EDITOR’S NOTE: This article includes additional reporting from Pathway associate editor Benjamin Hawkins. The article was updated on Oct. 11th.
NASHVILLE (BP) – Members of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) Executive Committee (EC) voted, Oct. 5, for the waiving of attorney client privilege within the scope of an independent third-party investigation of the EC concerning the handling of sexual abuse claims. The Sexual Abuse Task Force, assembled by SBC President Ed Litton, was mandated by messengers to the 2021 SBC Annual Meeting in June and will oversee the investigation.
Trustees met for more than three and a half hours via Zoom before the group voted in favor of a motion to waive privilege by a margin of 44-31. Three members abstained from the vote. Six members of the committee resigned between the EC’s Oct. 5th meeting and its previous meeting on Sept. 28. Two more resigned after the meeting, and more resignations are anticipated.
On Oct. 11, the lawfirm Guenther, Jordan & Price also announced they will no longer represent the SBC and EC due to the EC’s actions. The lawfirm has represented the SBC and EC since 1966. (See story, page 2).
MBC officers release statements amid EC controversy
Several days prior to the EC’s vote, the officers of the Missouri Baptist Convention (MBC) released a statement calling the EC “to waive its Attorney-Client privilege related to matters only within the scope of the Motion (items pertaining to Sexual Abuse).” To read the statement, visit https://somajc.org/mbc-sbc-ecsatf/.
Following the EC’s decision on Oct. 5, they released a second statement, thanking EC members for their work – no matter how they voted on the issues involved. They also encouraged Missouri Baptists to “move forward as ONE for the Kingdom of God” and “to focus on our collective work through the Cooperative Program.” To read this statement, visit https://somajc.org/statement-sbcec2/.
MBC officers are: President Jon Nelson, pastor, SOMA Community Church, Jefferson City; First Vice President Chris Williams, pastor, Fellowship Church, Greenwood/Raymore; Second Vice President Lane Harrison, lead pastor, Life Point Church, Ozark; and Recording Secretary Jason Marlin, senior pastor, First Baptist Church, Kirksville.
Details of the EC’s decision
The EC’s Oct. 5th motion, made by EC member Jared Wellman of Arlington, Texas, calls for a selective waiving of attorney client privilege “that includes an investigation into any allegations of abuse, mishandling of abuse, mistreatment of victims, a pattern of intimidation of victims or advocates, and resistance to sexual abuse reform initiatives of the actions and decisions of staff and members of the Executive Committee from January 1, 2000, to June 14, 2021.”
During EC debate, Wellman defended his motion. “It’s really simple to me,” he said. “I think that in Nashville the messengers spoke clearly. I believe they knew what they were asking for, and I think that’s been evident in the last few days when we’ve had all six seminary presidents support this, six SBC presidents, three former EC chairmen including the current one, one former EC president, 12 state executives, over 1,000 pastors and churches in collective statements.”
Other EC members spoke against waiving attorney-client privilege, including EC member Phyllis Ingram of Montgomery, Ala., who resigned her position after the meeting.
Ingram said her late husband, who died on Aug. 29, was a victim of sexual and physical abuse since the age of 9, and she stood by him as he struggled with the effects of this abuse throughout his lifetime.
“So, any insinuation that this committee does not look out for the survivors is false, because I as an individual have got a very broken heart for the victims and the survivors,” Ingram told EC members. “So, I want to make that perfectly clear.”
She urged the EC, however, to fulfill their fiduciary responsibilities to the SBC.
“We’ve heard from Jim Murray today, a specialist on insurance coverage attorney,” Ingram added. “He said in the 35 years he has practiced, he has never heard of any entity wanting to waive attorney-client privilege. We’ve heard from our own counsel that has advised us against waiving attorney-client privilege. As a CPA, I understand what fiduciary responsibility is, and so I stand against any motion that would jeopardize our insurance coverage, would jeopardize the financial solvency of the Southern Baptist Convention, the EC, would jeopardize our funding for our missionaries, and I stand firm on the Scripture the Lord placed on my heart on Monday, and it’s Matthew 10:16, when Jesus sent out the disciples to spread the gospel in a hostile environment, and Lord knows we’ve seen a hostile environment in this issue right here. But He said, ‘Behold I send you forth as sheep in the midst of wolves, be ye therefore wise as serpents and harmless as doves.’”
