SBC leaders make amends with abuse survivor
The Executive Committee chairman calls the formal apology an initial step
The Executive Committee of the Southern Baptist Convention this week formally apologized to a former seminary student who said the Baptist Press mischaracterized her sexual abuse.
In its Tuesday statement, the Executive Committee apologized to Jennifer Lyell for its “failure to listen, protect, and care for” her. The acknowledgment, along with a confidential monetary settlement, resolved a legal claim between Lyell and the committee, which is responsible for making decisions for the SBC between its annual meetings.
The committee is also cooperating with a third-party review of how its members and staff handled claims of sexual abuse at Southern Baptist entities. The law firm Guidepost Solutions is four months into the investigation, examining abuse cases spanning 21 years.
Committee chairman Rolland Slade told me that making restitution with Lyell was an initial step—the Guidepost report will direct the committee on “where to make corrections and further apologies and how to take care of what is needed to help the convention to heal from this.”
Lyell was a student in 2003 when Baptist Press, the SBC’s news service, wrote about her journey from homelessness and anger toward God to salvation and pursuit of a master’s degree in theology at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary (SBTS).
Lyell rose to become a Baptist publishing executive. In March 2019, she told Baptist Press that she was sexually abused as a student at SBTS by a former professor 15 years prior. She decided to go public after learning her alleged abuser had returned to ministry.
Baptist Press inaccurately reported Lyell’s abuse as a “morally inappropriate relationship.” As a result, Lyell said, she lost her reputation, job, and health. Despite her attempts to correct the mischaracterization, the newspaper only apologized after Rachael Denhollander, a well-known child sexual abuse survivor and attorney, criticized its inaction at an October 2019 SBC-sponsored conference on abuse.
The committee’s apology, issued by chairman Slade, admitted the hurt and “unintentional harm” it caused Lyell by inaccurately portraying her abuse. It noted her abuse was “unequivocally corroborated” by the Baptist entities involved. Previous reports identified those entities as the SBTS and Ninth & O Baptist Church, both located in Louisville, Ky.
In a response statement, Lyell said that while the committee’s public acknowledgment “by no means restores what I’ve lost … it is the only action I could imagine that may at least make the ongoing damage stop.” She acknowledged other abuse survivors “who have suffered even more and been waiting for years—decades, even—to get any form of humane treatment, much less apology and clarification.”
The sexual abuse task force charged with overseeing the convention’s investigation said in a Feb. 7 update that Guidepost had interviewed dozens of former and current Baptist leaders and received 4 terabytes of data. The law firm will present its findings to the task force and to the public 30 days before the SBC annual conference in June in Anaheim.
A contentious dispute arose last fall among committee members, staffers, and attorneys over the terms of the inquiry as outlined by church delegates in the June 2021 annual conference. Specifically, the committee’s decision to waive attorney-client privilege prompted resignations from 17 officers and trustees, committee President Ronnie Floyd, Vice President Greg Addison, and the committee’s longtime legal counsel. Those opposed to waiving privilege cited their “fiduciary responsibility” to protect the denomination and its entities, including from potential lawsuits. At the time, 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.”
Amid the debate, Lyell was one of a handful of survivors whose stories underscored the importance of a transparent investigation.
The Executive Committee met in Nashville, Tenn., last week nearly 20 members short of its 86 representatives and under the leadership of Slade and newly named interim President Willie McLaurin.
“We’re at a different time and trying to set a different tone,” Slade said.
Abuse survivor Tiffany Thigpen recognized the committee’s changed tone and credited the leadership shake-up as the reason it finally acknowledged mishandling Lyell’s case. Baptist pastor and abuse advocate Todd Benkert agreed: “They have had the opportunity to make it right for [nearly three] years. It took a whole new administration to make that happen … the momentum and opportunity are there to do the right thing.”
Christa Brown, an abuse survivor and longtime advocate in Baptist circles, was less optimistic, saying in a tweet the committee “made [a] strategic decision in a single case to avoid risks they were confronting.” Earlier this month, Brown shared online a 29-page memo she sent to Guidepost in which she said a former SBC president “publicly castigated” her as she tried to hold her abuser accountable. Brown says that a Baptist youth pastor sexually assaulted her more than 30 times when she was 16. In her memo she details specific instances in which she claims the Executive Committee mishandled her case.
In a Twitter thread Thursday, Lyell cautioned Southern Baptists and SBC leaders against celebrating or declaring the committee had turned a corner: “This was the start. I think you are on the right path and can do more than I previously thought you would/could.”