SBC entities stir internal disagreement by opposing extended liability in sex abuse cases

Marshall Blalock, chairman of the SBC Abuse Reform Implementation Task Force, speaks during the SBC Annual Meeting in New Orleans, Louisiana, on June 14, 2023.
Marshall Blalock, chairman of the SBC Abuse Reform Implementation Task Force, speaks during the SBC Annual Meeting in New Orleans, Louisiana, on June 14, 2023. | Sonya Singh/Baptist Press

Updated 4 P.M. EDT, Oct. 30, 2023: Bart Barber, president of the Southern Baptist Convention, released a statement apologizing for deciding to sign off on an amicus brief (friend of the court brief) in a child sexual abuse case in Kentucky. He said future decisions regarding whether to file amicus briefs will be decided by the denomination's Executive Committee.

In a post on his personal blog “Praisegod Barebones,” Barber wrote in part: "I did not give this decision to file this brief the level of consideration that it deserved. Some of the most important information affecting my decision was information I failed to seek. Knowing what I know now, I know that I should have asked more questions. I should have taken the opportunity to request a meeting between the Interim CEO, myself, and our legal counsel to gather more information. I did not have the power to decide then, but I did have the opportunity to advise. I failed to use that opportunity wisely, and I regret that. Our future decisions likewise lie with the SBC Executive Committee. I hope to do a better job of using my voice to influence those decisions going forward."

Original report: 

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Members of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Executive Committee have expressed outrage online after learning that the committee was included in an amicus brief opposing extending liability in sex abuse cases, as no elected committee member had been consulted about the decision before it was made.

The brief filed earlier this year on behalf of the SBC Executive Committee, the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and Lifeway Christian Resources opposing legislation that would allow child sex abuse survivors to sue non-perpetrator third parties retroactively has also ignited fury among survivors of sexual abuse and their advocates in the SBC who have accused the denomination of betraying victims.

The accusation comes more than a year after SBC leaders said they were “grieved” after an independent investigation from Guidepost Solutions found the denomination’s leadership had mishandled sexual abuse allegations, mistreated victims and advocates, engaged in an abusive pattern of intimidation and repeatedly resisted reforms aimed at making their churches safer largely to avoid liability.

In a statement to The Christian Post on Friday, the SBC said it had to join the brief to protect the entity's “legal and fiduciary interests” and clarified that the trustees were not involved in making the decision, as many revealed on social media that they did not know about the document and were vehemently opposed to it. 

“The SBC Executive Committee remains wholly committed to engaging with survivors and working toward eradicating sexual abuse from Southern Baptist churches, institutions, and entities, and to bringing about meaningful abuse reform across the SBC. The SBC Executive Committee joined a brief making legal arguments to the Supreme Court of Kentucky on a discrete legal issue that has a direct impact on the Committee’s and Convention’s legal and fiduciary interests,” the statement from the SBC Executive Committee officer said in part.

“The SBC Executive Committee must continue to defend itself, and its interests, within the judicial system as appropriate. These goals (eradicating sexual abuse and legally defending itself) are not mutually exclusive. While there are issues about which we will not agree, we remain steadfast in our desire to fulfill the will of the messengers and to implement meaningful sexual abuse reform within the Southern Baptist Convention. Tension and disagreement on one matter are not reasons to abandon the broader effort to eradicate sexual abuse from all Southern Baptist churches.”

In the amicus brief that was filed on April 5, lawyers for the SBC and its affiliated organizations make it clear that they oppose an effort by childhood sexual abuse survivor Samantha Killary to sue a Louisville police officer and the Louisville Metro Police Department under 2021 Amendments KRS § 413 249 seeking to hold the parties accountable for the abuse she suffered.

In 2017, Kentucky’s General Assembly passed KRS § 413 249  allowing a child sex abuse victim to sue their abuser 10 years after they turn 18, or 10 years after the abuser is convicted. That law was then amended in 2021, to allow it to be applied retroactively to misconduct before 2017. Victims were also allowed to sue non-perpetrator third parties.

