What is a young man worth?
Accusations against a longtime Texas Baptist leader highlight the difficulties of addressing the abuse of men in the church
Stephen Tolson says he heard at 10 years old to stay away from Paul Pressler. In the late 1970s, Pressler was an up-and-coming Harris County, Texas, judge and a youth director at Bethel Independent Presbyterian Church in Houston, where Tolson’s father was a pastor. The youth group averaged about 135 students a week, according to Pressler’s 1999 memoir.
Regarding Pressler, Tolson said friends told him “not to be anywhere near him.”
Some 40 years later, Paul Pressler has had a high-profile career in the Texas judiciary and held numerous leadership positions in the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC). In a 1999 review of Pressler’s memoir in WORLD Magazine, reviewer Ed Plowman described the judge as a driver of a historic shift back to Biblical orthodoxy in SBC institutions in the late 20th century.
“More than any other single individual, Mr. Pressler gets the credit for being the one who got things started” in the conservative resurgence, wrote Plowman, who died in 2018 at age 87.
In interviews and documents WORLD reviewed, we found evidence that over a 40-year period two young men said Pressler sexually assaulted them and two others said he made unwanted sexual advances. Some of the accusations were reported in the press in recent years when one man sued the judge for sexual assault. WORLD also found evidence that a few Baptist leaders were aware of accusations of misconduct against Pressler but made no moves to protect young men once the accusations surfaced.
Through his attorney, Pressler declined to comment for this report. In court filings and other news reports, he has denied all accusations of sexual misconduct.
All of the judge’s accusers say Pressler’s alleged behavior changed their lives. Interviews WORLD conducted showed some who heard rumors or accusations against Pressler through the years dismissed the idea that a married man in a leadership role would engage in homosexual behavior. Now the Southern Baptist Convention is reckoning publicly with how it has handled sexual abuse cases. At the convention’s annual meeting in June, church representatives approved an investigation into how a key governing body in the denomination, the Executive Committee, responded to survivors of sexual abuse—most of them women.
Abuse scandals within the Catholic Church and Boy Scouts of America have highlighted widespread abuse by men in institutional leadership roles toward young men and boys, too. One in 25 boys will be sexually abused before turning 18, according to a 2013 study. One in 5 men report unwanted sexual contact in their lifetime, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found in a 2015 survey. Survivors and experts WORLD spoke with talked about how the stigma of homosexual abuse keeps male survivors from coming forward and enables further predatory behavior. Their stories show a need for the church to consider how to protect boys and men from sexual predators, too.
In this story:
In 1975, Toby Twining was 16 and new to Bethel Independent Presbyterian Church in Houston, where Pressler led the youth group. In his memoir, A Hill on Which to Die, Pressler describes how he and his wife, Nancy, helped grow the youth group at Bethel from a handful of teens to about 135 who met weekly for Bible study and teaching.
Unlike Stephen Tolson, Twining said he was unaware at the time of any rumors about Pressler. He said his parents had recently separated, and he began attending the youth group after a conversion experience. Twining was from a family of attorneys and said he was enamored with Pressler as his first youth director and a prominent state judge. Multiple people who know the judge described him as soft-spoken yet exuding authority. Twining came to consider Pressler a trustworthy friend.
The judge often also took small groups of boys from the church to the River Oaks Country Club in Houston, Twining said. In his affidavit, he gives the following account of one trip when he was 18: He said he agreed to go but was surprised when he learned it would just be the judge and him. They went into the sauna alone, where Twining said Pressler approached him and fondled his genitals without permission. He quickly walked away, redressed, and rode home with the judge without speaking about the incident.
River Oaks Country Club does not have membership records going back that far. A representative said no one from the 1970s who might recall details about the judge still worked there.
Two weeks after his alleged molestation by Pressler, in September 1978, Twining said he told three people: a friend who also attended Bethel; the church’s pastor, Bob Tolson; and his dad. Both of Twining’s parents have died. Twining said Tolson believed his account. He said he met a second time with Tolson and an elder who questioned him. After those meetings, Tolson removed Pressler as youth director.
Tolson, now retired and living in Arizona, referred our questions to the current Bethel attorney, Alex Chae. Chae confirmed in writing to WORLD that the reason Bethel removed Pressler as a youth director was because of the report Twining made about the alleged sauna incident.
No one reported the incident to local authorities, and it fell into the shadows.
“It was the ’70s. It was barely on anyone’s radar at the time,” Twining told WORLD. “Nobody knew what to do about it. There were none of the protocols that are in place today.”
