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Chaos Erupts Over SBC Legal Filing in Louisville Abuse Lawsuit

Por Bob Smietana
abuse reform abusers
Pastor Mike Keahbone, center, leads prayer with the Southern Baptist Convention’s Abuse Reform Implementation Task Force during the SBC annual meeting at the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center in New Orleans, Wednesday, June 14, 2023. (RNS photo by Emily Kask)

Abuse survivors, along with some members of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Executive Committee and the SBC’s abuse reform task force, have denounced a Kentucky court filing by Southern Baptist entities aimed at limiting their liability for sexual abuse claims.

A brief filed earlier this year by lawyers for the Executive Committee, Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and Lifeway, an SBC publisher, argues that a Kentucky law that changed the statute of limitations for making civil claims over abuse — and allowing survivors to sue third parties such as churches or police — should not be applied retroactively.

“There are no mincing of words here. No holding back. This is disgusting,” abuse survivors Megan Lively, Jules Woodson and Tiffany Thigpen dijo in a statement released Wednesday.

A group of Southern Baptist leaders working on abuse reforms also criticized the brief, saying the filing was “a choice to stand against every survivor in Kentucky.”

“This brief, and the policy arguments made in it, were made without our knowledge and without our approval,” the statement read. “Moreover, they do not represent our values and positions.”

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Members of the Executive Committee, including Oklahoma pastor Mike Keahbone, expressed dismay at the brief, saying he and other members of the committee were blindsided by it. Keahbone, a member of a task force implementing abuse reforms in the SBC, said the brief undermined survivors such as Thigpen, Woodson and Lively, who have supported the reforms.

“We’ve had survivors that have been faithful to give us a chance,” he told Religion News Service in a phone interview. “And we hurt them badly.”

The controversy over the amicus brief is the latest crisis for leaders of the nation’s largest Protestant denomination, which has dealt with a revolving door of leaders and rising legal costs in the aftermath of a sexual abuse crisis in recent years.

la denominación passed abuse reforms in 2022 but has been slow to implement them, relying mostly on a volunteer task force charged with convincing the SBC’s 47,000 congregations and a host of state and national entities to put those reforms into practice. Those delays have led survivors to be skeptical that things would actually change.

abuse survivors sbc hotline
Los sobrevivientes de abuso Debbie Vasquez, de izquierda a derecha, Jules Woodson y Tiffany Thigpen reaccionan a un voto a favor de las víctimas de abuso sexual durante la reunión anual de la Convención Bautista del Sur, celebrada en el Centro de Convenciones de Anaheim en Anaheim, California, el miércoles 15 de junio de 2022. (Foto de Justin L. Stewart/Religion News Service)

Earlier this week, ­the Louisville Courier Journal reportado that lawyers for the Executive Committee, Southern Baptist Theological Seminary — the denomination’s flagship seminary in Louisville — and Lifeway had filed the amicus brief earlier this year in a case brought by abuse survivor Samantha Killary.

Killary was abused for years by her adoptive father, a Louisville police officer, the Courier Journal reportado. She has sued two police officers who allegedly knew about the abuse and did nothing to prevent or report it, as well as Louisville’s city government, which employed them. Her suit was initially dismissed but was later reinstated after Kentucky legislators passed legislation that changed the statute of limitations for filing abuse claims.

That legislation also allowed survivors to sue third parties, “such as police, government units or religious organizations that violated their duties to children,” according to the Courier Journal.

Kentucky’s Supreme Court is now trying to decide whether third parties can be sued in cases of past abuse­ under the new law, known as KRS § 413 249.

A number of states, including New York y Maryland, have lifted or amended states of limitations for filing civil lawsuits in cases of abuse. That has led some Catholic dioceses to declare bancarrota in the face of abuse lawsuits.

The brief filed by lawyers for the Executive Committee, Southern seminary and Lifeway argues that the Kentucky law should not apply retroactively to third parties. While those entities have no ties to the Killary case, they are being sued in a different case of abuse.

Lawyers for the SBC entities say their clients “do not dispute the laudable policy reasons for providing relief for victims of childhood sexual abuse.”

“But not even the most sacrosanct policy can trump the clearly expressed legislative intent and fundamental due process concerns presented in this and similar cases involving the attempted retroactive application of KRS § 413 249 to expired claims,” the brief claims.

Southern Baptist Theological Seminary president Albert “Al” Mohler declined to comment on any specifics of the brief.

“As is often the case in questions of law, significant constitutional and legal questions arise and require arguments to be made before courts,” said Mohler in a statement.  “In such cases we must refer all questions to legal counsel. We respect the rule of law and must work through the process with legal representation, who must speak for us in this case.”

Al Mohler
R. Albert Mohler Jr., presidente del Seminario Teológico Bautista del Sur en Louisville, Kentucky. (Foto RNS por Adelle M. Banks)

The Executive Committee and Lifeway did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Taking sides against an abuse survivor — in a case that has no SBC ties­ — was an act of betrayal, say the SBC survivors.

“Neither the SBC, Executive Committee, Lifeway nor SBTS are named in this lawsuit nor involved in this case, yet the SBC proactively chose to side against a survivor and with an abuser and the institution that enabled his abuse, arguing that Samantha should not even be given access to the court system — that statute of limitations reform does not extend to institutions,” they wrote in their statement.

