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Debate surrounds 2021 email from former SBC attorney regarding Pressler case

Paul Pressler

NASHVILLE (BP) – An email revealed on X (formerly Twitter) Jan. 19 shows an April 2021 update from a former Southern Baptist Convention attorney to his client, then-SBC EC executive vice president.

Journalist Rob Downen posted the email, which is contained in the filings of a now-settled lawsuit against Paul Pressler, the Southern Baptist Convention, the SBC Executive Committee and First Baptist Church in Houston. Plaintiff Gareld Duane Rollins claimed Pressler sexually abused him repeatedly between the late 1970s, when Rollins was 14, and 2004. Pressler has denied the allegations.

The email, sent by former SBC attorney James Guenther to then-SBC EC Executive VP Greg Addison on April 27, 2021, says the defendants in the case (including Guenther’s then-clients, the SBC and SBC EC) were reluctant to engage in discovery because “we believed it would have produced a lot of evidence of the truthfulness of the fundamental allegation of the plaintiff that Pressler had sexually abused him for many years.”

Downen’s post was viewed hundreds of thousands of times, with many claiming the email confirmed SBC leadership’s complicity in covering up sexual abuse.

Sexual abuse victims’ advocate Rachael Denhollander, posted in part: “They knew. And they let Duane [Rollins] be publicly crucified as a liar. You should also demand to know what this evidence is and what they knew that made them so sure Duane was telling the truth.”

Marshall Blalock, former chairman of the SBC’s Abuse Reform Implementation Task Force and vice chairman of the Sexual Abuse Task Force that oversaw a third-party investigation into the EC’s handling of sexual abuse claims, posted that the email shows that SBC lawyers withheld information.

“SBC lawyers knew the abuse was happening, knew one of their ‘leaders’ was grossly corrupt,” Blalock posted on X, “but chose to ignore truth and defend evil. Then they cravenly hid their complicity from the Task Force in spite of being clearly ordered to disclose everything. …”

Blalock’s post prompted a response from current SBC attorney Gene Besen, who called such an accusation “patently inaccurate.”

“Nothing was withheld from Guidepost,” Besen wrote, referring to the organization that carried out the third-party investigation of the EC. “In fact, both Marshal [sic] and Rachel [sic], among many others know that Guidepost looked extensively for evidence that the Executive Committee had prior knowledge of Pressler’s alleged abuse before Rollin’s lawsuit and the Houston Chronicle reporting. What they found is contained in their report. Nothing was withheld from Guidepost.”

SBC EC members voted to waive attorney-client privilege in the investigation, a decision that ultimately led to Guenther’s resignation as the entity’s longtime counsel.

“Everyone was publicly aware of allegations of abuse against Pressler after the Houston Chronicle began publishing stories about the Rollins lawsuit and its Abuse of Faith series,” Besen continued. “Accordingly, the Executive Committee’s lawyers crafting the Executive Committee’s legal defense with extensive public allegations in mind is not remarkable. Again, nothing was hidden.”

In an emailed response to a BP inquiry, SBC attorneys confirmed that Guidepost had full access to EC records.

“Guidepost had unfettered access to the Executive Committee’s servers during the investigation,” said attorney Scarlett Nokes. “Nothing on the servers, including the email at issue, was withheld.”

When reached for comment, Blalock told BP in written comments he had learned that the email was not “officially hidden” from investigators, though it was “buried in a voluminous cache of documents.”

“I would have preferred that the EC would have made us aware of the exchange because of its importance,” Blalock said. “Now, though, I hope this will propel us to get this right moving forward. I would hate for this to hinder the important work of the ARITF. I am hopeful the recommendations they are working on will be a path forward that all of us can join as we help make our SBC churches the safest places on earth.”

Baptist Press first reported on the allegations against Pressler in December 2017. Rollins’ case was first filed in October of that year, but was dismissed a year later on statute of limitations grounds. A Texas Supreme Court decision in April 2022 cleared the way for the case to move forward. It was settled for an undisclosed amount Dec. 27, 2023.

Pressler was revered as an architect of the SBC’s Conservative Resurgence, a 1980s movement to return the Convention to theological conservatism and an adherence to biblical inerrancy.

Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and its former president (and fellow Conservative Resurgence leader) Paige Patterson had been named in Rollins’ case as well, but were dismissed from the suit after an apparent settlement in April 2023.

Brandon Porter, SBC EC associate vice president for convention news, contributed to this report.