Lawyers for the SBC and its affiliates argue in the amicus brief that “the 2021 Amendments to KRS § 413 249 do not retroactively revive expired claims against non-perpetrator third parties” and that dispute is now pending before the Kentucky Supreme Court.

And the reason the SBC and its affiliates oppose Killary’s case is the liability they would be exposed to if the court allowed her action to proceed.

“Amici have a strong interest in the statute-of-limitations issue presented in this appeal. Amici are all named defendants in a separate civil action pending in a Kentucky circuit court that involves allegations of childhood sexual abuse dating back to 2003,” their lawyers argue.

“Amici are not accused of perpetrating the sexual abuse alleged in the Circuit Court Action. Rather, they are non-perpetrator third parties who were allegedly made aware of the abuse and violated common law duties in responding to it. Because the Circuit Court Action involves allegations of abuse occurring more than ten years ago, all filings remain under seal pursuant to KRS § 413 249(4),” they add.

The attorneys argue that while their clients, “do not dispute the laudable policy reasons for providing relief for victims of childhood sexual abuse,” they noted that “not even the most sacrosanct policy can trump the clearly expressed legislative intent and fundamental due process concerns presented in this and similar cases involving the attempted retroactive application of KRS § 413 249 to expired claims.”

Several SBC Executive Committee members such as Mississippi Baptist Pastor Adam Wyatt openly criticized the amicus brief and opined that they were not aware that the committee had filed it.

“An #sbc culture where leadership can make a unilateral legal decision of this magnitude without the approval or discussion of the trustees is in an unhealthy spot. This amicus brief was a foolish strategy and I would have stated so if someone had told me,” Wyatt wrote on X, formerly known as Twitter.

Craig Carlisle, another SBC EC member, also raised concerns about the optics of the decision on the amicus brief on X.

“Whenever I accepted the nomination to serve on @SBCExecComm I did so because I really wanted to make a difference, but we keep kicking ourselves,” he wrote. “We cannot, in any way, appear to not be an unwavering advocate for sexual abuse victims. We have made good progress and it must not stop.”

Rolland Slade, former chairman of the SBC EC called for a retraction of the brief.

“I wholeheartedly and without hesitation repudiate the amicus brief filed in Kentucky on behalf of the acknowledged SBC entities and join those calling for its retraction. I call for the submission of an amicus brief that is in agreement with Micah 6:8. ‘Mankind, he has told each of you what is good and what it is the Lord requires of you: to act justly, to love faithfulness, and to walk humbly with your God,’” Slade wrote on X.

“The impact of the position taken in the amicus brief in the Kentucky case is incomprehensible to the survivor community. Have we not learned anything over these last three years? Transparency MUST be applied immediately! My heart is distressed as I read of the behind-the-scenes dealings within the SBC and in particular the SBCEC. This action misrepresents the heart and mission of its members and staff who serve faithfully.”

Sexual survivors, Megan Lively, Jules Woodson and Tiffany Thigpen, said they were “sickened and saddened” by what they see as a betrayal by the denomination.

“As survivors who have chosen to continue in a role actively engaged with members of the EC, ARITF (Abuse Reform Implementation Task Force), and others within the SBC, with the goal of reform, we are sickened and saddened to be burned yet again by the actions of the SBC against survivors,” they wrote in a joint statement.

“The Amicus Brief was filed on April 5, 2023, and it seems to be the perfect April Fool's joke to quietly file such a thing, under the radar, hoping no one would notice or raise alarms. In fact, it worked, as most were just alerted October 25, 2023, the same day oral arguments were beginning,” the women said.

“The case they filed an Amicus Brief is regarding the repeated and continual rape by a Louisville police officer of his adopted daughter, Samantha Killary. This amazing victim is finally seeking justice for a second time, after first being dismissed due to the prior statute of limitations which gave a victim only 5 years in which to take legal action. The Court of Appeals reinstated Samantha’s suit and the current case filing is made possible only due to the opening of a Window of Justice brought forth in 2021,” they explained.

