Southern Baptists Settle Abuse Lawsuit Against Legendary Conservative Leader Paul Pressler

Religion News Service - Missouri School of Journalism [Columbia MO]

December 30, 2023

By Bob Smietana

The nation’s largest Protestant denomination 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, a Southern Baptist lay leader long considered a hero of the denomination by many, was one of the architects of the rightward shift that took control of the Southern Baptist Convention 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 Southern Baptist Convention and several of its entities, alleging that 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.

Earlier this year, former SBC leader Paige Patterson (a close ally of Pressler) and Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary (which Patterson once led) also settled with Rollins. And on Friday (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 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, which was first reported by the Texas Tribune, were made public.

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

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 pastor. 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.

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 that 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 better prevent abuse and care 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.