One day after his alleged molestation, Twining registered for classes at the University of Houston. In the following weeks and months, “the memory of what happened was blocked out of my mind.” Twining said his instinct told him to carry on as though nothing happened. He said he was unaware of the emotional effect it had on him for four decades.
Pressler and his family left Bethel in 1978 and began attending First Baptist Church in Houston. Pressler earned an appointment in 1978 as a judge on the Texas appellate bench. He became increasingly involved in SBC politics, leading what he described as a grassroots movement to renew the denomination’s commitment to the doctrine of Biblical inerrancy. In 1984, Pressler was elected to the SBC Executive Committee, an elected group that manages the denomination’s budget and makes decisions between its annual meetings of delegates from local churches. He served for seven years.
In 1999, Pressler published the memoir A Hill on Which to Die. In it, he never mentioned his termination at Bethel or the abuse accusation against him. He said he chose to affiliate with a Southern Baptist Church so that he could continue his leadership in the movement that became known as the conservative resurgence. He wrote that a Florida Baptist pastor, Jerry Vines, who served as president of the SBC for two terms in the 1980s, asked him, “Are you going to minister to 250 high-school students or 13 million Southern Baptists?”
WORLD first learned about the allegations against Pressler because of a 2017 lawsuit filed by Gareld Duane Rollins Jr., Pressler’s former assistant. In the lawsuit, Rollins claims Pressler raped and molested him for 24 years, beginning in 1980, when Rollins was 14 years old and attended a Bible study Pressler led at First Baptist Church in Houston. Pressler has previously denied all allegations of wrongdoing through his attorney, Edward Tredennick of Houston. When contacted by WORLD, Tredennick pointed to the publicly available court pleadings for Pressler’s response to the allegations.
In a 2018 deposition, Pressler denied abusing Rollins or having a close relationship with him. He pointed to Rollins’ felony record and characterized Rollins as one of thousands of youth with whom he had interacted throughout his life. But in 2002, Pressler wrote to the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles on Rollins’ behalf, promising to support him and provide him with employment when he was released from prison. “I am well acquainted with the family and all circumstances concerning Duane’s crimes,” Pressler wrote. “He is a gentle person who has never done any physical violence to anyone, but one who has made some very serious mistakes.”
Judge Ravi K. Sandill ruled against Rollins because the suit exceeded the state’s five-year statute of limitations. In February, a three-judge panel of the Court of Appeals of the First District of Texas (with one judge dissenting) remanded the case back to the trial court, instructing the trial court to reconsider the matter of the statute of limitations. The Texas Supreme Court is considering an appeal of that decision.
Rollins’ attorney, Michael Goldberg, declined an interview request while the case awaits a judgment from the Texas Supreme Court, but publicly available court documents lay out Rollins’ claims. In 1980, Rollins’ lawsuit claims, Pressler started abusing him two to three times per month. The abuse often comprised inappropriate touching at the University Club, an athletic club in the Houston Galleria, followed by rape at the Pressler home, Rollins said in his initial court complaint filed in 2017. He said he began drinking and using drugs to cope with the alleged abuse, which he said led to criminal activity and several years in prison in the late 1990s and early 2000s.
During the years Rollins claims he was abused, several incidents could have brought the accusations into the public light. The first happened in 1989, when President George H.W. Bush considered nominating Pressler to head the Office of Government Ethics, a position that requires Senate confirmation. Pressler said in his memoir he declined the role because of opposition and slander he would face from liberals in the SBC. A letter from then-U.S. Sen. Jim Sasser, D-Tenn., to one of Pressler’s critics, Baptist Press director Wilmer C. Fields, said the White House withdrew the nomination after an FBI background check on Pressler found “ethics problems.” WORLD obtained the letter from archives at Baylor University.
A 2005 letter written by Paige Patterson, a prominent former SBC seminary president and president of the denomination, referenced Pressler’s near appointment. In his memoir, Pressler describes Patterson as a close friend and co-leader in the conservative resurgence. Patterson was writing to a Baptist minister in Georgia, David Mills, with advice about avoiding accusations of impropriety.
“At one time, apparently, Abner McCall, president of Baylor University, made a charge of homosexual behavior against Judge Pressler at a time when the Judge had been nominated by the President of the United States to a significant position,” Patterson wrote. “We became aware of it when the FBI did his background check.” Patterson went on to say there was “not a syllable of truth” in the accusation. McCall died in 1995. Patterson’s letter—the authenticity of which WORLD confirmed with Mills—shows he knew Pressler had been accused of homosexual behavior but didn’t believe it.