The selective waiving of privilege means that documents and interviews must fit in a limited window:
• Allegations of abuse by Executive Committee members.
• Mishandling of abuse allegations by Executive Committee members between Jan. 1, 2000, to June 14, 2021.
• Allegations of mistreatment of sexual abuse victims by EC members from Jan. 1, 2000, to June 14, 2021.
• Patterns of intimidation of sexual abuse victims or advocates from Jan. 1, 2000, to June 14, 2021.
• Resistance to sexual abuse reform initiatives from Jan. 1, 2000, to June 14, 2021.
During the committee’s Sept. 21st meeting, however, EC member Guy Fredrick of Sheboygan, Wisc., questioned whether it is possible for the EC actually to limit the scope of the attorney-client privilege waiver simply by saying so. “A waiver of privilege is a complete waiver of privilege, from start to end,” he said.
The motion approved on Oct. 5th also gave EC Chairman Rolland Slade authority to execute the contract between the EC, the Sexual Abuse Task Force and Guidepost Solutions that was sent to trustees on Oct. 1. Guidepost is the third-party firm selected by the task force to carry out the investigation.
The contract calls for the creation of a Committee of Cooperation of the Executive Committee, which will be composed of four members from the EC. Two of the members will be chosen by the Sexual Abuse Task Force, and two members will be chosen by the EC. The committee will be led by SBC President Ed Litton.
At the end of the meeting, the EC voted to give Slade the authority to appoint the two members to be selected by the EC.
The members of the committee must be among those appointed to their first term on the EC in June 2021. This move allows participating EC members to be outside the scope of the Guidepost investigation.
According to the contract, the committee “is charged with”:
• Financial oversight of the independent investigation in addition to the financial oversight exercised by the Task Force.
• Electing, in cooperation with the Task Force, a liaison between the Executive Committee and Guidepost Solutions to ensure smooth flow of information and response to information requests.
• Receipt of periodic monthly updates noting document, witness, and information requests made to the Executive Committee, to ensure information sought is consistent with and responded to in cooperation with the Motion passed by the Messengers at the SBC Convention in June 2021. Ensuring that the Executive Committee and SBC are fully cooperative in this matter.
SBC EC President Ronnie Floyd said, “We thank all of the trustees for their diligence in addressing complex questions brought to bear by this process.”
He pledged the EC will work with the task force as they move forward.
“Now that the Executive Committee’s Board of Trustees have made their decision, the leadership and staff of the Executive Committee will provide support to Guidepost on implementing next steps to facilitate their investigation,” he said.
Bruce Frank, task force chair, responded to the EC on behalf of the task force, saying, “The task force is pleased with the strong vote today by the Executive Committee to abide by the moral imperative directed by the messengers, seminary presidents, state leaders and many, many more.”
Near the end of the meeting, Slade spoke pastorally to the group reflecting on the process since messengers voted June 15 in Nashville.
“I’d like to really express my relief that this present challenge seems to be behind us,” he said. “Also, I want to express sorrow over the conduct that we have displayed as Southern Baptists over the course was absolutely a necessary deliberative process.”
Slade called on Southern Baptists to stop attacking one another and to “move down this road together.”
“Most importantly, it’s time to know for sure where we have fallen short on the question of sexual abuse within the Southern Baptist convention, so that we can correct any errors and move into the future as a convention, that’s the most safe for our most vulnerable members,” he said.
Litton said, “Sexual abuse is antithetical to the gospel of Christ. It has no place in the Southern Baptist Convention. And it is my prayer that all Southern Baptists will remain resolute in our commitment to preventing abuse, caring for survivors, and taking whatever steps are necessary to implement reforms.”ν