A former Southern Baptist seminary professor and his wife have filed suit against the Southern Baptist Convention and 11 other defendants claiming defamation of character and conspiracy in the well-publicized sexual abuse case of Jennifer Lyell.
The lawsuit challenges what has been accepted as fact in one of the highest-profile cases in the web of allegations regarding mishandling of sexual abuse within the SBC.
Lyell’s claim that she was abused by David Sills while he was a professor at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary resulted in a controversial news story published by Baptist Press, the denominational news service, which portrayed the relationship as consensual. Lyell contends it was not consensual.
After several years of dispute, the SBC Executive Committee earlier this year reached a financial settlement with Lyell and issued a public apology for the Baptist Press story. That happened three months prior to release of a bombshell report from an independent investigation that found widespread mishandling of known cases of sexual abuse in the SBC and its churches. That report also cited the Lyell case. Her name appears on 37 pages of the report.
The larger conversation around sexual abuse has dominated SBC life for the past two years and has been addressed by two special task forces, one of which is still working.
David Sills and Mary Sills contend they have been smeared repeatedly in the process and seek monetary damages.
Now, David Sills and Mary Sills contend they have been smeared repeatedly in the process and seek monetary damages from the SBC; the SBC Executive Committee; former SBC President Ed Litton; current SBC President Bart Barber; Lyell; Lifeway Christian Resources; Eric Geiger, a former executive vice president at Lifeway; Willie McLaurin, interim president of the Executive Committee; Rolland Slade, former chairman of the Executive Committee; Southern Baptist Theological Seminary; Al Mohler, president of Southern Seminary; and Guidepost Solutions, the firm that conducted the independent investigation.
The suit was filed in the Circuit Court of Mobile County, Ala., on Monday, Nov. 21. The plaintiffs have requested a jury trial.
Lyell previously was a vice president at Lifeway, which is located in Nashville, Tenn. She voluntarily agreed to an interview with Baptist Press in 2019, by her account hoping her story would encourage other survivors of sexual abuse to come forward. What happened instead was a controversy over what kind of relations are consensual and nonconsensual and who gets to make that determination — and challenges to the veracity of Lyell’s account.
Critics of the SBC investigation and of the existence of a “crisis” of sexual abuse in the denomination frequently point to Lyell’s story as questionable, but they have been minority voices.
Sills has not denied engaging in an inappropriate relationship with Lyell, and he resigned his post at Southern Seminary after being confronted about it. However, in the new court filing he insists he did not sexually abuse Lyell, force himself upon Lyell, use violence against Lyell, threaten to use violence against Lyell or “engage in sexual intercourse” with Lyell “at any time whatsoever.”
The filing says Sills acknowledges “a personal and emotionally intimate relationship” between the two but claims it was initiated by Lyell, who was “well above the age of consent.”
By Lyell’s previous accounts, Sills cultivated a relationship with her.
The court filing further claims Lyell maintained the relationship by driving several hundred miles — from Nashville, Tenn., to Louisville, Ky. — to see Sills. It also claims Sills “ended the relationship with Defendant Lyell who nevertheless persisted her pursuit of Sills and undertook efforts to reach Dr. Sills through his family.”
David and Mary Sills also contend that Lyell, “relying on her expertise as an accomplished writer and executive in the fields of advertising and publishing within the SBC, a lucrative and powerful position, constructed a false narrative against Dr. Sills and Mrs. Sills, at the height of awareness of SBC scandals.”
“Thereafter, Ms. Lyell engaged in an effort to restore her reputation and preserve her powerful position of doling out lucrative book deals, while affirmatively and skillfully dismantling the reputations, careers, and family life of David Sills and Mary Sills,” the court filing states.
One of Lyell’s advocates over the past three years has been Mohler, who has publicly stated he believed Lyell’s story as she has told it.
The Sillses contend neither Mohler nor the SBC nor Guidepost did sufficient investigation to find out the truth of the matter.
“Rather than seek the truth, defendants repeated and circulated false statements about Dr. Sills, causing him to be cast as a toxic pariah,” the brief states. “After various mischaracterizations, misstatements, and a contrived ‘investigation’ by defendants, the plaintiffs, David Sills and Mary Sills, have been wrongfully and untruthfully labeled as criminals and shunned by the SBC.”
Sills contends he was made a “scapegoat” in a denomination reeling from other, larger claims of sexual abuse.
And he claims this was done in a conspiracy by all the named defendants, who “understood the value of making an example out of SBC member and employee David Sills who, without controversy, had admitted to an affair with Lyell and willingly accepted the SBC requirement that he depart from his position at the seminary. In essence, defendants saw an opportunity to improve the appearance and reputation of SBC’s handling of abuse cases, long under fire, even though there had not been any legitimate and proper investigation into the allegations, nor was Dr. Sills adequately informed of the specific nature and extent of accusations made by Lyell.”
The case as outlined by David and Mary Sills directly contradicts the narrative told by Lyell and widely accepted as truth.
Litigating this case publicly could cause extreme discomfort for some of the defendants named, forcing them to testify under oath about matters they have tried to handle discreetly. And now the two competing narratives of what happened between Sills and Lyell likely will add more fuel to the SBC’s internal debate over the nature and extent of sexual abuse as a real problem.
To date, none of the named defendants has issued a public comment on the lawsuit.
Although the lawsuit was filed in Alabama, David Sills lives in Mississippi. The court filing addresses this issue: “This court has personal jurisdiction over the defendants. First, the defendants widely circulated their herein-described defamatory lies about Dr. and Mrs. Sills throughout Mobile County and the state of Alabama. Secondly, on information and belief, defendants SBC, the Executive Committee, and Lifeway own and maintain property, employees and/or agents in Alabama, including Mobile County, Alabama. Venue is appropriate in this court because defendant Ed Litton is a resident citizen of Mobile County, Alabama.”
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