“Neither the SBC, Executive Committee, Lifeway nor SBTS are named in this lawsuit nor involved in this case, yet the SBC proactively chose to side against a survivor and with an abuser and the institution that enabled his abuse, arguing that Samantha should not even be given access to the court system – that statute of limitations reform does not extend to institutions. These are the same arguments made repeatedly by organizations rife with the cover-up of sexual abuse, including the Catholic Church.”

In their statement, the SBC Executive Committee officers clarified that the decision to join the brief was not made by the trustees because it is a legal matter.

“Mindful of the disagreements here, and the response of the survivor community, the SBC Executive Committee is compelled to offer context and clarification regarding its joinder of the amicus brief. The SBC Executive Committee and SBC are currently facing multiple lawsuits in Kentucky. On the advice of legal counsel, and only in response to their request, the Convention and the SBC Executive Committee joined with other parties in the brief at issue solely to focus the court on a discrete legal issue that has significant impact on pending and potential future litigation in the state of Kentucky, namely, whether or not the Kentucky legislature intended the extension of the statute of limitations to apply to non-offender third parties,” they explain.

“We recognize and respect survivors’ strong feelings, opinions, and statements on this issue and will continue to work with them as reform efforts move forward. We understand the strong response this issue has evoked. We can disagree and have meaningful discussions. We do, however, want to be clear about the brief and the limited position it advocates for. The amicus brief does not take a position on the underlying litigation, and it is not a lobbying effort to restrict statutes of limitation,” they argue.

It was also noted that SBC Executive Committee trustees will review how future legal filings are approved and will be discussing how and under what circumstances decisions are made to join amicus briefs.

“Not one SBC Executive Committee trustee was involved in the decision to join this amicus brief. Counsel for the SBC Executive Committee reviewed the brief and recommended it be joined. The filing of this amicus brief, and the response to it, have prompted the current SBC Executive Committee trustees to reevaluate how legal filings will be approved and considered in the future. We will be diligent in addressing those concerns.”

Southern Seminary President Al Mohler argued in a statement cited by Baptist News that the issue is a matter for the court to resolve.

“As is often the case in questions of law, significant constitutional and legal questions arise and require arguments to be made before the courts. In such cases we must refer all questions to legal counsel,” he argues. “We respect the rule of law and must work through the process with legal representation, who must speak for us in this case.”

Jacob Denhollander, a pastor, and husband of attorney Rachael Denhollander who is also a former gymnast and Larry Nassar accuser, chided Mohler for his response to the brief.

“As a two-time alumnus of SBTS, I am thoroughly disgusted and disappointed by this response. Attorneys work for you, not the other way around. You don't have to let them oppose a child rape victim in court if you don't want them to. It's not that complicated,” he writes. “You can't subject every area of human existence to worldview analysis but plead ‘not an expert’ when it comes to the cynical, no-holds-barred defense strategy employed by your own attorneys. That's just wrong, Dr. Mohler.”

In their report on their investigation of the SBC’s leadership, Guidepost Solutions alleged that for the last 20 years, the SBC sought to protect the interests of the denomination above alleged sexual abuse victims even as they fielded credible claims of abuse.

“Our investigation revealed that, for many years, a few senior EC leaders, along with outside counsel, largely controlled the EC’s response to these reports of abuse. They closely guarded information about abuse allegations and lawsuits, which were not shared with EC Trustees, and were singularly focused on avoiding liability for the SBC to the exclusion of other considerations,” their 288-page report to the denomination’s Sexual Abuse Task Force states.

“In service of this goal, survivors and others who reported abuse were ignored, disbelieved, or met with the constant refrain that the SBC could take no action due to its polity regarding church autonomy – even if it meant that convicted molesters continued in ministry with no notice or warning to their current church or congregation.”

Contact: Follow Leonardo Blair on Twitter: @leoblair Follow Leonardo Blair on Facebook: LeoBlairChristianPost

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