SBC settles abuse lawsuit against Paul Pressler

  |  Source: Religion News Service

Former Judge Paul Pressler, who played a leading role in wresting control of the Southern Baptist Convention from moderates starting in 1979, poses for a photo in his home in Houston on May 30, 2004. (AP Photo /Michael Stravato / Distributed by RNS)


WASHINGTON (RNS)—The Southern Baptist Convention has settled a sexual abuse lawsuit against one of its prominent leaders who had been accused of allegedly molesting young men for decades.

Retired Texas Judge Paul Pressler was one of the architects of the so-called conservative resurgence that took control of the SBC in the 1980s and 1990s. In 2017, Pressler’s former assistant, Gareld Duane Rollins Jr., sued the lay leader and conservative activist along with the SBC and several of its entities, alleging Pressler had begun abusing him while he was a teenager in a Bible study at a Houston church.

The suit accused SBC leaders of knowing about Pressler’s alleged abuse and covering it up. Pressler and SBC leaders long have denied any wrongdoing.

Earlier in 2023, former SBC leader Paige Patterson, a close ally of Pressler, and Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, where Patterson was president until he was fired by the school’s board of trustees, settled with Rollins.

Confidential settlement agreement reached

On Dec. 29, a special counsel to the SBC and its Nashville-based Executive Committee announced the Pressler suit had been settled.

The Southern Baptist Convention Executive Committee building in Nashville, Tenn. (Baptist Press Photo)

“The Southern Baptist Convention and the SBC Executive Committee, Defendants in Rollins v Pressler, entered into a confidential settlement agreement with the Plaintiff. The Southern Baptist Convention and its Executive Committee were each fully prepared to proceed to trial,” the special counsel said in its statement.

“However, several factors ultimately made settlement the more prudent choice. Chief among those factors was the horrendous nature of the abuse allegations, the likelihood that counsel for the SBC and Executive Committee would have to confront and cross-examine abuse survivors, the Executive Committee’s current financial condition, and the willingness of multiple insurance carriers to contribute to the terms of the settlement.”

No details of the settlement, first reported by the Texas Tribune, were made public.

The lawsuit against Pressler initially was dismissed due to the statute of limitations, but an appeals court allowed the suit to go forward after Rollins’ attorneys successfully argued trauma from the alleged abuse had led to the delay in reporting the alleged abuse.

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Multiple allegations against Pressler

During the legal battle over the lawsuit, a number of men also went public with allegations that they, too, had been abused by Pressler. One of the allegations was made by a former member of a youth group at a church in Houston in the 1970s, where Pressler had been a youth minister. Pressler lost that job after an incident involving a member of the youth group he led.

In 2004, leaders at Houston’s First Baptist Church in Houston learned of allegations against Pressler and sent him a letter warning him that getting naked with a young man was morally inappropriate and asked him to stop any further such behavior. That letter became public as part of the lawsuit.

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Paul Pressler (File Photo)

Along with his religious activism, Pressler was an influential member of the religious right through his involvement with the Council for National Policy. In 2012, Pressler hosted a meeting of conservative Christian leaders at his ranch, aimed at finding an alternative candidate to Mitt Romney for president.

The lawsuit against Pressler inspired a major investigation into abuse in the SBC by the Houston Chronicle and San Antonio Express-News, according to the Texas Tribune. That “Abuse of Faith” report led the SBC to hold a litany of lament for abuse in 2019 and eventually to authorize a third-party investigation by Guidepost Solutions into how SBC leaders dealt with abuse.

A Guidepost report published in 2022 found SBC leaders had downplayed the scope of abuse in the denomination for years, mistreated abuse survivors and sought to deny any liability at all costs.

That same year, the SBC at its annual meeting passed a series of reforms meant to address abuse, including setting up a database of abusers and creating resources to help churches do a better job in preventing abuse and caring for survivors of abuse.

However, the SBC put a volunteer committee in charge of implementing those reforms. The denomination has no long-term plans to fund the reforms or to make them stick.

A year and a half after announcing the “Ministry Check” website to track abusers, no names of abusers have been added to the public database.

The SBC also faces a great deal of uncertainty about how to move forward. The SBC Executive Committee lost its permanent leader as a result of the Guidepost investigation, which went forward despite opposition from prominent leaders.

The Executive Committee, which oversees the denomination’s business between its annual meetings, also has rapidly spent down its reserves due to legal costs from the abuse crisis.

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