SBC leaders delay decision on waiving privilege for sex abuse investigation a second time

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

Members of the Southern Baptist Convention's Executive Committee have again delayed a decision to waive attorney-client privilege in an investigation into alleged sexual abuse in the denomination, calling for another week of deliberations.

In a special-called virtual meeting Tuesday, the executive committee failed for a second time to resolve a debate with the SBC's Sexual Abuse Task Force over whether to allow Guidepost, the firm investigating the committee's handling of sexual abuse claims within SBC churches, to review materials involving the executive committee and its attorney.

After five hours of deliberation, executive committee members voted 51-15 to once again take seven days to try to find a solution to their disagreements with the task force appointed by SBC President Ed Litton this summer.

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Tuesday's meeting followed a motion passed at the Sept. 21 executive committee meeting in Nashville allocating up to $1.6 million for Guidepost's investigation. It also gave trustees until Sept. 28 to negotiate a final agreement with Guidepost and the Sexual Abuse Task Force.

In a statement Wednesday, executive committee members asked "all Southern Baptists to join us in praying that seven days from now we will finally have a Task Force and Executive Committee Board of Trustees united not only in its commitment to address concerns related to sexual abuse (through the independent review) but also confident in a process that complies with the will of the messengers and is attentive to all other fiduciary and legal considerations."

"We pray Southern Baptists will see this grueling and deliberative process as necessary, and in accordance with the Convention's bylaws, as the Board of Trustees, Task Force and Executive Committee leadership all work diligently, prayerfully and as expeditiously as possible to do the right thing in the right way," the statement added. "We are all in this together."

Ahead of the Sept. 28 meeting, members of the task force and executive committee officers held a private session regarding the issue. In a letter, task force Chairman Bruce Frank revealed that those talks had been unproductive.

"We are disappointed that the majority of the officers still will not follow the will of the messengers and waive privilege," he wrote. "The Task Force believes this is still the best route to take both morally and legally." 

The investigation was prompted by a 2019 report from the Houston Chronicle that documented hundreds of abuse cases in Southern Baptist churches over decades.

At the SBC's annual meeting in June, messengers overwhelmingly voted to create a task force to oversee a third-party investigation of allegations SBC Executive Committee leaders mishandled a "crisis of sexual abuse" in the denomination.

Frank and Guidepost CEO Julie Myers Wood previously stressed that the waiver of privilege was necessary for conducting a thorough investigation and establishing transparency within the SBC.

On Twitter, former SBC President J.D. Greear, pastor of The Summit Church in Durham, North Carolina, said he was "confused and disappointed" by what he said was the executive committee's decision to ignore the will of SBC messengers.

"Confused and disappointed by reports out of the @sbcexeccomm meeting tonight. Let me be clear… From where I stood when the vote was taken, the will of the messengers was clear—They wanted a fully independent, fully transparent investigation," he tweeted. 

"The Executive Committee should be discussing how they can best fulfill the messengers' wishes, not if they will. Furthermore, survivors deserve a clear and honest account."

In a statement, Litton said he was "grieved" by Tuesday's impasse.

He said there is "no question about whether the investigation will take place" and said the only question that remains is whether or not the executive committee will "pledge its full support and cooperation to this process by adhering to the messengers' direction."

Litton said he is praying the executive committee will ultimately choose to take the "necessary step" of waiving attorney-client privilege and "demonstrate that its commitment to full cooperation is more than mere words."

Georgia Pastor Griffen Gulledge expressed dismay that a motion from Executive Committee member Jared Wellman to waive privilege failed. 

"A historic moment in the SBC as the EC has chosen to defy the messengers in an investigation concerning themselves," he tweeted.

In an op-ed for the Alabama Baptist published on Saturday, Melissa Golden, an executive committee trustee from Alabama, offered a reminder that interpretations of what is going on within the SBC “come with a bias and a brokenness.”

She reasoned that expectations of signing an agreement, including the waiving of attorney-client privilege for the executive committee over the past 21 years, were “astronomical.”

“In our haste, some of us have overlooked some other important parts of this discussion,” she said, specifically citing funding and the intricacy of the legal details surrounding the issue.

“There appear to be many pieces to this significant legal jigsaw puzzle which require much prayer, counsel, patience and multi-professional expertise in order to provide an acceptable and honest investigation,” she said. “It is my understanding and hope that the group will make a ‘good faith effort’ to solve this daunting jigsaw puzzle.”

She reminded Southern Baptists that the legal process will be “a long and gut-wrenching” one, while the issues at hand will have “significant present and future ramifications possible for every cooperating entity and every autonomous local church in cooperation” with the SBC.

“These matters cannot be taken lightly nor can decisions be made quickly,” she said. She urged Southern Baptists to not operate out of emotion, but to “continually surrender your fears, grief, anger, confusion and doubt” to God.

She added that "many of the legal details of the investigation agreement, including the intricate details of how, when and if to waive attorney-client privilege, depending on the legal ramifications of several available options, are currently under collaborative review with the Executive Committee officers, the Sex Abuse Task Force and GuidePost, LLC, the organization selected to conduct the review."

"The intricate legal details being negotiated are more complex than the question of 'Will they do what they were told to do or not?'" she added. 

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