One week after the Southern Baptist Convention’s Executive Committee voted to follow the will of convention messengers over the advice of its legal counsel and waive attorney-client privilege for a sexual abuse investigation, its longtime legal counsel gave notice it is ending their relationship.
“We believe our commitment to a certain standard of professional conduct leaves us no choice but to advise you that we are withdrawing from our role as general counsel to the Southern Baptist Convention and the Executive Committee of the Southern Baptist Convention,” said the letter from Jim Guenther and Jaime Jordan of the law firm Guenther, Jordan and Price.
Jim Guenther, who is 87, has represented the SBC since 1966. In an August interview with the Tennessee Baptist and Reflector, he said his firm never has lost an ascending liability suit filed against the SBC. He estimated that he handled about 50 of those cases over the years.
Currently, the Executive Committee is one of a dozen defendants named in a federal lawsuit asserting a “defamatory conspiracy” to cover up cases of sexual abuse in the denomination. The existence of this lawsuit — which has been reported widely in national media — has yet to be acknowledged by the SBC’s own news service, Baptist Press, which is controlled by the Executive Committee.
The charges by abuse victim Hannah Kate Williams are among multiple examples cited for creating the SBC Sexual Abuse Task Force, which was authorized at the SBC annual meeting in June over the objections of Executive Committee staff who sought to keep it from happening. That task force has hired the third-party consulting firm Guidepost Solutions to conduct the investigation. Its report is due to convention messengers at the June 2022 annual meeting in Anaheim, Calif.
Guidepost, the task force and the convention messengers all said the Executive Committee should waive attorney-client privilege within the scope of this investigation, but it took the Executive Committee three months and three contentious meetings to finally agree to those terms. The matter finally was settled on Tuesday, Oct. 5.
Guidepost, the task force and the convention messengers all said the Executive Committee should waive attorney-client privilege within the scope of this investigation.
Six days later, on Monday, Oct. 11, Guenther, Jordan and Price gave notice they no longer will represent the SBC.
The Missouri Pathway, the online news journal of the Missouri Baptist Convention, published the entire text of the resignation letter, which alternates between a fond farewell and accusations of extreme ignorance by Executive Committee members who followed the will of the convention.
“The attorney-client privilege has been portrayed by some as an evil device by which misconduct is somehow allowed to be secreted so wrongdoers can escape justice and defeat the legal rights of others,” the letter states. “That could not be further from the truth. In fact, the attorney-client privilege has been for centuries a pillar of this country’s jurisprudence and rules of evidence. The concept is rooted in a principle of judicial fairness and the belief that our nation of laws is best served if persons and entities can communicate with their legal counsel freely and confidentially. There is nothing sinister about it. It does not corrupt justice; it creates the space for justice.”
The letter laments that Executive Committee members — who were under intense pressure from other SBC agency heads, multiple state Baptist conventions and prominent pastors — agreed to waive confidentiality “without knowing the communications affected by the waiver and without knowing the effect it will have on the Executive Committee, the convention, and those who have served as members or employees of the Executive Committee. “
“The attorney-client privilege has been portrayed by some as an evil device by which misconduct is somehow allowed to be secreted so wrongdoers can escape justice and defeat the legal rights of others.”
Last Tuesday’s vote “fundamentally changed the understanding that has always existed regarding communications between our firm and the Executive Committee or the convention,” the letter adds. “There has always been an expectation of privacy in these communications. We relied on that understanding, and we advised the Executive Committee and its officers, employees and committee members that they could also safely rely on that expectation. … However, going forward we can no longer assure Executive Committee and convention personnel with whom we work that the privacy of their communications with their lawyers will be secure.”
Executive Committee President Ronnie Floyd, who has been roundly criticized for lack of leadership in the matter, commended the law firm and said the loss of this relationship will be significant. He said they “have grown to become the foremost legal experts on Southern Baptist polity and have been a pivotal guide through numerous changes in our culture, polity and convention. The loss of their institutional knowledge will be irreplaceable.”
What was not clear with Monday’s announcement was whether the additional legal counsel brought on to assist the Executive Committee through the investigation, from the Dallas firm Locke Lord, will remain on the job or not. Its two lead attorneys working with the Executive Committee had vociferously argued against waiving attorney-client privilege.
Jennifer Lyell, another abuse victim whose claims relate directly to accusations of personal defamation by the Executive Committee and Baptist Press, tweeted Monday afternoon that she fears relevant material “could have been destroyed already or that information will be withheld.”
Her take on the resignation by Guenther, Jordan and Price also is shaped by her past observation of how the SBC works, she said. “It’s likely that the firm realized the legal posture they’ve long held and infused into EC leadership is being held to the light and won’t stand, so they’re going while it’s still their decision to make and when they can spin on the way out. That’s my cynical — but experienced — guess.”
Other defenders of Executive Committee staff and leadership expressed on social media their own version of “I told you so,” again claiming the Executive Committee should have held the line and not waived privilege.
Kirk Ward, whose Twitter profile describes him as a Reformed Baptist and deacon, tweeted: “The naivete of the EC will damage every SBC entity. Once the trial lawyers smell cash in the water it will be a feeding frenzy and we will still be dealing with this 10-12 yrs from now. The investigation did not require waving privilege.”
Meanwhile, in the days after last week’s Executive Committee meeting, some committee members and other Southern Baptists continued to call out individual members of the Executive Committee they believe illustrate why things have reached the current state of disarray. Chief among these was intense criticism of committee member Guy L. Fredrick, a pastor and associational leader from Sheboygan, Wis.
Frederick on Aug. 27 had posted to Facebook a meme showing a man inappropriately embracing a wary woman with the message: “Why is it that if your boss says ‘Have sex with me or you’re fired’ it’s considered coercion but your boss says ‘Take the shot or you’re fired’ and it’s not coercion? They both want to stick something in you that you don’t want.”
Committee member Dean Inserra, a pastor from Tallahassee, Fla., called out Frederick by name on Twitter: “A fellow EC trustee posted this. Y’all, this is not an ‘agree to disagree, let’s have unity,’ kind of scenario taking place. THIS is what we are dealing with. Guy Fredrick is his name. Wicked.”
The post was removed from Fredrick’s Facebook page — which otherwise is filled with anti-vaccine, anti-mask information — but Fredrick did appear to address the kerfuffle with this post: “It has come to my attention that some, with obvious intentions to do harm, are using posts made in vastly different contexts to paint me as someone sympathetic with sexual abusers. God has a place in hell reserved for sexual abusers and for those who falsely accuse. Rest assured, I walk with integrity as a man saved by grace through faith.”
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