SBC leaders agree to pay $1.6M for sexual abuse review, delay decision on waiving privilege

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.
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. | Eric Brown

After hours of debate this week, Southern Baptist Convention leaders declined for the time being to allow a third-party firm access to communication with its lawyers as part of an investigation into how top denominational leaders handled sex abuse allegations. 

On Tuesday, the SBC's Executive Committee rejected a proposal that would have allowed Guidepost Solutions, the firm investigating the committee's handling of sexual abuse claims, to review materials involving the executive committee and its attorney.

Instead, the EC voted to take another week to negotiate whether or not to waive attorney-client privilege. It adopted a temporary measure to move the sexual abuse review forward and agreed to fully fund the upcoming investigation up to $1.6 million.

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"Resolved that the SBC Executive Committee continue negotiating legal means of accomplishing the goal of a public internal investigation and submit this agreement to the Executive Committee, Task Force, and Guidepost by September 28, 2021," the committee announced. It added that at this point, "attorney-client privilege has not yet been waived but is being fleshed out through negotiations."

In a statement, members of the SBC Sexual Abuse Task Force said that while they are "glad that the investigation can begin," they are "disappointed that so far, the Executive Committee has not followed the overwhelming clear mandate of Messengers to waive attorney-client privilege so that all relevant materials can be examined."

"We recognize as well that this has created yet another painful burden upon the many survivors of sexual abuse who had hoped that this would pass without controversy, and we are grieved at this reality," the statement reads. 

In June, SBC messengers voted for newly-elected SBC President Ed Litton to appoint a task force to oversee a third-party investigation of allegations SBC leaders mishandled a "crisis of sexual abuse" in the nation's largest Protestant denomination.

Guidepost Solutions was commissioned to "review and enhance training provided to SBC Executive Committee staff and its board of trustees" as it relates to sex abuse and the organization's "communications to cooperating churches and congregants in cooperating churches."

The investigation, funded by allocations from the Cooperative Program, will cover the period from January 1, 2000, to June 14, 2021, and include a review of "actions and decisions of staff and members of the Executive Committee." Locke Lord, a Dallas-based firm, was also hired as additional legal counsel to help oversee the independent review.

The task force had subsequently asked the Executive Committee to waive attorney-client privilege for the investigation, prompted by a 2019 report from the Houston Chronicle that documented hundreds of abuse cases in Southern Baptist churches over decades.

Pastor Bruce Frank, chairman of the sexual abuse task force, and Guidepost CEO Julie Myers Wood addressed the EC on Monday and Tuesday. They stressed that the waiver of privilege was necessary to conduct a thorough investigation and establish transparency within the SBC. 

"This is about whether or not insurance money matters more than honesty and people," Frank said. 

He also reminded the EC of the trust the SBC had placed in them.

"God judge us if we are protecting the brand, or we are protecting the base and not doing all we can to protect the most vulnerable among us," he said.

"A non-profit that doesn't have the trust of either the messengers or the mission or the mission field is going to be impacted far more by not dealing transparently with any mess than if they deal honestly with it," Frank said.

Ronnie Floyd, president and CEO of the EC, urged members to work with the task force and Guidepost "in every way possible, but within our fiduciary responsibilities as assigned by the messengers." He reminded attendees of the SBC's primary mission of furthering the Gospel. 

"The SBC Executive Committee is committed to doing the right thing, in the right way, in order to elevate the mission of the Convention — eliciting, combining and directing our energies for the global propagation of the Gospel," he said.

In a statement, Litton said Tuesday's outcome "fell far short of the mandate expressed by the messengers."

"I'm disappointed that several known issues are only now being addressed with appropriate seriousness, but I'm grateful the investigation will begin," Litton said. "Further, I'm hopeful that the next seven days will yield an agreement to allow the investigation to go forward unimpeded. My prayers are with the sexual abuse task force and EC officers as they work as diligently to address these concerns over the next week."

On Monday night, Litton said his heart was "heavy" about the gathering.

"I think all of us feel the weight of it, and we need to find a way forward for the glory of God together," he said.

"Our convention is struggling right now," he continued, "and it's a crisis of trust. However you label it, there's a solution and that solution is with us. Our churches want to see our entities working together in harmony, and they want to see the EC leading the way."

Southern Baptists, Litton said, have "genuine concerns" for how abuse cases will be handled.

"The people are watching, and what they're looking for is openness and transparency," he said.

"The world is watching," he added. "They'll watch to see what we do here this week about abuse. They'll watch to see how sincere we will be about racial reconciliation. They'll watch us in every turn and they'll make decisions."

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