News Articles

Abuse allegations a blight on Pressler legacy

At the 2016 SBC Annual Meeting in St. Louis, Paul Pressler became angry when discussion on a resolution calling for discontinuing the use of the Confederate battle flag closed before he could speak against it.

NASHVILLE (BP) – Paul Pressler is a study in contrasts. To many, he was a hero of the SBC’s Conservative Resurgence, a mastermind of the strategy that helped turn the nation’s largest Protestant denomination back to its conservative theological roots. He was rewarded for that accomplishment with unopposed election as the Convention’s first vice president in 2002.

Pressler’s book about the Resurgence, “A Hill on Which to Die,” was published by Lifeway Christian Resources in 1999 and received broad dissemination. Former SBC president Adrian Rogers was among the book’s endorsers.

“No one can better tell the story [of the Conservative Resurgence] than Paul Pressler,” wrote Rogers, then-pastor of Bellevue Baptist Church in Cordova, Tenn. “Southern Baptists owe an incredible debt to this man.”

But hints of a darker side to Pressler, a former Texas state judge, began to emerge two decades ago. The church where he served as a deacon, Houston’s First Baptist Church, rebuked Pressler for being nude at his home with a young man from the congregation.

“Your encouraging (name redacted) to be naked with you conflicts with the 2003 HFBC Deacon Document that you and other deacons personally endorsed,” a First Baptist committee wrote in a 2004 letter to Pressler. “… We believe it is biblical and consistent with the culture of HFBC to hereby communicate an expectation that you no longer engage in behavior such as occurred with (name redacted) on the night in question.” First Baptist did not respond to BP’s request for comment.

Also in 2004, Pressler settled a lawsuit by Duane Rollins that alleged assault by Pressler, according to more recent court filings. In exchange for confidentiality and the destruction of “all tapes, affidavits or other written or audible information,” Pressler agreed to pay $1,500 per month until 2029 – nearly half a million dollars.

Then things got worse. In 2016, a young lawyer named Brooks Schott alleged Pressler invited him to engage in sexual activity. According to Schott’s 2018 sworn statement, when he told the office manager at his law firm about what happened, the office manager replied “this was not the first time that Pressler had acted inappropriately around young men.”

In 2017, accusations of misconduct were brought to light when a lawsuit by Rollins alleged years of sexual abuse by Pressler, dating back to Rollins’ teenage years. Evidence in the case included affidavits by multiple men who claimed Pressler engaged in inappropriate sexual behavior with them.

Rollins’ suit also named the SBC, the SBC Executive Committee, Paige Patterson, Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, Houston’s First Baptist Church and Second Baptist Church of Houston as defendants. He claimed these defendants “collectively concealed” Pressler’s behavior and “collectively obstructed” justice.

The lawsuit and subsequent allegations of abuse committed by Pressler have framed his life as a series of baffling contrasts. Following the suit’s settlement in late 2023, Southern Baptists are trying to process the contrasts.

Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary president Danny Akin noted the incongruous strains of Pressler’s legacy.

“I am grieved beyond measure at the revelations of what the evidence seems to be overwhelmingly clear that he did for many, many years with” Rollins, Akin said. “What he did can only be called evil, wicked and distasteful in the highest degree.

“At the same time, I want to make clear that I do believe the Conservative Resurgence was both needed and necessary, and I’m grateful for the fruit that has come from it – even despite the fact persons involved in it were doing terrible things on the personal level,” Akin said.

Pressler, 93, currently resides in an assisted living facility in Texas. His family declined BP’s request for comment. Pressler has denied all the accusations against him.

A Resurgence hero

Pressler’s rise in the SBC began with a 1967 meeting at the Café du Monde in New Orleans. On the recommendation of a mutual friend, Pressler and his wife Nancy had coffee and beignets there with then-seminarians Paige and Dorothy Patterson. That started a relationship which helped generate a strategy to change the SBC.

