Part of former student’s case against Patterson and Southwestern dismissed by judge

Baptist News Global [Jacksonville FL]

March 28, 2023

By Mark Wingfield

Just six days before a long-awaited trial was to begin on allegations from a former student that Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and former President Paige Patterson failed to protect her from sexual assault, a federal judge dismissed most of the case for lack of sufficient legal evidence.

Left pending is a motion for summary judgment on a defamation claim the judge has not yet acted upon. The parts of the case dismissed by U.S. District Judge Sean Jordan March 25 relate to allegations of negligence and gross negligence.

The assertion by the anonymous Jane Roe that “women who tried to report sexual harassment and sexual abuse were ignored, dismissed or disciplined themselves” is “a gross distortion of the evidence before the court,” Jordan wrote March 25. “The proposition that SWBTS has a history of condoning sexual assault or sexual harassment of female students has not been proven by Roe and is not supported by the record in this case.”

Further, the judge determined the much-publicized “break her down” comment Patterson made in regard to Jane Roe’s story — while “inappropriate” — “does not demonstrate that (John) Doe’s alleged sexual assaults of Roe were foreseeable to Patterson or SWBTS. The email was sent after the assaults occurred, after Roe had reported them to Patterson and SWBTS, and after Roe herself decided not to pursue criminal charges against Doe. Thus, the email is irrelevant to the question of what information defendants were aware of prior to Roe’s alleged victimization.

“Patterson’s approach to further communications with Roe may well have been misguided and inappropriate, but his post-hoc actions based on an apparent mistrust of the truthfulness of Roe’s allegations cannot create a genuine issue of material fact on the key questions of foreseeability and duty at the heart of this case,” Jordan wrote.

Jane Roe alleges that while a student at Southwestern she was stalked, raped and repeatedly abused by a male student who also was a seminary employee with access to her campus living space. The suit contends the seminary and Patterson are liable for not protecting her, although she did not report the abusive behavior to seminary officials until several months after it allegedly happened.

Patterson’s mishandling of this case — he reportedly told other seminary officials he needed to “break her down” to silence her — was one factor in Patterson’s dismissal by seminary trustees in 2018. Patterson also had been accused of mishandling sexual abuse claims at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in North Carolina, where he previously served as president.

Mishandled or not, there is not sufficient legal evidence to present a case that either Patterson or the seminary could have known to intervene beforehand to protect Roe from the alleged attacks, the judge determined.

Earlier, the judge had allowed the case to proceed based on probable evidence, but after depositions and legal discovery in the case were filed, his assessment changed. Most of that pre-trial evidence remains under seal.

“Roe never directly told Patterson or anyone at SWBTS of her concerns that Doe was stalking her,” the judge noted. “Nor did Roe make any sexual harassment, sexual assault, or any other complaint about Doe prior to August 2015. It is further undisputed that the first time Roe told Patterson and SWBTS that she had been raped by Doe was on August 20, 2015 — the date she made her report to the school — months after the sexual assaults allegedly occurred. At that time, Patterson and SWBTS immediately notified local law enforcement authorities of Roe’s outcry, and Roe was interviewed by the Fort Worth Police Department. Roe declined to pursue charges against Doe.”

For the case to be dismissed “with prejudice” as written in the March 25 ruling means the case may not be refiled with the same evidence.