A key court ruling last week will allow a sexual abuse lawsuit to proceed against Paul Pressler, a high-profile Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) conservative leader.
Pressler, who helped lead the “conservative resurgence” within the SBC and was the SBC’s first vice president, now stands accused of raping and repeatedly sexually abusing a Houston man.
The alleged victim, Duane Rollins Jr., claims the abuse began when he was 14 years old, and continued for 24 years.
Pressler, 90, has denied any wrongdoing.
Previously, a lower court had ruled that Rollins’ case exceeded the statute of limitations. However, on Friday, a Texas appellate court reversed the lower court ruling, stating that Rollins was unable to report the abuse sooner due to suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.
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An affidavit signed by Rollins’ psychologist testifies that Rollins was so psychologically manipulated by Pressler that he did not understand he had been abused until 2015.
The lawsuit by Rollins not only names Pressler, but also Paige Patterson, former president of the Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary (SWBTS) and architect of the conservative resurgence. Also named are SWBTS, the SBC, a lawyer, and two Texas Baptist churches.
“(The abuse) was all done while Pressler and this seminary professor Paige Patterson were working on this ‘conservative resurgence,’” said Rollins’ lawyer Daniel Shea in an interview with The Roys Report. “A lot of meetings at Pressler’s home when Rollins was there. They should have had some reason to believe that something funny was going on.”
Rollins worked for Pressler at his home office as a “special office assistant,” according to the lawsuit.
As a former SBC executive, the SBC must answer for Pressler’s actions, Shea added. “[There’s] a legal theory that says you’re responsible for the acts of [your employee.] That’s why all these other defendants are involved.”
The SBC, however, denies responsibility for Pressler’s alleged abuse.
“The convention was not involved or connected in any way with the harms that Mr. Rollins alleges,” SBC attorney James Guenther said. “Additionally, the convention did not have control over or any duty to control Mr. Pressler or any of the other defendants. So, none of the facts necessary to assert any valid claim against the convention is present. The convention is simply not responsible if another defendant in this case engaged in any wrongdoing. In any event, we continue to monitor the developments in the case.”
Rollins’ addictions to alcohol and other drugs resulted in several prison sentences. Between these and other jobs, Rollins worked for Pressler as an assistant over a period of 24 years, the lawsuit said. Rollins also attended Pressler’s church.
Pressler agreed to pay Rollins $1,500 a month for 25 years to settle another lawsuit with Rollins. That lawsuit stemmed from an altercation in a hotel room in 2003, where Pressler allegedly assaulted Rollins. According to court documents, Pressler paid Rollins so Rollins wouldn’t disclose the cause of the fight.
The lawsuit alleges that Rollins didn’t realize Pressler had abused him until Rollins received psychological counseling in prison and was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. Lawsuit documents said that Pressler used Scripture and claims that he was in contact with God to manipulate Rollins. Pressler reportedly told Rollins that his sexual abuse was “our secret freedom, no one but God would understand.”
“A psychologist at the Texas Department of Criminal Justice […] intervened on Rollins and brought him to the realization for the first time that his relationship with Pressler was neither ‘God approved’ nor some kind of ‘Divine Plan,’” the lawsuit states.
In a letter to Rollins included in court documents, Pressler claimed he knew that God would bless Rollins.
Other men have also accused Pressler of sexual abuse. These include musician Toby Twining and lawyer Brooks Schott.
Pressler and Patterson were once among SBC leaders commemorated in a series of stained-glass windows at SWBTS. Those windows were removed after Patterson was fired for covering up a rape allegation and saying he would “break down” the victim of another rape.
CORRECTION: Paul Pressler has never been employed by the SBC. An earlier version of this story stated that he had, but the copy has been corrected.
Jackson Elliott is a Christian journalist trained at Northwestern University. He has worked at The Daily Signal, The Inlander, and The Christian Post, covering topics ranging from D.C. politics to prison ministry. His interests include the Bible, philosophy, theology, Russian literature, and Irish music.
Bob Smietana of Religion News Service contributed to this report.