The plan was relatively simple. Conservative leaders would rally Southern Baptists to elect a Convention president with theologically conservative convictions, especially regarding the inerrancy of Scripture. That president would appoint fellow conservatives to the SBC Committee on Committees. That would set in motion a chain of events which, over several years, would eventuate in conservative seminary professors, international missionaries, North American missionaries and Bible study literature.

It worked. By the mid-1990s a new, conservative trajectory in the SBC was set. Pressler’s foes saw him as a villain, but allies hailed him as a hero. Not only was Pressler a strategist for the movement, he also was a soldier, serving from 1984-1991 as a member of the SBC Executive Committee and then from 1992-2000 as a trustee of the International Mission Board.

Honors began to pour in for Pressler. Louisiana College (now Louisiana Christian University), a university affiliated with the Louisiana Baptist Convention, founded the Judge Paul Pressler Law School in 2008 with Mike Johnson, now speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, as its founding dean. The school raised millions but was unable to secure accreditation and never opened for students.

In 2013, Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and Patterson, its president, honored Pressler with a stained-glass window depicting him and his wife. The window was part of a project commemorating Conservative Resurgence luminaries. However, all the windows were removed in 2019, following Patterson’s departure.

Pressler was even considered in 1989 for a position in the administration of President George H.W. Bush – director of the Office of Governmental Ethics.

“Judge Paul Pressler is a man whom I have known and admired for many years,” Bush said in an Oct. 12, 1989, news release. “His integrity, outstanding qualifications and exhibition of the highest ethical standards prompted me to again urge him today to accept the nomination as director of the Office of Government Ethics.” Baptist Press reported on Pressler’s selection for the job as well as his eventual withdrawal.

Pressler maintains he declined the nomination amid opposition from his opponents. The Washington Post reported that Pressler failed to clear an FBI vetting. “A senior official said, ‘Information was uncovered that we felt was disqualifying,’” the Post reported Sept. 22, 1989. “Pressler could not be reached for comment, and White House officials offered conflicting accounts of whether or not he has withdrawn from consideration.”

Of course, Pressler’s friends and foes alike knew he could be prickly. Conservative Resurgence personalities on both sides of the ideological divide have their Paul Pressler war stories.

Thousands of SBC messengers witnessed a Pressler outburst at the Convention’s 2016 annual meeting. Standing at a microphone on the convention floor, Pressler became angry with then-SBC president Ronnie Floyd because discussion of a resolution on the Confederate battle flag closed before Pressler could speak against it.

But did the prickliness point to deeper, more nefarious character flaws? Those who knew Pressler best couldn’t imagine it.

Accusations emerge

Patterson, who served as president of both Southeastern Seminary and Southwestern Seminary, said he knew nothing about sexual misconduct accusations against Pressler for the first 50 years of their friendship. Those allegations came to light for Patterson with the 2017 Rollins lawsuit, in which Patterson was named a codefendant. Patterson denies Rollins’ charges that he conspired with Pressler to harm Rollins.

Rollins dropped his claims against Patterson in April 2023, according to court records. BP reported that Patterson settled with Rollins, but Patterson said that report was incorrect.

“I am not going to settle in court or out of court on a situation like that where I did not know anything,” Patterson told Baptist Press in February.

What would Patterson have done had he suspected wrongdoing by Pressler?

“My approach to it would have been to make an approach to him and first of all try to find out whether or not there was truth in the accusation,” Patterson said. “Secondly, if there were truth in it, to call him to repentance. I would have insisted that that be the case. I would not have continued to work with him … in official capacity in the Convention or in the Church.”

Had Patterson suspected illegal activity by Pressler, he would have reported it to the authorities, he said.

Jimmy Draper was another friend of Pressler’s stunned by the allegations against him. As president of Lifeway when “A Hill on Which to Die” was released, Draper helped shepherd it through the publication process.

“We knew of no allegations accusing him of misconduct,” Draper said. “I was shocked when this accusation became public. … I cannot say what we might have done (had accusations of wrongdoing surfaced), but there was no reason for us not to publish the book at that time.”

