Beyond the Billy Graham rule
Accusations against Baptist leader Paul Pressler highlight the difficulties of addressing the abuse of men in the church
In 1948, evangelist Billy Graham recognized the temptation for ministerial leaders to succumb to sexual sin while traveling without their wives and families. His practice of not traveling, meeting, or eating alone with a woman other than his wife became the standard for ministers and leaders to protect themselves and others from sexual temptation and accusations of sexual impropriety.
But the “Billy Graham rule” was insufficient to protect five men who claim Paul Pressler, a former Texas appeals court judge, sexually harassed or assaulted them during his long career as a Southern Baptist lay leader. WORLD detailed the accusations against Pressler in the online report “What is a young man worth?” on Nov. 12. The allegations against the judge span nearly a 40-year period. Two young men allege Pressler sexually assaulted them, and two others claim he made unwanted sexual advances. One case involving Gareld Duane Rollins Jr., who claims Pressler raped and molested him for 24 years, now sits with the Texas Supreme Court. WORLD reported that some Baptist leaders were aware of accusations against Pressler at the time but took no measures to protect young men from his alleged behavior.
Since our report, another man, Chris Davis, has come forward alleging Pressler pressured him into being naked with him in a hotel room in 2002. The judge declined to comment through his attorney.
Pressler, by all accounts, followed the Billy Graham rule by not traveling, meeting, or eating alone with women who were not his wife or family. (He has been married to his wife, Nancy, for 62 years and has three adult children.) So did apologist Ravi Zacharias—except when he received massages he claimed to need for medical reasons. The women who performed those massages later accused him of harassment and rape. Sexual abuse survivors and advocates now say the Billy Graham rule is just one step among many that churches must take to build a culture of safety that protects as many people as possible from abuse.
IN FEBRUARY 2002, Davis, an aspiring pastor, introduced himself to Paul Pressler at a gathering to celebrate Davis’ former pastor, Dennis Watson of Harp’s Crossing Baptist Church in Fayetteville, Ga., reaching his 20th year of pastoral ministry. By then, Pressler had served in the Texas judiciary and held numerous leadership positions in the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) and its churches. He published a 1999 memoir about his role as a driver of the Conservative Resurgence, a historic shift back to Biblical orthodoxy in SBC institutions in the late 20th century. Watson described Pressler’s influence on him as a liberal seminary student at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville in 1985 as “a Damascus road experience.”
At 24, Davis had heard Watson’s story and read Pressler’s memoir. He considered it an honor when Pressler invited him to accompany him on a three-day trip to Alabama to assist in selling books, lugging suitcases, and chauffeuring him to various church venues and meals with prominent Alabama Baptist leaders. “I anticipate thought-provoking discussion and spirit-invigorating fellowship as we travel Birmingham and Montgomery,” Davis wrote the judge in a March 1, 2002, letter (which we read).
Davis said the two men shared a hotel room on the trip. The first night, Davis said, Pressler gave him an extended hug and told him he loved him before turning out the lights. It struck Davis as odd since they had just met. Davis recounted what happened the next morning: Pressler told Davis that when he traveled with men, he considered the bathroom like a locker room shower. To save time and water, Pressler suggested Davis shower quickly and he would wait nearby to get in when Davis got out.
When Davis finished, he said, Pressler was waiting naked. He began peppering Davis with questions. The two of them stood talking with the shower water running. Davis said as he held a towel over his genitals, Pressler commented on his apparent discomfort with being naked in front of him. Davis said a similar routine occurred the next two mornings. During one car ride, he said the judge described visiting European bath houses where male nudity is commonplace and told Davis his wife approved of the visits. (Brooks Schott, an attorney who accused Pressler of unwanted sexual advances in 2016, said in court documents related to the Rollins case that the judge referenced swimming naked with other young men in Denmark.)
Bob Underwood, an SBC church planter and strategist, verified that Davis requested time off to travel in Alabama with Pressler. Davis was an intern and youth pastor at Underwood’s church, New Covenant Fellowship in Logan, W.Va., at the time. Underwood said he believed it was an “amazing opportunity” at the time but when Davis returned, he said little about the trip.
Months after Davis’ 2002 trip, he mentioned Pressler’s alleged proclivity for nudity in a conversation with a seminary friend, Jason Kovacs. He said he did not disclose specifics to Kovacs about what occurred in the hotel room. Kovacs confirmed the conversation with WORLD. Davis said he initially brushed the behavior off: “I thought, I’m only 24. Who am I to question this guy?” In May 2002, at Pressler’s invitation, Davis attended a gathering in Tysons Corner, Va., for the Council for National Policy, a networking group for conservatives and Republicans in which Pressler served as a president from 1988 to 1990. Davis’ brother and a friend joined him, but he said he never spent one-on-one time with Pressler. Davis’ brother, Danny, confirmed that the men attended the event and stayed in a room at the Ritz Carlton paid for by Pressler. Davis also said he declined several written and verbal invitations from Pressler to his Austin ranch.
“It is not far-fetched to say that abuse could have happened to me,” Davis said.
In 2017, Davis listened to podcast interviews of abuse survivors of entertainment mogul Harvey Weinstein. One victim detailed Weinstein’s grooming tactics, including persuading her into situations where he was completely naked. It reminded Davis of his encounter with Pressler. He emailed Kovacs on Dec. 17, 2017: “The more I think about it, the more I think, ‘That was messed up.’ At the time all I knew [was] that I was with a powerful man and I couldn’t believe my good fortune to be traveling with this luminary of SBC life.” In 2018, Davis referenced his alleged encounter with Pressler but did not name him in an article for the Gospel Coalition.
