Southern Baptists take sides over abuse investigation
As church members call for a transparent probe of the denomination’s handling of sexual abuse claims, some SBC leaders cite the risk of legal liability
In June, Houston pastor Casey Hough and his wife Hannah were among several thousand church representatives at the Southern Baptist Convention’s annual meeting who raised yellow voting cards to approve a significant motion: a call for a third-party investigation into denominational leaders’ response to sexual abuse allegations.
The motion by church representatives, known as messengers, asked for full transparency, including appointing a task force to oversee the investigation and waiving attorney-client privilege so outside investigators could access communication between Executive Committee members, staffers, and lawyers about the committee’s handling sexual abuse cases. It mandated a public report at the 2022 SBC annual meeting.
On Tuesday, Hough watched along with hundreds of others via livestream as the 86-member Executive Committee debated for five hours over how to comply with the mandate. Committee members narrowly rejected a motion to waive attorney-client privilege and hit an impasse for the second time in recent weeks over contractual terms outlined by the task force and Guidepost Solutions, the firm hired to conduct the outside review.
Executive Committee members who object to waiving privilege cited their fiduciary duty to protect the convention and its entities from financial risks—including the potential for lawsuits and loss of insurance.
As denomination leaders continue to disagree, further delaying the investigation, SBC members and entities are withdrawing support from the Executive Committee. After watching Tuesday’s meeting, Hough said Copperfield Church, the 800-member Baptist congregation he pastors, decided to reallocate its funding of the Executive Committee to other SBC entities beginning this month.
“Executive Committee leaders are saying, ‘Trust us,’ but there is no grounds for that kind of trust at the moment,” he said.
Six seminary presidents, numerous SBC state entities, and other prominent leaders have issued statements and tweets in recent days imploring the Executive Committee to set financial concerns aside, waive privilege, and honor the requests of sexual abuse survivors and the will of the messengers.
“From my vantage point, the present situation is inexcusable and unacceptable,” said Adam Greenway, president of the Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas.
Executive Committee members are expected to meet once more on Oct. 5. Between the committee’s first and second meetings on the matter—on Sept. 21 and 28—some members had already changed their vote. On Tuesday, a motion to waive attorney-client privilege failed by only 4 votes. A similar motion failed by 35 votes one week prior.
Mike Keahbone, an Oklahoma pastor and newly elected committee member, said he changed his vote in favor of waiving privilege after committee officials failed to reach an agreement with the task force last week: “There is already an aura of distrust. … I don’t think any of the concerns are worth hurting people and further hurting the distrust.”
The task force, chaired by North Carolina pastor Bruce Frank, indicated the investigation could move forward without the committee’s approval based on the authority given by the messengers’ motion.
In an update on Wednesday, the task force reiterated its view that the committee must waive privilege to follow the messengers’ directive. One proposed hybrid model, referred to as the “Michigan model,” would allow Guidepost Solutions to work with a law firm hired by the task force, permitting investigators to see privileged information but prohibiting it from reporting those materials to the public. Attorneys representing Executive Committee officials rejected the model in part over the issue of who gets to choose the law firm.
A public statement on Thursday, attributed to an unnamed Executive Committee spokesperson, expressed concern over statements reflecting “disinformation, half-truths, and mischaracterizations of the motives and actions” of the committee. The statement said committee officials were committed to “granting appropriate access” to investigators and had not attempted to defy messengers or hide information.
Asked about the author of the news release, Jon Wilke, the media relations director for the Executive Committee, responded that public statements on behalf of the committee’s leadership are “collectively written by a team of advisers.”
The public statement also said committee leaders are seeking resolution “without risking unnecessary damage” to the convention, including the potential loss of insurance coverage. The task force and the committee’s insurance coverage agent have said there is no way to determine the potential risk if the investigation finds the committee mishandled abuse claims.
In one heated exchange during Tuesday’s meeting, committee member and Florida pastor Dean Inserra raised the question, “How much is a little girl worth?”
One member responded, “Emotional blackmail.”
Later, another committee member said, “The little girl is worth having the insurance proceeds to pay her.”
Rachael Denhollander, a task force adviser and well-known child sexual abuse survivor and attorney, said survivors care more about the truth than insurance proceeds: “Survivors would say fixing the problem so that somebody else does not have to live through the hell they have been through is more important than insurance proceeds.”