Days after a bombshell investigative report, the Southern Baptist Convention’s Executive Committee (EC) decided to do what previous leaders refused to for 15 years: release a list of pastors who had been credibly accused of abuse.
Sitting on either side of interim EC president Willie McLaurin during a meeting over Zoom on Tuesday, a new pair of lawyers discussed the EC’s initial response. They proposed immediately issuing a statement repudiating the dismissive stance EC leaders had taken toward victims in the past and making public a list of 700 alleged abusers that former leaders kept in secret.
The quick moves contrast with the historic approach captured in the investigative report and in last year’s meetings, where ascending liability was a common talking point and lawyers defaulted to closed-door session to advise the trustees.
“We have become too familiar with using techniques to slow processes down,” said SBC president Ed Litton. “We need to be very mindful that the world is watching, and they don’t need to see business as usual… we have to do this right.”
The two lawyers from Bradley Arant Boult Cummings LLP—Gene Besen and Scarlett Singleton Nokes—began as outside legal counsel at the start of the year. They spoke openly in the meeting, with Nokes reflecting on her faith and the need for the fruit of “gentleness” to drive the EC’s work on this issue going forward.
It’s the first time in a generation the EC has been represented by attorneys other than Jim Guenther and Jaime Jordan. They were part of a three-person Nashville firm that worked closely with the Southern Baptist Convention since 1955 but withdrew during the investigation. They had advised the EC against allowing Guidepost Solutions to access material covered under attorney-client privilege.
“With their 2021 vote, SBC messengers demanded the EC deal with the awful reality of sexual assault and stop stiff-arming survivors. The two lawyers from Bradley representing the EC have subject-matter expertise and are offering counsel consistent with the mandate of the messengers,” said Adam Plant, an Alabama attorney who has followed the saga. “But let’s be clear, this report exposed deep rot that can’t be overcome just by getting different legal advice—that will take systemic change.”
Still, the meeting signals what trustees hope will be a turning point for the Southern Baptist body. One of the new lawyers, Besen, referenced “changing the direction,” and the new interim president, McLaurin, talked about “changing the culture.” Multiple trustees called it an opportunity to do the right thing.
Besen and Nokes come from Bradley, a national firm based in Birmingham. Nokes served a dozen years as an assistant US Attorney and specializes in Title IX and sexual assault investigations.
The previous attorneys, Guenther, Jordan & Price, had been focused on nonprofit, college, and estate law, with the SBC as a major client over half a century. Guenther was 87 when his firm resigned from representing the EC last year. This week, its website—gpjlaw.com—was made private.
Guenther and Jordan have criticized the Guidepost Solutions report for misunderstanding the role of legal counsel and, they say, mischaracterizing the motives of the EC leaders they worked alongside for decades.
“The report repeatedly attacks our firm for advising the Executive Committee and the Southern Baptist Convention regarding the risks which could arise from various courses of action,” they said in a statement to Baptist Press.
According to the report, they proposed possibly making a list of abusive pastors public. Guidepost recounts how Jordan had advised former EC leader and general counsel Augie Boto in 2006 that the EC “could consider” a national list of abusive pastors and that “it may be time for policy-makers in the SBC to have the discussion.” Guenther too suggested a plan to link a database from the SBC website. Boto quashed efforts to follow up on the suggestions, despite keeping his own list of hundreds of names.
Before his decades-long involvement with the EC, Boto was a Baylor University graduate and a lawyer in Dallas in the 1980s. At that time, he connected with Paige Patterson at First Baptist Church Dallas as the Conservative Resurgence began.
Boto told investigators he continues to oppose the idea of an SBC database for liability reasons. But many SBC leaders, including presidents J. D. Greear and Ed Litton, were frustrated with the liability line.
“Repeatedly withholding information that could stop known predators from harming future victims was both a riskier legal strategy and totally opposed to the example of Christ,” said Plant, who practices law in Alabama.
The EC’s new counsel didn’t see potential liability as a reason for continuing to withhold Boto’s list. They obtained a copy from Guidepost and plan to release it on Thursday.
“My advice to this body, to my client the Executive Committee, is that promptly releasing that list is in our best interest. It’s important. It’s of immediate concern to the public and the survivor community, and we’re going to do it right away,” Besen said.
Releasing the list is a move toward transparency but likely won’t expose many alleged abusers for the first time, since it was compiled mainly using news reports. Of the hundreds on the list, Guidepost found that just nine of the pastors are still active in ministry, and just two of those are at SBC churches.
Besen also said the attorneys hope the EC trustees will provide unanimous support at next month’s annual meeting for the recommendations made by the Sexual Abuse Task Force, which oversaw the Guidepost investation.
At the EC’s direction, Guidepost is continuing to accept reports through a hotline (202-864-5578 or SBChotline@guidepostsolutions.com) now through June, when the convention will consider potential long-term solutions to reporting abuse.
Earlier this week, the EC also condemned a 2006 letter from Boto to survivor Christa Brown where he wrote that it would “not be positive or fruitful” for the EC to work with survivor advocates.
The EC, the statement said, “rejects this sentiment in its entirely and seeks to publicly repent for its failure to rectify this position and wholeheartedly listen to survivors.”
Brown told CT she was “grateful” for the statement, as well as other moves being made by the EC and its attorneys, including to consider pulling Boto’s retirement.
“It’s been a long time coming, and it is just one very small step, and so much more is needed,” she said, “but I hope that this may be the start of a new era in how the EC relates to SBC clergy sex abuse survivors.”
The SBC Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission was also named in Boto’s 2006 letter to Brown, and its current president Brent Leatherwood joined in repudiating and rejecting it.
“This entity long ago parted with the past advice of Mr. Boto, as we have sought to learn from, serve, and be an advocate for survivors. With what we now know, it is appalling this was ever advanced as legal counsel,” he said in remarks to CT. “But this is what you get when you view individuals crying out for help as ‘potential plaintiffs,’ rather than as neighbors who deserve our care and support.”
But survivors want more than the apologies they’ve received in the past and are awaiting bold changes at the annual meeting if not before. The initial signs, however, are encouraging.
“The outcome … is as good as we could have hoped for in this kind of meeting,” said Todd Benkert, an Indiana pastor and survivors’ advocate. He sees need for futher change, but also signs of hope, calling out the statement as an “important step” and describing the new lawyers as “excellent.”
Tuesday’s EC meeting began as an informational one, but trustees voted to make it a business meeting so they could officially approve the statement presented by the lawyers and stand by the response. Normally there are 86 trustees, who are elected to four-year terms, but the committee is down to 68 members after a wave of resignations over the scope of the Guidepost investigation. Sixty were at the meeting.
Besen, the attorney, has also urged the body to focus on next steps.
“The path that led us to this moment was ugly. There was lots of bad judgment and poor leadership that brought us here. But I believe arguing about past votes and replacing trustees would not serve us well. Arguing over privileged materials and whether or not the waiver was proper or not is not the issue we need to face today,” he told the trustees. “We are here. We have the report. That’s what we need to focus on and how we move forward from here.”