SBC leaders apologize for mishandling Jennifer Lyell's sex abuse case

Messengers to the Southern Baptist Convention Annual Meeting June 15-16, 2021, cast ballots for several motions and elections throughout the two-day event in Nashville, Tenn. | SBC/Eric Brown

After initially refusing to apologize, the Southern Baptist Convention’s Executive Committee expressed regret for its response to the sexual abuse of Jennifer Lyell, which the SBC’s once highest-paid female executive suffered at the hands of a former Southern Baptist Theological Seminary professor.

“The SBC Executive Committee acknowledges its failures to Ms. Lyell, including the unintentional harm created by its failure to report Ms. Lyell’s allegations of nonconsensual sexual abuse were investigated and unequivocally corroborated by the SBC entities with authority over Ms. Lyell and her abuser,” the committee, which manages the business of the $15 billion Christian organization, said in a statement posted on Twitter Tuesday.

“The SBC Executive Committee acknowledges its failure to adequately listen, protect, and care for Jennifer Lyell when she came forward to share her story of abuse by a seminary professor. Baptist Press failed to accurately report the sexual abuse Jennifer Lyell reported to two SBC entities and local Southern Baptist churches,” the statement attributed to SBC Executive Committee Chairman Roland Slade said.

“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 Baptist Press, the SBC’s official news service based in Nashville and overseen by the Executive Committee, inaccurately reported in March 2019 that Lyell admitted she was involved in a “morally inappropriate relationship” with her former professor David Sills at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky.

Lyell maintained that she was groomed and abused by the professor for more than a decade but faced opposition when seeking justice through the SBC.

During its meeting Tuesday, the Executive Committee approved a resolution to issue the apology to Lyell.

Russell Moore, who formerly led the SBC’s Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, accused convention leaders last June of mishandling what he called a “crisis of sexual abuse” in the denomination by intimidating whistleblowers into silence and exonerating churches with credible allegations of negligence of sexual abuse victims.  

Last year, investigative firm Guidepost Solutions was retained to review how the SBC Executive Committee has handled allegations of sexual abuse against member churches. The vote to waive the committee’s attorney-client privilege as part of the investigation led to the resignation of several members, including the committee’s former head and legal team.

Guidepost is still accepting information that might be helpful to its investigation. It’s expected to submit its report to the SBC Sexual Abuse Task Force 30 days before the next SBC annual meeting in June. 

Lyell, a former vice president at the SBC’s Lifeway Christian Resources, told The Washington Post that she lost her job, reputation and health as she fought to get justice for the abuse she suffered. The publication noted that the Executive Committee paid Lyell a financial settlement for what she endured but refused to apologize.

In a statement posted on her website Tuesday, Lyell said she informed Executive Committee Chairman Rolland Slade last October of “ongoing disputes and potential unaddressed legal claims” stemming from her case. She suggested that the apology was a move to avoid litigation.

“It is not because anything about me or what I have experienced is somehow deserving of attention when I know very well that there are others who have suffered even more and been waiting for years — decades, even — to get any form of humane treatment, much less apology and clarification,” Lyell explained.

“The timeframes in which legal claims must be filed relative to the damaging conduct compelled and determined this be addressed before the Guidepost investigation is complete if litigation was to be avoided.”

Since informing Slade about the ongoing disputes, she said that she has met multiple times with the Executive Committee’s new legal team regarding “specific EC conduct and negligence.”

“The details of that process and all associated documentation will be part of Guidepost’s investigation and thus this statement is primarily to provide context for why the EC has issued a statement addressing their failure in my case and to express my gratitude for the EC’s action regarding my case today,” Lyell said.

At the Executive Committee meeting in Nashville Tuesday, SBC President Ed Litton said that the Guidepost investigation “is progressing.” Litton assured that the people the SBC has asked to cooperate with the investigation are cooperating even though there were a “few challenges to help bring people together.”

“[T]he people that we’re asking to cooperate, at this point, are cooperating,” he stated. 

On Feb. 7, the Sexual Abuse Task Force published an update explaining that Guidepost has conducted interviews with current and former SBC committee members, staff and trustees. Additionally, Guidepost has reviewed relevant documents and “processed a substantial amount of information.”

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