What the SBC should do about its most famous accused sexual abuser

Baptist News Global [Jacksonville FL]

January 2, 2024

By Marv Knox

Thank God, Paul Pressler has lived to the ripe old age of 93.

That’s long enough to expose the Southern Baptist Convention’s most malevolent hypocrite to the shame of his reported double life.

Just before the end of the year, the SBC reached a settlement in a lawsuit that claimed Pressler began raping a teenage boy in Houston in 1977 and continued the sexual abuse across decades. It started two years before Pressler, then a Texas appeals court judge, and Paige Patterson, then an academician, launched the “conservative resurgence” that allowed fundamentalists to take control of the SBC.

Duane Rollins filed the lawsuit in 2017, alleging Pressler started raping him when he was a 14-year-old in Pressler’s church youth group. The lawsuit led to an investigation of sexual abuse within the SBC by the Houston Chronicle and the San Antonio Express-News. Those articles resulted in heated internal conflict over reform within the nation’s second-largest religious group.

Pressler has denied the claims and has not been criminally charged. However, in addition to Rollins, at least seven other men have accused him of sexual misconduct throughout four decades, the Texas Tribune reported. That includes three young male employees of Pressler’s law firm, who were assigned to assist him at his Houston home.

And although terms of the lawsuit’s settlement are sealed, the SBC and the SBC Executive Committee — both named in the suit — issued a statement explaining why they did not wish to go to court. They said they were “fully prepared to proceed to trial,”  but “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,” the statement said.

Note the wording of that statement. The SBC and the Executive Committee publicly described the witnesses who would have testified in the lawsuit as “abuse survivors.”

“He leveraged his seat on the SBC Executive Committee to malign denominational employees, ruining careers and destroying ministries.”

This situation is horrifying and disgusting. But the horror and disgust multiply when one considers the hypocrisy of Pressler’s other life. The timeline provided by witnesses who would have testified against him in court is clear: Even as he allegedly engaged in sexual assault and other immoral behavior with boys and young men, he enthusiastically embraced the role of the SBC’s grand inquisitor. He was the face of the convention’s “conservative resurgence” or “fundamentalist takeover.”

His job as an appellate judge only required him to appear in court one day a week, he often explained. For years, he traveled tirelessly, speaking to churches and other groups, spreading charges of “liberalism” and other corrosive faults in the SBC. He leveraged his seat on the SBC Executive Committee to malign denominational employees, ruining careers and destroying ministries.

Meanwhile, according to numerous credible sources, when he was back in Houston, he was doing things to young men and boys that would have made his SBC legions wretch.

Slavery is the Southern Baptist Convention’s original sin. Southern Baptists split from their Northern brothers and sisters in 1845 over slavery. Their elders championed and their sons fought for the South in the Civil War. By the thousands, they perpetuated Jim Crow and opposed civil rights.

Eventually, the SBC officially apologized for its racist founding. Volumes have been written about how far the SBC has come on racism and how far it has yet to go. But at least some Southern Baptists of good faith have worked to heal and repair.

“Sexual abuse is the Southern Baptist Convention’s modern sin.”

Sexual abuse is the Southern Baptist Convention’s modern sin. Thousands of people have been irreparably harmed by clergy and lay leaders who took advantage of their positions of trust in order to sexually abuse the vulnerable. Those victims have been harmed physically, emotionally and spiritually. No one knows how many have turned away from God altogether because of the actions of those who claimed to be God’s representatives.

The treachery already has caught up with Patterson, who lost his job as an SBC seminary president for failing to protect women from sexual abuse. The insidious irony of Pressler’s story is the fact the other person, besides Patterson, who did the most to shape the current SBC stands accused of sexual abuse.

Given the status of the SBC’s current-era “architects,” it’s small wonder the fissure of sexual abuse has undermined the convention’s very foundation.

In addition to establishing reporting mechanisms and abuser databases, the SBC should publicly disavow its relationship with Paul Pressler.

Marv Knox founded Fellowship Southwest after editing the Baptist Standard almost 20 years. Now retired, he lives with his wife, Joanna, in Durham, N.C., where he tries to do something useful almost every day. Sometimes, that’s writing for BNG.