New court documents show First Baptist Houston leaders knew of allegations against Pressler in 2004

Baptist News Global [Jacksonville FL]

March 28, 2023

By Mark Wingfield

Leaders of First Baptist Church of Houston knew about Paul Pressler’s alleged inappropriate sexual activity with young men in 2004, according to correspondence from the church to Pressler obtained by the Texas Tribune.

Journalist Robert Downen, writing for the Tribune, also reports Pressler’s law partner — a prominent conservative Republican known for his anti-LGBTQ stances — knew about the serious allegations yet continued to work with Pressler for another decade and provide him young male “personal assistants, most of them young men who typically worked out of his River Oaks mansion. Two have accused Pressler of sexual assault or misconduct.”

Downen and the Tribune have sifted through thousands of pages of new court records recently released in the six-year-old lawsuit brought against Pressler, his law partner Jared Woodfill, First Baptist Church and other leaders of the Southern Baptist Convention by a former member of Pressler’s church youth group.

Plaintiff Duane Rollins claims after he enrolled in Pressler’s Bible study at First Baptist Church, Pressler lured the devout and impressionable 14-year-old to Pressler’s home and a private club for fondling and anal sex. He convinced Rollins to keep “our secret,” a court brief says, by telling the boy he was “special” and “no one but God would understand” their relationship.

The pattern continued throughout his high school years, Rollins alleges, sometimes as often as two or three times a month. Rollins says he turned to drugs and alcohol to cope with the mental stress, typically triggered by contact with Pressler.

Downen reports there have been “repeated accusations of sexual misconduct and assault dating back to at least 1978, when (Pressler) was forced out of a Houston church for allegedly molesting a teenager in a sauna.”

It was the next year, 1979, that Pressler and Paige Patterson launched the “conservative resurgence” to capture control of the SBC and turn it in a more conservative direction based on teaching of biblical inerrancy.

Among the trove of new information now made public in the case is a Nov. 12, 2004, email from Charles Poor, former minister of counseling at First Baptist, to Pastor Greg Matte. The email purports to include a copy of a letter hand delivered to Pressler three months earlier, on Aug. 23, 2004, and signed by Poor and two others, Jay Brown and Kenneth Pearce.

It concerns an allegation against Pressler by a college student who had been invited to live in the Pressler home. According to Downen’s report: “Pressler pressured him to get naked and then groped him at his Houston mansion.”

The slightly redacted letter from church leaders to Pressler states: “After meeting separately with (redacted) and you, we naturally concluded there is no way for us to know what did or did not transpire between the two of you on the night in question in areas where your individual accounts differ. However, we can reach conclusions and form opinions based on your individual accounts that are in agreement. Both of you told us there was a period of time when, following your suggestion, you and (redacted) were together and naked at your home.

“We recognize that what individuals choose to do in the privacy of their own home (including being unclothed) is their business and of no concern to outsiders, like us. We are making no judgment in that regard. However, we do find unacceptable your being naked with a young man about a third of your age, because (i) you are both members of HFBC, (ii) your relationship with (redacted) commenced through HFBC, (iii) you were seen by (redacted) to be a HFBC leader/mentor whose behavior was worth emulating, and (iv) (redacted) has reported the matter to HFBC out of concern.”

The church told Pressler his behavior in this matter was “unacceptable” because “the vast majority of HFBC members would deem the naked behavior between you and (redacted) the night in question to be morally and spiritually inappropriate.”

Further, Pressler’s “naked behavior” conflicts with his pledge as a church deacon to abstain from “any personal conduct or activity that would distort his testimony to the lost or cause another believer to stumble.”

The letter expresses sympathy with Pressler for the “pressures” and “personal burdens” of his life and pledges prayer for him to find “relief and direction from the Lord as you manage very weighty personal, professional, denominational and family circumstances.”

The letter is written not out of “judgment” but out of “concern,” it states. The church leaders urge Pressler to get professional help from a counselor or accountability group and implore him not to engage in such activity again.

“Given your stature and various leadership roles in our church, the Southern Baptist Convention and other Christian organizations, it is our considered opinion that this kind of behavior, if brought to light, might distort your testimony or cause others to stumble. We desire neither, but, rather, pray that God continues to use your gifts and talents to accomplish his will and purposes.”

Inviting boys and young men to be naked is a common theme in the various accusations leveled against Pressler’s behavior across the years. Some such incidents were alleged to have happened at his ranch and others at his home. Some involved hot tubs. Some alleged naked frolicking while others allege more substantial sexual contact.

The Texas Tribune story takes aim at Woodfill — described as an “outspoken anti-gay politician and prominent conservative activist who’d just played a key role defeating an equal rights ordinance for LGBTQ Houstonians” when he allegedly was told of Pressler’s problems.

“In recent sworn testimony, Woodfill said he’d known since 2004 of an allegation that Pressler had sexually abused a child,” Downen wrote. “Woodfill learned of those claims, he said, during mediation of an assault lawsuit filed against Pressler that he helped quietly settle for nearly a half-million dollars at the time. Despite his knowledge of the accusation, Woodfill continued to work with Pressler for nearly a decade — leaning on Pressler’s name and reputation to bolster their firm, Woodfill & Pressler LLP.”

Woodfill is a former leader of the Harris County Republican Party and remains a hardliner on social and moral issues around sexuality that motivate Republican voters. He opposed a Houston equal rights ordinance saying it would allow children to be sexually groomed and abused in bathrooms. Later, he filed multiple lawsuits challenging COVID-19 mandates and challenging the 2022 election results in Harris County.

While the Rollins case against Pressler and others accused of enabling him is the best-known allegation against Pressler, a total of six men are known to have accused Pressler of sexual assault or misconduct, including two who say they were molested while minors. The new court documents indicate there are possibly other accusers in the wings, but those documents are not yet public.

The Rollins case is a civil case; Pressler has not been criminally charged in any of the incidents.

Barry Flynn, attorney for First Baptist Church, told Baptist Press while church leaders knew of the college student’s concerns in 2004, they did not know of Rollins’ accusations of molestation and rape when the 2017 lawsuit was filed.

“Houston’s First Baptist was not aware of any claims or incidences or any alleged inappropriate behavior by Paul Pressler before summer 2004 when it first received notice of the affidavit described in the article,” he said.

Regarding the 2004 letter to Pressler, it was the result of a “committee of three independent deacons,” Flynn said. “The committee met with the person making the affidavit on at least two occasions and with Paul Pressler. The committee then acted promptly. They did hear two different sides of the story. They did take action.

“Paul Pressler’s position as a teacher was eliminated immediately. His role as a deacon was lowered to the lowest stature possible as a deacon. And he was eliminated from any committees of the church.”

Although Pressler remained a revered figure among SBC conservatives — he and his wife were enshrined in stained glass at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in 2013 — First Baptist Church heard or saw little of him for more than two years after the letter was delivered, Flynn said. Eventually they learned the Presslers were attending Second Baptist.

Also, Flynn emphasized: “Pressler did not teach a youth Sunday school class or lead any youth groups while at FBC.”

This article was updated March 25 to add new information from First Baptist Church.