First Baptist Church (FBC) in Houston, where Pressler attended from 1978 to 2007, became aware of accusations of “inappropriate behavior” by Pressler toward Rollins in 2004, FBC attorney Barry Flynn told WORLD. Flynn would not confirm the nature of the accusations, but he said church leaders at the time did not find them credible.
“At that time, there was nothing for us to do,” Flynn said. “There were no claims against First Baptist Church. The claims were against Paul Pressler, not against us.” He added that Pressler was not an employee or deacon of the church. Flynn said he did not believe any church leaders confronted Pressler about the accusations.
In the meantime, Pressler settled the lawsuit with Rollins for $450,000, paid in monthly installments of $1,500 for 25 years. The suit claimed the two men had a disagreement in a Dallas hotel room and Rollins was injured, but it did not specifically allege that Pressler sexually assaulted Rollins. As a condition of the settlement, which WORLD reviewed a copy of, Rollins agreed to keep the altercation and the payments confidential. Pressler also paid Rollins’ attorney $100,000. Rollins in turn agreed to deliver to the mediator for destruction “all tapes, affidavits, or other written or audible information.”
Pressler retired from his career as a judge in 1992 but remained active in SBC polity and Republican politics. He served on the International Missions Board of the SBC from 1992 to 2000 and was elected to a one-year term as first vice president of the SBC in 2002. He held political gatherings at his ranch to discuss candidates and endorsements with other Republicans and Baptists.
Mason Tabor began attending Houston Baptist University in 2012 with a scholarship from the Baptist General Convention of Texas (BGCT) to study pastoral ministry. He graduated three years later with a degree in Biblical languages. Tabor dropped his ministerial aspirations, though, and in a 2017 affidavit, he said an encounter with Pressler during his last year was the reason why. In the affidavit, Tabor described the events as follows:
Tabor said he met Pressler after a choir performance at the prompting of an HBU administrator who described the judge as a university donor and an influential person within the BGCT. Pressler invited him to join a young professional networking group he personally mentored for a meal and a meeting.
Tabor described a group of nearly a dozen men ages 18-24 whom Pressler referred to as “dear friends.” After dinner and a stop at a pie joint, Tabor carpooled with Pressler and a young male driver. He said the judge talked about “fringe benefits” of friendship with him, including trips to his Austin-area ranch for men’s retreats. Tabor claims Pressler asked to speak with him alone later that night and talked further about ways he helped people both monetarily and through networking. He then allegedly clarified that at his ranch, men often went in his hot tub naked together. Tabor said Pressler told him “Christians should not be afraid to be naked together,” and asked if Tabor would have a problem with that.
Tabor says the conversation jolted him. At the time, he privately struggled with gender dysphoria. (He now identifies as transgender.) Tabor says he immediately distanced himself from Pressler.
“I was afraid that similar hypocrisies would emerge in my life if I began to enjoy power at the expense of my somewhat embarrassing personal truth,” Tabor told WORLD.
He said he came forward and filed an affidavit in Rollins’ lawsuit because of the gravity of Rollins’ allegations.
Brooks Schott, a 30-year-old attorney, moved from Washington state to Houston in 2016 to work at the Woodfill Law Firm, where Pressler was by then a former law partner. WORLD contacted Schott, who declined to comment for this story. He said he gave a complete account of his interactions with Pressler in an affidavit he submitted to Rollins’ attorneys. His statements allege that Pressler continued to make unwanted sexual advances as recently as 2016 and that knowledge of the judge’s behavior was widespread among his legal colleagues.
Schott said he learned about the job opportunity at Woodfill Law Firm through church connections. Jared Woodfill, the firm’s founding partner, is the brother of a Houston nondenominational pastor who knew Schott’s father, a pastor in Spokane, Wash.
In October 2016, Schott alleges Woodfill asked him to make a copy of the 2004 settlement between Rollins and Pressler. When Schott questioned Pressler’s character upon reading the settlement, he said Woodfill defended the judge and accused Rollins of extorting money from him.
Schott said months later he ran into Pressler at a political fundraiser and Pressler invited him to lunch. Schott then described a series of increasingly discomforting alleged actions by Pressler, ranging from answering the door at his home with no pants on to inviting Schott to go “naked hot tubbing” at his ranch.
“I was embarrassed, but as politely as possible, I replied that I was not interested in going to his ranch,” Schott said in his 2017 affidavit.
