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Ex-seminary professor accused of sexual abuse by student sues SBC for defamation

The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary
The campus of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, the flagship seminary for the Southern Baptist Convention, is located in Louisville, Kentucky. |

A former Southern Baptist Convention seminary professor accused of sexual abuse by a student has filed a defamation lawsuit against the SBC and several other entities, claiming he was an "easy target" and a "bona fide scapegoat" in the sex abuse scandal surrounding the denomination.

David Sills, a former professor of missions and cultural anthropology at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky, and his wife, Mary, filed a complaint on Nov. 21 in the Circuit Court of Mobile, Alabama.

David Sills
David Sills |

The lawsuit centers on allegations that Sills sexually abused Jennifer Lyell starting in 2004 when Lyell was a student and Sills was a professor.

Lyell, who served as vice president of LifeWay Christian Resources, posted a confession in 2018 claiming how Sills, who has been married for over 30 years, sexually abused her and groomed her. At the time, Lyell maintained that she faced opposition when seeking justice through the SBC. 

In February, Lyell received a public apology from the SBC executive committee over its handling of the matter.

In the lawsuit, Sills admits that while he engaged in a "morally inappropriate" relationship with Lyell, it was "consensual." When confronted about the relationship after Lyell presented her claims to SBTS President Albert Mohler, the lawsuit says, Sills resigned from his post at Southern Seminary.

"David Sills was repentant and obedient to the rules of the SBC," the complaint alleges. But in an attempt to improve the SBC's damaged reputation amid a denomination-wide sex abuse scandal, SBC leaders turned on Sills, viewing him as an "easy target; a bona fide scapegoat," the lawsuit claims. 

SBC leaders "repeated and circulated false statements" about him, the lawsuit says, causing him to be "cast as a toxic pariah." The Sills claim they have been "wrongfully and untruthfully labelled as criminals and shunned by the SBC."

The Sills are suing SBC leaders, including Mohler, who has publicly stated he believed Lyell's story; former SBC President Ed Litton; current SBC President Bart Barber; Rolland Slade, former chairman of the Executive Committee; Lifeway Christian Resources, a research and publishing arm of the SBC; Guidepost Solutions and others for "defamation, conspiracy, intentional infliction of emotional distress, negligence, and wantonness concerning untrue claims of sexual abuse."

The lawsuit claims that Lyell, Mohler and others sought to "falsely attack the honesty and the character of David Sills and Mary Sills, casting them as violent criminals."

In 2019, Baptist Press, the SBC's in-house news service, incorrectly reported that Lyell had admitted to being involved in a "morally inappropriate relationship" with her former professor. The outlet later apologized for the article, and the SBC executive committee reached a settlement with Lyell.

In February, the SBC's Executive Committee also expressed regret for its response to Lyell's claims, saying SBC leaders failed to "adequately listen, protect, and care for" Lyell when she came forward to share.

"The SBC Executive Committee apologizes for all the hurt it has caused, is grateful for Ms. Lyell's perseverance and engagement. And prays for her complete healing from the trauma she has endured." the SBC Executive Committee said. 

The committee's apology came just months before Guidepost Solutions released a report detailing the results of an investigation into allegations that SBC leaders intimidated whistleblowers and exonerated churches with credible claims of negligence of sexual abuse victims. The report identified 700 victims over a 20-year span.

In addition to the Sills' lawsuit, the SBC is facing two other lawsuits that reference Guidepost's report, Baptist Press reported.

The lawsuits, filed in June and August in South Carolina, claim the SBC and the South Carolina Baptist Convention failed to prevent abuse at Northside Baptist Church and acted in "a negligent, grossly negligent, reckless, willful, and wanton manner."  

At the annual SBC Annual Meeting in June, the denomination overwhelmingly voted to pass a series of abuse reform recommendations, including creating a task force to better fight abuse and implementing a "ministry check" database to keep track of church leaders accused of sexual abuse. 

In August, the SBC announced the Justice Department is investigating multiple arms of the denomination over mishandling allegations of sexual abuse.

At the time, SBC leadership noted that "our reform efforts are not finished" and said their "commitment to cooperate with the Department of Justice is born from our demonstrated commitment to transparently address the scourge of sexual abuse."

Leah M. Klett is a reporter for The Christian Post. She can be reached at: leah.klett@christianpost.com

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