SBC debates privilege, transparency
SBC leaders vote against full transparency in sexual abuse investigation
A handful of sexual abuse survivors sat quietly in the back of a Nashville convention hall on Sept. 21 as the Southern Baptist Convention Executive Committee deliberated for hours. At issue: whether the committee would give a team of outside investigators access to all of its communications about handling sexual abuse cases by waiving attorney-client privilege.
Tiffany Thigpen, a sexual abuse victim who attended the proceedings, described “an absolute watershed of emotions,” including moments where keeping silent felt unbearable. “Yet I felt that my presence … was a reminder to the body as to what they were voting on and why it was needed,” she said. Thigpen says a former Florida Baptist pastor, who later was convicted of molestation and lewd texting with underage girls, attacked her when she was a teenager. She told the Houston Chronicle that she reported the abuse to a church leader, but he discouraged her from discussing it publicly.
Last week, the 86-member Executive Committee approved $1.6 million to fund an inquiry by the firm Guidepost Solutions into how the committee has handled allegations of sexual abuse. But a majority of members rejected a motion to waive attorney-client privilege, which would ensure the outside firm has full access to communication between committee members, staff, and lawyers. The committee deferred negotiations with the task force over the terms of the investigation until Tuesday.
The two-day proceedings revealed an intensifying rift among denomination leaders after representatives at the convention’s annual meeting joined sexual abuse survivors this past summer in demanding full transparency and accountability in the outside review.
The motion approved at the summer convention charged newly elected SBC President Ed Litton with establishing a task force to oversee the Guidepost inquiry. It stated the task force must follow “accepted best practices and standards as recommended by the commissioned firm, including but not limited to the Executive Committee staff and members waiving attorney-client privilege.” The motion called for a public report on the findings at the 2022 annual meeting.
Bruce Frank, a North Carolina pastor and task force chairman, told committee members that waiving privilege allows Guidepost, not the Executive Committee, to make decisions about all relevant materials, including any that expose wrongdoing: “The question is, if there is an area of privilege, who gets to make the call?” He said it could potentially be that “a small amount of material is integral to getting to the bottom of [what happened] and having an actual investigation the watching world respects.”
Litton said the Executive Committee proceedings last week “fell far short of the mandate expressed by the messengers.” Committee chairman Rolland Slade called the abuse survivors in attendance “heroines.” Slade was one of a dozen committee members—including Jared Wellman, an outspoken advocate for sexual abuse victims—who decried the committee’s actions.
“We grieve yesterday’s vote by the Executive Committee, who in unprecedented fashion prohibited the will of the messengers for an open and transparent investigation,” the group said Wednesday. “It is our opinion that the failed vote only justifies the need for an open investigation.”
The SBC has fumbled over how to address sexual abuse claims since a bombshell 2019 Houston Chronicle report brought to light concerns about abuse mishandlings. The report included a database of hundreds of people convicted of sexual abuse who served as Baptist church volunteers and officials.
Committee members have long stated that SBC policies and the doctrine of church autonomy limit the ways in which they can respond to sexual abuse. The Executive Committee’s authority includes managing the SBC’s budget and designating funds to churchwide ministries. It can also vote to disfellowship a congregation it determines is not following Biblical and doctrinal standards.
At last week’s meeting, Executive Committee members who objected to waiving privilege cited their “fiduciary responsibility” to protect the denomination and its entities, including from potential lawsuits.
An SBC Executive Committee spokesperson said in an email to WORLD that it “still does not—and has not—oppose in principle the fundamental questions at issue, including requests to waive privilege when appropriate and in coordination with the third party commissioned to conduct the inquiry.”
Liz Evan, an attorney and member of the sexual abuse task force, said the Executive Committee could already be at risk of massive liability by rejecting the messengers’ clear mandate: “In every subsequent legal proceeding, plaintiffs can now use this vote to show that we are, in fact, a top-down organization and that the EC is in charge, not the churches.”
Meanwhile, Boz Tchividjian, a lawyer and advocate for abuse survivors, noted attorney-client privilege protects clients and institutions, not victims: “A moral duty to the wounded is more important than an alleged fiduciary duty to those in power.”