As SBC attorneys prepared for a possible trial in the 2017 lawsuit, they faced the evidence of Pressler’s actions.

Jim Guenther, an attorney who represented the SBC and its Executive Committee until his resignation in late 2021, wrote in a 2021 email to a then-EC vice president that all codefendants in the Rollins lawsuit, including the SBC, believed a full investigation into Pressler’s conduct likely “would have produced a lot of evidence of the truthfulness of the fundamental allegation by the plaintiff that Pressler had sexually abused him for many years.”

Current SBC attorney Gene Besen echoed Guenther’s assessment, tweeting in January that Pressler is a “dangerous predator who exploited boys based on his power and his false piety,” and adding, “The man’s actions are of the devil. That is clear.”

Despite believing Pressler had committed the acts of which he was accused, the Convention’s attorneys also believed the Convention was not responsible for those actions. Initially, they argued the statute of limitations precluded Rollins’ suit. That defense succeeded until the Texas Supreme Court allowed the case to move forward. It was settled for an undisclosed amount in December 2023. Southwestern Seminary was dismissed from the case the previous April and also reportedly reached a settlement with Rollins.

“Had I remained in the case” and had it proceeded to trial, Guenther told BP, “I would have argued legal principles and put on proof of facts which I am of the opinion would have shown the SBC committed no wrong against Mr. Rollins and was not legally responsible for any wrongs committed by Mr. Pressler or any other defendant against Mr. Rollins.”

The SBC’s current attorneys did not respond to BP’s request for comment.

Lingering questions

To some, it isn’t sufficient to say the SBC is not legally responsible for Pressler’s actions. Victim advocates want an explanation. They also want to hear more denunciation of Pressler’s actions by Convention leaders.

“Why are there leaders that remain silent and don’t publicly call out the evil of what was done, even though there are ways [Pressler’s] work is celebrated and revered?” said Heather Evans, a licensed social worker and adviser to the SBC’s Abuse Reform Implementation Task Force. “Why are they silent on this issue? That silence speaks so loudly to survivors. It re-harms survivors, and not just the survivors directly hurt by Pressler, but all survivors in both a watching Convention and beyond.”

The Pressler case “isn’t the past. It’s present,” Evans said.

Albert Mohler, president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, called the allegations against Pressler “beyond horrifying.” The allegations appear to be credible but are so horrifying “that it’s actually very hard to imagine that they could be real,” he said in a Feb. 16 interview about the state of the SBC.

“Something is broken in an SBC in which you can have someone fulfilling a public role when they have evidently some credible accusation that is known by people in a local church,” Mohler said. Southern Baptists need a “structural system” for reporting problems with sexual abuse. “Clearly we’ve got some issues that genuinely do need to be addressed.”

For Marshall Blalock, the conclusion of the Pressler lawsuit presents an opportunity for greater transparency, integrity and reform.

“Typically, we don’t comment on lawsuits while they’re under adjudication,” said Blalock, pastor of First Baptist Church in Charleston, S.C., and former chairman of the SBC Abuse Reform Implementation Task Force. “I understand that. I get that. But we came to a settlement, and no one who has the real information has explained the whole perspective of why we did what we did: why we settled, what was involved, when the information came forward. None of that has been officially presented to people.”

When the settlement was announced in December, SBC attorneys said in a statement that the Convention and the EC “were each fully prepared to proceed to trial.” Among “several factors” that “made settlement the more prudent choice” were “the horrendous nature of the abuse allegations, the likelihood that counsel for the SBC and Executive Committee would have to confront and cross-examine abuse survivors, the Executive Committee’s current financial condition, and the willingness of multiple insurance carriers to contribute to the settlement.”

“People will supply a narrative if you don’t have one,” Blalock said.

EC interim president Jonathan Howe hopes the Pressler case will help spur further abuse reforms.

“My prayer would be that churches and the entire SBC family will see the appalling allegations in this case and be stirred to love and compassion for victims and survivors,” he said, “as well as to seek resources and ensure that safety and screening practices are in place for leaders, staff and volunteers.”