A group of SBC leaders, including North Carolina pastor Bruce Frank, who chaired an initial task force working on abuse reforms, and Marshall Blalock, a past chair of the abuse reform implementation task force, said they were grieved at the decision to file the brief.

They wrote that opposing changes to the statute of limitations “is not an effort to honestly consider the facts and questions related to responsibility.”

“Rather, it is a deliberate effort to ensure those questions are never asked. Revising the Statute of Limitations does not alter the burden of proof, it does not impact evidentiary rules, it does not change laws regarding institutional Responsibility,” they wrote. “It simply allows survivors access to the justice system so that a full and fair hearing on the merits can take place.”

For decades, leaders of the Southern Baptist Convention have sought to protect the nation’s largest Protestant denomination from any liability for sexual misconduct at local churches.

That legal strategy led SBC leaders to downplay the scope of abuse in the denomination, to treat abuse survivors as their enemies and to stonewall attempts to address abuse on a national level for years. While the denomination’s annual meetings have apologized for the past behavior of leaders, the SBC has struggled to move forward with reforms while dealing with its legal challenges.

It’s unclear who approved the brief or how it came about. 

Keahbone said he is calling for a special meeting of the Executive Committee to figure out what happened and to decide what to do next. He said there’s a difference between doing the right thing and doing what seems to be legally wise.

He said members of the Executive Committee want to do the right things. Then they keep taking steps backward.

“We can’t seem to get out of our own way,” he said. 

Bob SmietanaBob Smietana es reportero nacional de Religion News Service.

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11 Respuestas

  1. Southern Baptists are so loosely associated, that you’d nearly have to force them to become more hierarchical in order to punish them. Any individuals who have swept crimes under the rug, need to be prosecuted fully. Hoping to punish 1st Baptist Church Greenville SC, when the crimes took place at 3rd Baptist Church of Brownsville TX, is a liberal pipe dream. The only ties between most of these churches are the common schools their preachers come from, and the mission organizations they contribute to. Whoever is guilty should be jailed. The name over the door is guilty of nothing. If so, shouldn’t independent Baptist churches be included in the accusations? And Freewill Baptists?

    1. Eric:

      Come on man, this sexual abuse in the SBC has nothing to do with “liberals.” All of the “liberals” have been gone for decades now and you could not pay them to come back. Talk about trying to change the subject. I have to wonder how many current SBC women share your view.

    1. Are there no Two-Seed-in-the-Spirit Predestinarian Baptists that can speak to this? Or maybe it was predestined that there wouldn’t be any?

  2. They should protest against ex post facto laws, which this seems to be. We don’t pass legislation today and apply it to past wrongdoings, at least I thought we didn’t.

  3. Maya Angelou once said, “When people show you who they are, believe them the first time.” This is one of the hardest life lessons that I’ve ever tried to follow, but it is sage advice. When someone really shows you and tells you who they are, take them at their word.

    SBC leaders since 1979 to the present have shown who they are. They do not care about women. How can women ever get these men to do anything about the sexual abuse when they have to share their stories only with men leaders in the SBC?

    It is so sad, that even with this story nothing is going to change in the SBC.

  4. Mr. Smietana certainly must be aware that the following statements — without clear attribution to an authoritative source — in his otherwise relatively factual and accurate news story represent the worst in a journalist, i.e., an attempt to influence readers toward a particular opinion or interpretation of the facts.

    It’s a classic example of an age-old propaganda device, appropriated here in an obvious but apparently extremely clumsy attempt by an accomplished wordsmith to disguise and promote a personal agenda.

    It’s the kind of obfuscation that engenders (subject matter considered — no pun intended ) total distrust of the media by the general public.

    If the following sentences directly quote or paraphrase specific sources, then a corrected version of this story should be offered with attribution.

    If the sentences are the opinion of the author — which it clearly appears they are — then the author should take credit, with clear attribution to himself as the source.

    “For decades, leaders of the Southern Baptist Convention have sought to protect the nation’s largest Protestant denomination from any liability for sexual misconduct at local churches.

    That legal strategy led SBC leaders to downplay the scope of abuse in the denomination, to treat abuse survivors as their enemies and to stonewall attempts to address abuse on a national level for years.”

    “Then they keep taking steps backward.”

    1. Hello Ima. I re-read each of the three statements you were calling out as potentially Bob being his own source material. The first paragraph links to another article in the word “protect.” The second paragraph links to another article in the word “downplay.” And the last sentence is taken from out of two paragraphs where it implies that it is a statement provided by Mike Keahbone, who was stated earlier as being part of the executive committee. I believe this is proper sourcing of the material from Bob within this article.

  5. Filing the amicus brief was breathtakingly obtuse, but clearly the SBC Executive Committee and their propaganda arm Lifeway calculated that their real risk is the potential expense to their financial a$$et$ and their income stream. They’re gambling that it’s more risky to lose that than a few unhappy dissidents, who were probably not True Christians™ anyway.

  6. Glad to see Megan Lively as one of the people condemning this. And yet, Thomas White is still president of Cedarville University, despite the fact that he and his wife blamed & shamed Lively along with Paige Patterson after she was raped at SEBTS when White was an administrator. How long, O, Lord?

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Your tax-deductible gift helps our journalists report the truth and hold Christian leaders and organizations accountable. Give a gift of $30 or more to The Roys Report this month, and you will receive a copy of “The Atlas Factor: Shifting Leadership Onto the Shoulders of Jesus” by Lance Ford.