After years of delays and contention, a trial date has been set for Jane Roe v. Leighton Paige Patterson et al.
On Jan. 19, U.S. District Judge Sean Jordan signed an order saying jury selection and trial will begin at 9 a.m. on Monday, April 3, at the United States Courthouse in Plano, Texas. That will be a little more than four years from the date the case was filed against Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and its former president, Paige Patterson.
Jane Roe, a pseudonym, alleges that while a student at Southwestern she was stalked, raped and repeatedly abused by a male student who also was a seminary employee with access to her campus living space. The suit contends the seminary and then-President Patterson are liable for not protecting her, although she did not report the abusive behavior to seminary officials until several months after it allegedly happened.
Patterson’s mishandling of this case — he reportedly told other seminary officials he needed to “break her down” to silence her — led to Patterson’s dismissal by seminary trustees in 2018. Patterson also had been accused of mishandling sexual abuse claims at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in North Carolina, where he previously served as president.
Although the legal case was filed on March 12, 2019, it has faced a series of delays due to what Roe alleges were obfuscations by the seminary and its attorneys as well as Patterson and his attorneys. The Southern Baptist school is in the odd position of defending itself in tandem with the president trustees fired, at least in part, over the same issues presented in the case. Both the seminary as an institution and Patterson as an individual are named defendants in the case.
Now it is two months away from being heard by a Texas jury in what is sure to be one of the most closely watched trials related to sexual abuse in Protestant church life.
Both Patterson and Southwestern made previous attempts to get the case dismissed and failed. Now it is two months away from being heard by a Texas jury in what is sure to be one of the most closely watched trials related to sexual abuse in Protestant church life.
All parties have been ordered to a pretrial conference on Friday, March 31, at 1:30 p.m. The order states: “Parties should be prepared to try the case on this date.”
That will occur just two months before another Southern Baptist Convention entity, the North American Mission Board, is set to stand trial beginning June 5 in U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Mississippi. That case, brought by Will McRaney, charges NAMB and its leaders with defamation for forcing his termination from an autonomous Baptist body.
Both cases will play out on a national stage just weeks or days before the SBC annual meeting, scheduled for June 11 in New Orleans.
For Southwestern, the potential negative publicity comes at an already difficult time. Last fall, seminary trustees forced the resignation of Patterson’s successor as president, Adam Greenway, accusing him of financial mismanagement and exacerbating the massive enrollment decline that began under Patterson’s watch.
The seminary is operating with an interim president, the lowest enrollment since World War II and significant financial challenges. Then last week, a seminary student was arrested and charged with felony sexual assault.
The seminary has not yet reported its fall enrollment numbers, but those details likely will be made known at the February meeting of the SBC Executive Committee.
The Southwestern/Patterson case will be heard by Judge Jordan, who was appointed to the federal bench in 2019 by then-President Donald Trump. Previously, he was a partner in the Austin, Texas, office of Jackson Walker, where he served as co-chair of the appellate practice group.
He is a conservative judge who is a member of the Federalist Society. Jordan came to this judgeship after former President Barack Obama’s nominee was blocked in the U.S. Senate by then-Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and Trump’s first nominee had to withdraw after it was discovered he had called transgender children part of “Satan’s plan.”
The legal website The Vetting Room wrote of Jordan: “Given the close association with (U.S. Sen. Ted) Cruz, his membership in the Federalist Society, and his record as an attorney, it is fair to describe Jordan as a conservative. However, unlike the previous nominee to this seat, Jordan does not have a record of inflammatory rhetoric.”