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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


A messenger votes at Southern Baptist Convention meeting in Nashville in June. Associated Press/Photo by Mark Humphrey (file)

Southern Baptists take sides over abuse investigation

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.”


Mary Jackson

Mary is a book reviewer and reporter for WORLD. She is a World Journalism Institute and Greenville University graduate who previously worked for the Lansing (Mich.) State Journal. Mary resides with her family in the San Francisco Bay area.

@mbjackson77

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TRIC4023

One plus God equals a majority; please see Elijah, Daniel, even a reluctant Jonah... This committee is looking at an evil that has attacked, plagued and infiltrated God's people and it is big, ugly, numerous and has turned people from God and his church. Perhaps if the men on the committee were facing possible death (as the Biblical examples) versus just an empty bank account they would more readily rely on the truth of God being utmost because it would seem more serious and dire? Sexual sin in the church IS serious and dire. And, perhaps if they face and address this evil with a faith such as the very real and true stories of men from Biblical history it too will result in people realizing the One True God, repenting and returning to or professing Him. Prayers for them, it is a very real, scary and yucky evil that "seems" to big to overcome.

EGUI6497

I can understand why people are withdrawing support for the executive committee, their actions so far show a more secular mindset than Christian. The whole thing with insurance, that they are worried they could lose insurance if they are found to have mishandled things, this line of thinking is completely backwards and dishonest. If you would lose insurance because of mishandling claims, then you SHOULD lose your insurance if you mishandled things, by blocking an investigation so you can protect that means you value that insurance coverage more than truth or justice for the victims.

DSEA4106

I commend those SBC members and churches who are beginning to demonstrate their disapproval by the withholding of funds.

I am not naive. I recognize the very real risks to the many effective SBC ministries that may result from the waiving of attorney-client privileges in our litigious culture. I commend the attorneys for doing their job - looking out for the interests of the person(s) or group(s) that hire them.

But actions that are right as defined by God, and those that are legally prudent, do not always align. There are times when executive leadership must stand on principal and act contrary to legal counsel. God tells us to confess our sins to one another and pray for each other so that we may be healed.

Following God's guidance in the present situation will require humility, courage, and faith on the part of the most senior leaders of the SBC. I pray that the 3rd vote of the EC later this week may reflect the hearts of EC members who are willing to publicly display such behaviors.