Schott said in his May 17, 2017, resignation letter that he reported the incident to Woodfill’s office manager at the time. In emails submitted with Schott’s affidavit, Woodfill denied to Schott having any knowledge of Pressler’s alleged solicitations but promised to address the situation. Woodfill’s attorney declined to comment for this story. Emails and messages sent to Woodfill’s law office were not returned.
When Schott resigned, he stated Pressler’s actions had gone unaddressed and word of it had spread, compromising his reputation. In his resignation letter, Schott said one state judge relayed a message through a colleague to “stay away from hot tubs.” In his affidavit, Schott said his experiences in the months following Pressler’s solicitation revealed “widespread knowledge” of the judge’s behavior among state court judges and within the legal community. Two judges Schott said had knowledge of the incident declined to comment to WORLD.
What is a young man worth?
This summer, a furor arose among Southern Baptists over reports that members of the Executive Committee dismissed, misrepresented, and maligned survivors who reported their abuse to the Credentials Committee, a group established to field complaints against churches. At the annual meeting of the convention in June, thousands of church delegates voted for a third-party investigation into how the Executive Committee, which manages the convention’s affairs between annual meetings, has handled the sexual abuse issue.
Throughout the debate, a group of survivor-advocates has coalesced and emerged as a voice for change. They include names such as Hannah-Kate Williams, Jen Lyell, Tiffany Thigpen, Jules Woodson, and others—almost all of them female.
Justin Holcomb is an Episcopal priest and theology professor at Reformed Theological Seminary and Gordon Conwell Theological Seminary who wrote the book Rid of My Disgrace for victims of sexual assault. Holcomb says male survivors not only face questions about their credibility, but also questions about their masculinity and sexuality: Was it consensual? Are they homosexual? Why not fight back? “There’s an added layer of difficulty for a male survivor,” Holcomb said. “[He] would expect to hear, ‘You weren’t man enough or masculine enough to prevent that from happening … maybe you wanted it.’”
Twining, a married father of two, said similar questions kept him silent about the alleged incident with Pressler for decades: “It’s very hard for us men, especially heterosexual men who grew up in a very macho culture like Texas. … It’s not the kind of thing we talk about or admit happened to us.”
WORLD talked to several young men who had close mentoring relationships with Pressler and said they never witnessed any inappropriate behavior, but they did not want to go on the record—even to voice support for the judge—because they did not want their names associated with the allegations against him.
Rachael Denhollander, a well-known child sexual abuse survivor and attorney, believes the stigma attached to male-on-male abuse keeps many men silent and causes people in their lives to discredit or bury their stories for decades. “Evil and sin don’t have an expiration date,” said Denhollander, who made headlines in 2016 for exposing widespread sexual abuse of competitive gymnasts. She documented her experiences in a memoir titled What Is a Girl Worth? She said that as she has advocated for sexual abuse survivors in the SBC, “the absence of male voices has weighed heavily on me.”
The SBC learned about Rollins’ legal claims against Pressler when it was named in the 2017 lawsuit, according to James P. Guenther, the convention’s longtime attorney who is representing it while it transitions to a new firm. Guenther claims the convention “did not have control over or any duty to control” Pressler. “[None] of the facts necessary to assert any valid claim against the convention is present,” he said in March. “The convention is simply not responsible if another defendant in this case engaged in any wrongdoing.” An SBC Executive Committee spokesperson said Guenther’s statements reflect the current leadership’s position.
SBC President Ed Litton said the convention is seeking to address its problem of sexual abuse at every level. “Still, we have much more work in front of us as we seek to learn from our mistakes, care for those who are hurting, and eliminate abuse among Southern Baptists,” Litton said.
Twining is now a musician living in New York City. He says he did not begin to process his abuse until his mid-50s when someone he admired groped him. It brought back trauma from the alleged incident with Pressler. Twining sought help from a local organization offering counseling and support for sexual abuse victims. When he stumbled on the Rollins lawsuit he says he realized more victims may exist.
Twining said the decision to come forward was not easy. He comes from a family of Houston attorneys with similar political leanings as Pressler and deep ties to the Texas legal community. He knows Pressler is old—now 91—and said he has no animosity toward him. But the wider systemic problem of abuse in the church prompted him to come forward: “It’s not always people who are gay. It’s people with families, people in our churches. It has to do with power.”
Editor’s note: WORLD has updated this report to clarify the SBC attorney’s response to questions about Duane Rollins’ lawsuit.
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