NASHVILLE (BP) — At the Caring Well conference in Dallas, Texas, several survivors shared their traumatic experiences of being victims of sexual abuse (Oct. 3-5, 2019). These courageous stories, along with keynote speeches from others, greatly impacted those in attendance and those watching online.
One of the presenters, Rachael Denhollander, shared her personal testimony of suffering through multiple instances of sexual abuse. In her interview with Russell Moore, Denhollander mentioned a situation involving the reporting of Jennifer Lyell’s abuse allegations that came to light through Baptist Press in March 2019.
Following Denhollander’s comments, our staff worked diligently to reexamine Lyell’s statement she provided and all communication surrounding the original publishing of her claims. After a thorough review of what was presented to the writers and editors, and discussions with those involved with its publishing, we confirm and acknowledge that our story that ran on March 8, 2019, did not accurately communicate the allegations made by Lyell.
The story in its original draft form, as submitted by the writer, clearly communicated the emotional and sexual abuse that Lyell alleged took place at the hands of David Sills as she maintained a relationship with his family. However, the story in its finished state omitted references to abuse and was framed as “a morally inappropriate relationship.” This change in language seems to have led to a general public understanding that what happened between Sills and Lyell was a consensual affair.
Baptist Press ultimately failed to convey that the heart of Lyell’s story was about sexual abuse by a trusted minister in a position of power at a Southern Baptist seminary. The story, as written, made concessions to legal and policy concerns, and Sills never responded to Baptist Press’ request for comment. While we acknowledge these issues are always present in journalism, in this case our story apparently made it easy for some to miss what should have been the main focus. For that, we are deeply sorry.
Since the story’s publication, Lyell has been the recipient of un-Christlike slurs — some by fellow Southern Baptists — and her reputation has been besmirched. In fact, the story stayed on the Baptist Press Facebook page for many hours where many of those slurs were posted. The conversation that occurs on our social media profile pages should glorify Christ in the way we treat one another and in the way we support those who report sexual abuse. In this case, it did not. Since this incident, we have enacted a more stringent Facebook commenting policy and monitor the page much more closely in order to prevent situations like this from occurring again.
For these actions, we offer a sincere apology. Lyell came to us with an allegation of abuse and should have been cared for throughout the entire process. Instead, for many this incident may have contributed to a perception that the Southern Baptist Convention is not a safe place for sexual abuse survivors to disclose. Our readers must be able to trust that the news they receive from us is accurate and trustworthy and that the stories we print will ultimately protect and aid those involved.
This entire season of discovery of and enlightenment about sexual abuse within Southern Baptist churches and entities has caused tremendous pain and sorrow for many. We are grieved at the trauma that survivors of sexual abuse have endured and continue to endure.
Baptist Press is committed to Christian journalism that prioritizes integrity, truth, and accuracy. We will pursue all of these things as we move forward, and we pray that God will find us faithful.