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SBC committee waives privilege after bitter debate, moving abuse investigation forward

October 5, 2021 GMT

(RNS) — Ending weeks of debate, the Southern Baptist Convention’s Executive Committee voted Tuesday (Oct. 5) to waive attorney-client privilege as part of an investigation of how Southern Baptist leaders have handled issues of sexual abuse in recent decades. 

The motion, put forward by Texas pastor Jared Wellman and passed by a 44-31 margin, was a referendum on how to deal with sexual abuse, but also on whether national Southern Baptist leaders have to follow the will of local churches in the nation’s largest Protestant denomination.

Six committee members resigned before Tuesday’s meeting and at least one member threatened during the day’s passionate debate to quit if the motion passed. Other opponents pleaded for more delays.

Several who opposed waiving privilege in the past flipped their votes to pass the motion.

“This was not easy,” said Executive Committee Chairman Rolland Slade, a California pastor, who had advocated for waiving privilege. “Frankly, it should not be easy,” he added.

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  A brief guide to the SBC meltdown on sexual abuse

The SBC’s long-simmering dispute over sexual abuse came to a head at June’s national gathering in Nashville, Tennessee, when church delegates empowered a special task force to hire a third-party firm to study how staff and members of the Executive Committee responded to allegations of abuse over the past two decades.

Executive Committee members had already proposed hiring the third-party firm Guidepost Solutions to run an investigation under its own supervision. But the messengers rejected that idea and took control out of the committee’s hands.

The messengers, as the delegates are known, also instructed the Executive Committee to follow best practices recommended by the third-party investigator, including waiving attorney-client privilege so investigators could have access to records of confidential conversations that staff and committee members had with their lawyers.

But the messengers’ instructions gave rise to weeks of fierce debate among committee members. Some claimed that giving investigators access to their legal conversations was necessary to ensure a thorough review, while others argued that doing so would bankrupt the nation’s largest Protestant denomination. Other opponents of the waiver maintained that there was no wrongdoing on the part of committee members.

Ronnie Floyd, the president of the Executive Committee, warned that waiving privilege could conflict with the committee’s fiduciary duty to protect the assets of the denomination, allegedly because the move would open the organization to costly lawsuits.

Floyd and others insisted on setting limits on how much information Guidepost Solutions, the third-party firm designated by the task force, would have access to.

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The standoff continued over three marathon meetings, one during a scheduled meeting of the Executive Committee in Nashville, the other two over Zoom. Those meetings, usually open to the public, were interrupted repeatedly by closed-door executive sessions to hear from the committee’s attorneys. There were also a series of negotiations between committee officers and the task force to come to an agreement.

But those negotiations failed, leaving the committee to debate a fourth time on Tuesday.

“We cannot out of fatigue do the wrong thing,” committee member Joe Knott, a North Carolina lawyer, argued before the vote. Knott urged the committee members to put off a vote until they got it right, even if that meant delaying things till the next SBC annual meeting.

When the committee went into executive session again so committee members could hear from their attorneys, Georgia pastor Griffin Gulledge denounced what he called dirty politics and delay tactics.

“I will give you my car if the lawyers of the SBC just got new information,” he said during an audio chat on Twitter that drew hundreds of listeners. “We are not a convention of nitwits who are beholden to the legal opinions of a certain law firm,” he said.

Tiffany Thigpen, abuse survivor, also spoke on Twitter Spaces about how convention leaders have handled the question of abuse in the past. 

“We deserve what is coming for us as a people,” she said. 

After the vote, before the committee was able to adjourn, opponents of waiving privilege made a last-ditch effort to derail that decision. Idaho pastor Jim Gregory appealed to the chair of the meeting, saying that the committee’s decision was out of order. His appeal was denied by the committee’s parliamentarian.

Baptist pastors and other leaders have warned that refusing to follow the messengers’ will expressed at the annual meeting risked upending the trust that keeps the nation’s largest denomination together. For many, Tuesday’s decision restored that trust.

“The messengers spoke very clearly,” Wellman said on Tuesday in urging his fellow committee members to approve the waiver. “This is what they want.”

Tuesday’s vote earned praised from abuse survivors and the task force.

“We are very pleased that the vote was so strong in favor of the messengers’ plan,” said R. Marshall Blalock, pastor of First Baptist Church in Charleston, South Carolina, and vice chair of the task force that will oversee the investigation.

The six who resigned before Tuesday’s meeting began were L. Melissa Carlisle Golden, a counselor from Alabama; Tennessee pastor Ron Hale; Robyn Hari, a financial adviser from Tennessee and chair of executive committee’s finance committee; Alabama pastor Paul Hicks; Gene McPherson, a retired CPA from Arkansas; and Chuck Williams, a Tennessee pastor.

Hari, Hale, McPherson and Williams had previously voted against the waiver. Golden voted for it  at the last meeting, which Hicks did not attend.

Blalock said he and task force members expect that the Executive Committee will fully cooperate with the investigation. He said there’s a lot of work to be done.

“We are just at the starting line,” he said.

For his part, Floyd promised to work with Guidepost. “Now that the Executive Committee’s Board of Trustees have made their decision, the leadership and staff of the Executive Committee will provide support to Guidepost on implementing next steps to facilitate their investigation,” he said, but he declined to answer whether he would remain at the Executive Committee.

Slade told committee members that he was concerned by how the debate had been conducted and told committee members that apologies might be in order. Still, he said, the committee had done the right thing.

“Most importantly, it’s time to know for sure, where we have fallen short on the question of sexual abuse within the Southern Baptist Convention so that we can correct any errors, and move into the future as a convention that is safe for our most vulnerable members.” 

Jennifer Lyell wanted to stop her abuser by telling her story. Instead, her life fell apart.