ABUSE SCANDALS in recent decades have shown how sexual predators use mentoring and teaching relationships as a cover for abuse. In response to pervasive allegations of abuse against Scout leaders in the Boy Scouts of America (BSA), Trail Life USA, a Christian outdoor adventure program for boys that started in 2013, prohibits men from being one-on-one with children. BSA also now has a similar rule.
In a 2019 report, an SBC sexual abuse advisory group advised churches adopt “two-deep leadership” for adults interacting with children in church settings. The 52-page Caring Well report, commissioned by then-SBC President J.D. Greear, defined grooming as a process by which abusers use power in a relationship to gain potential victims’ trust and break down boundaries. It recommended other prevention measures such as an open door policy, prohibiting one-on-one travel, vetting church volunteers, establishing a safety team, and ensuring children’s privacy when going to the bathroom or changing.
The Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC), the public policy arm of the SBC, started the Caring Well Initiative, which included a 2019 conference and multimedia training modules for churches. Baptist pastors who have used Caring Well resources told us they felt better equipped to address abuse. Oak Creek Community Church in Mishawaka, Ind., now offers to take other local churches through the Caring Well Challenge, a yearlong, eight-step process created by the ERLC. Oak Creek Pastor Todd Benkert said he worries that too few Baptist churches are taking abuse seriously: “When you look at the response, a very small percentage of our churches have actually gone through [the Caring Well materials].”
The denomination’s doctrine of church autonomy limits the ways in which SBC leaders can respond to sexual abuse within its 47,000 churches. So far, more than 1,000 SBC churches have participated in the Caring Well Challenge. About 4,100 churches have assigned a 12-lesson Caring Well resource called “Becoming a Church That Cares Well for the Abused” to staff and volunteers, according to an ERLC spokeswoman.
“Part of the culture change that needs to happen is acknowledging there is a danger we need to account for,” said Brent Hobbs, pastor of New Song Fellowship in Virginia Beach, Va. “In a lot of situations, as long as it wasn’t crossing gender lines, it was assumed it was no problem, no big deal.” (Hobbs told WORLD that at a Virginia pastors luncheon at the 2016 SBC annual conference Pressler invited him to visit his Austin ranch to get into the hot tub.)
The SBC is now reckoning publicly with how it has handled cases of sexual abuse. Church delegates at the June annual conference in Nashville approved an investigation into how the denomination’s key governing body, the Executive Committee, addressed allegations of abuse over a 21-year time period.
Davis, now a pastor at Groveton Baptist Church in Alexandria, Va., traveled to Nashville specifically to cast his vote in favor of the investigation. “If anything, what happened to me has made me want to be a voice inside the convention for survivors.”
Preventing abuse in churches
On Nov. 28, sexual abuse survivors lost one of their earliest and bravest champions, Phil Saviano, who died at age 69 of gallbladder cancer. His advocacy helped expose widespread predatory assaults by Roman Catholic priests in the United States. The 2015 Oscar-winning movie Spotlight tells how he served as a key source for the Boston Globe investigation that uncovered how scores of priests got away with molesting children.
Despite surviving abuse from a priest, Saviano remained a devout Catholic. At his funeral, his friend the Rev. Ron Coyne explained that Saviano felt Christians should take charge of holding the Church accountable.
But church leaders accused of perpetrating abuse often claim to have prophetic gifts.
In his 1999 memoir, Paul Pressler claimed to have received a prophetic vision from God in the form of a recurring dream. In late 1978 and early 1979, he dreamed of a line of people singing the hymn “Marching to Zion” while processing down Main Street in Houston. The following summer, Southern Baptist Convention delegates elected as president the candidate Pressler had supported at their annual meeting in Houston.
“Immediately I remembered my recurring dream,” Pressler wrote. “Now I knew what it meant.”
WORLD has compiled accusations of sexual abuse and harassment against Pressler from five young men, the first of whom claims the judge abused him in 1978, the same year Pressler’s “Marching to Zion” dream began.
In an article for the nonprofit group GRACE, which works with churches to prevent and respond to abuse, counselors Laura Thien and Carrie Nettles wrote that a leader who claims to speak for God can make sexual abuse survivors feel unprotected and unable to come forward.
“If a person in a congregational leadership role is perceived as being a spokesperson for God … a survivor may perceive an implicit message that a clergy person’s guidance is synonymous with God’s guidance or that a clergy person’s approval/disapproval is synonymous with God’s approval/disapproval,” they wrote.
In the nearly 20 years since the Catholic sex abuse scandal broke in Boston, churches and nonprofits have developed practical ways to mitigate the danger predators in their midst pose to children. Best practices include performing background checks on volunteers, not allowing adults and children to be alone behind closed doors, and educating adults on spotting signs of abuse. In about half of U.S. states, according to churchleaders.com, clergy members can face legal penalties for not reporting child abuse to authorities.
Thien and Nettles also recommend other spiritual and relational practices. Congregants must be free to question their leaders’ decisions—something abuse survivors often say they did not feel safe doing. One massage therapist who said the late apologist Ravi Zacharias molested her later told independent investigators she never came forward “because she thought ‘who would believe me’ against a famous Christian leader?” according to a report by the law firm Miller & Martin.
Mason Tabor, a man who claims Pressler made unwanted sexual advances against him, said the judge told him “Christians should not be afraid to be naked together,” and asked if Tabor would have a problem with that.
Saviano said in 2002 that one of the hardest parts about doing advocacy work was the deafening silence from the pews—the trust and reverence bestowed on church leaders and the unwillingness to ask questions. Once the Catholic abuse scandal broke, Saviano was unsure whether to credit The Boston Globe or the power of God. “But boy oh boy, look at us now.” Saviano said. “Times sure have changed, and I’m thrilled to have lived long enough to see it.” —L.L.