather more information. I did not have the power to decide then, but I did have the opportunity to advise. I failed to use that opportunity wisely, and I regret that.”
As SBC president, Barber authorized the SBC as an entity signing the friend of the court brief — alongside the SBC Executive Committee, Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and Lifeway Christian Resources.
Barber, a Texas pastor, said he now questions whether he had the right to sign off on such an important matter because ad interim authority — between the two-day annual meetings of the SBC — is delegated to the Executive Committee, not the convention president.
“Does it even lie within the power of the SBC president to make decisions about amici curiae unilaterally on behalf of the convention? I think probably not.”
“The consent that I gave on August 9, 2002, was consent that I gave in coordination with the decision made by the interim CEO of the SBC Executive Committee to join this brief,” Barber noted. “The messengers have not voted on any of this. Does it even lie within the power of the SBC president to make decisions about amici curiae unilaterally on behalf of the convention? I think probably not. When the SBC Executive Committee exercises its ad interim authority on matter like this, I think that the president of the SBC is as obligated to execute those decisions as he is if the messengers had voted on the matter themselves.”
He pledged: “Our future decisions likewise lie with the SBC Executive Committee. I hope to do a better job of using my voice to influence those decisions going forward.”
A prominent sexual abuse survivor and advocate reported learning over the weekend that the amicus brief — siding against an abuse survivor and against an extension of the statute of limitations and against an expansive view of who may held liable — originated with Lifeway and then was joined by the others. Lifeway has not yet said anything publicly about the controversy.
All four entities are named as defendants in a different sexual abuse case in Kentucky, not the case in which they filed the brief. Their apparent interest in the case of Samantha Killary has to do with protecting their liability in the other case or cases that involve their own alleged negligence to report abuse.
Barber, who serves as a volunteer in his presidential role, said he was presented the brief to review during a hectic few days of meetings in Nashville in August 2022 — meetings ironically related to his efforts to address the way SBC officials previously mishandled sexual abuse reports.
He echoed the report of officers of the SBC Executive Committee, who said the SBC Executive Committee’s former interim president, Willie McLarin, was responsible for getting them involved. McLarin, who was on the brink of being named permanent president, later resigned abruptly after he was exposed for having lied about most everything on his resume.
Barber said nothing about taking any action to withdraw or counter the brief — something abuse advocates have demanded.
Barber said he takes “full responsibility for the SBC’s having joined this brief.”
Despite a lengthy explanation of how he came to sign it and his regret for having done so, Barber said nothing about taking any action to withdraw or counter the brief — something abuse advocates have demanded.
Advocate Christa Brown pointed to an opinion piece previously published by BNG and authored by her and two others and asked again: “What will he DO to undo the harm of that #amicusbrief? What will any of them actually DO? That’s the important question. And @bartbarber’s statement comes nowhere near answering it.”
By Barber’s account, he was pressed to make a decision on signing the brief with little notice and insufficient time to comprehend what was at stake. It was such a blur, he said, that he didn’t remember signing off on it and had to go back and research what happened.
“It happened on August 9, 2022, nearly 15 months ago,” he said. “The day before, on August 8, 2022, I announced the appointment of the Abuse Reform Implementation Task Force. That night I released a video responding to heated criticism I had received for appointing Todd Benkert to that committee. I made that video from a hotel room in Nashville.”
He was in Nashville for an orientation of the new members of the SBC Executive Committee. He also had called the Great Commission Council — the heads of all SBC entities — together “to reveal to them something they did not yet know — that the Department of Justice had opened an investigation of the Southern Baptist Convention and that we were determined to cooperate fully.”
That investigation reportedly is about mishandling of sexual abuse claims, although the Justice Department has declined to specify the scope or acknowledge if the investigation is happening.
Barber said he received an email from the SBC’s legal team telling him about the brief and “recommending that we join it.” He was given a little more than three hours to decide, while also engaged in the orientation meetings.
“The whole thing was an email conversation, and a brief one at that. I became aware that the SBC Executive Committee was joining the brief. I approved our joining the brief. I hadn’t heard anything about it or thought anything about it since then until last Wednesday.”
Barber said he understands many people are upset with him, including many friends. He added: “I don’t have words to express how I feel about that.”
Apart from this episode, Barber has been an outspoken advocate for abuse survivors and for reforms within the SBC.
Now, he’s haunted by the questions he should have asked, he said. “What about Samantha Killary? Knowing what I know now about what she has endured, I can’t stop thinking about her. What have I communicated to her and to other survivors by taking this action? Those questions can give clarity when legal questions are difficult to sort out. And some of the legal questions in play certainly are difficult to sort out.”
One part of Killary’s story is that as a youth she attended a Southern Baptist church in metro Louisville where she confided in her youth pastor that she was being abused, expecting to get help. But her church was silent. And the abuse continued.
“That’s what makes it hurt so much, and that’s what makes me so disappointed in myself: I did, in fact, wind up hurting survivors by what I did,” Barber wrote. “My determination for us to advance abuse reform in the SBC is no less than it was when I began, but I know that my credibility with you is harmed by this, perhaps irreparably.”
The duplicity of an SBC amicus brief | Opinion by Christa Brown, David Clohessy and Dave Pittman