By Will Hall, Baptist Message executive editor
NASHVILLE, Tenn. (LBM)—The Executive Committee of the Southern Baptist Convention, which is charged by SBC Bylaws to serve as the fiduciary, the fiscal, and the executive entity of the Convention (in all matters not assigned to other SBC entities), voted 44-31, Oct. 5, to waive attorney-client privilege in an investigation of the Executive Committee about mishandling sexual abuse allegations in the SBC and the mistreatment of sexual abuse survivors.
There are no accusations of sexual abuse against Executive Committee staff or trustees.
The action is a result of a motion adopted by messengers to the 2021 SBC Annual Meeting, presented by Grant Gaines, pastor of Belle Aire Baptist Church in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, and son of Steve Gaines, pastor of Bellevue Baptist Church in the Memphis, Tennessee-area, and former SBC president. The elder Gaines was accused of a sexual abuse coverup in 2006, according to Baptist Press, and the Religion News Service reported that his church was sued in 2020 for allegedly ignoring warnings about a part-time employee now charged with the sexual abuse of a teen. Both incidents fall within the timeframe, 2000-2021, set by the younger Gaines’s motion for investigating whether the Executive Committee properly addressed such matters.
The charges against the Executive Committee followed the report of the third task force of the Executive Committee that had investigated the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission and its now former president, Russell Moore (regarding harm to cooperation among SBC churches that was caused by Moore and the ERLC), baptistnews.com reported. The task force, led by Mike Stone, pastor of Emmanuel Baptist Church, Blackshear, Georgia, immediate past Executive Committee chairman and an SBC presidential candidate in 2021, found that Moore had caused some churches to depart the Convention and other congregations to withhold gifts through the Cooperative Program, the main channel for funding cooperative missions and ministries among Southern Baptists, according to the released report.
So far, eight persons of the 86-member Executive Committee have resigned, according to The Alabama Baptist, the news service of the Alabama Baptist Convention, and there are reports that more are considering resigning.
Several members who opposed waiving attorney-client privilege argued that a thorough investigation was possible without endangering innocent individuals with liability or putting the entire Cooperative Program at risk (by losing liability insurance because of such a waiver).
Some critics accused opponents of the waiver of attempting to protect guilty parties using attorney-client privilege to the point that extreme rhetoric was posted via Twitter, with some calling to “burn the house down” (referring to the Executive Committee and the SBC) in response to statements that waiving attorney-client privilege would endanger the Cooperative Program and endanger the viability of SBC entities.
There are three Louisiana Baptist members of the SBC Executive Committee. One voted to waive attorney-client privilege and two voted to oppose such action.
The Baptist Message invited all three to provide written statements or to be interviewed by phone or Zoom — basically asking each to share how they voted and why.
Philip Robertson, pastor of Philadelphia Baptist Church, Deville, with a Horseshoe Drive campus in Alexandria, and Mike Holloway, pastor of Ouachita Baptist Church, West Monroe, spoke with the Baptist Message via Zoom.
Carolyn Fountain, a member of Franklin Avenue Baptist Church, New Orleans, who recently moved to Monroe, was the third Executive Committee member from Louisiana. She provided a written statement sharing her thoughts.
NOTE: Robertson is the senior pastor of the Baptist Message executive editor.
IN THEIR OWN WORDS
Fountain offered that she is a 40-year Southern Baptist who believes in the Cooperative Program and noted that she and her husband served as church planter missionaries for the SBC’s North American Mission Board for 30 years, thus benefiting from CP gifts. Both are active in leadership with their local association as well as the state convention and are known for their hearts for evangelism and discipleship.
“I value every penny of SBC Cooperative Program dollars, but my conviction is to always do what is right toward those He has called and entrusted us to serve,” she said.
Fountain elaborated on this point, noting that she was burdened for the victims of sex abuse.
“As I meditated on how I would vote, I just could not get Micah 6:8 out of my heart,” she wrote. “He has shown you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God.”
Apparently referencing the argument that the act of waiving attorney-client privilege endangered the Cooperative Program and the missions and ministries it supports, she said that “no amount of Cooperative Program dollars or any other offerings could be sacrificed to Him until we, Southern Baptists, are ready and willing to do what He requires of us.”
“I believe that every word of Scripture is inspired by God and is true,” she continued. “My heart is determined to do what is right for all people.”
“With that said, I voted, ‘yes,’ to the Wellman motion [the Executive Committee motion to waive attorney-client privilege],” she said.
Robertson and Holloway shared they both opposed the motion to waive attorney-client privilege and both men said the decision was weighty and the circumstances were strained.
“We were put in a very difficult situation,” Robertson said. “We were in this tension between abiding by the will of the messengers while also protecting, potentially, the viability of not only the Executive Committee but the entire Southern Baptist Convention.”
“In the end I voted ‘no’ on the Wellman motion. Jared Wellman [a Texas pastor and Executive Committee member] presented the motion that did pass, and his motion was to waive privilege in accordance with the motion in June,” Robertson explained.
Holloway offered additional comments into the possible ramifications of the vote.
“It can turn our whole structure upside down. And that’s what they really are after,” he said. “They are after a way to say the Executive Committee governs these organizations.”
According to SBC governing documents, each national entity is autonomous and cannot interfere in the governance of any other entity.
“These sexual abuse allegations have not been brought up against the EC, but against SBC entities,” [such as Southern Seminary, Southeastern Seminary, Midwestern Seminary and Southwestern Seminary] Holloway clarified.
“The EC has consistently told survivors, ‘This is not our jurisdiction. You need to go to the seminary or church where you were hurt. They have their own insurance policy. They have their own board of trustees.’”
“The EC has not been able to do anything about it because that is not how we are structured. I believe that getting into the deep pockets of the Cooperative Program is where a lot of this is coming from,” Holloway said.
“The five attorneys who serve on the EC as trustees were opposed to this and had very serious concerns,” Robertson said. “Our legal counsel — both our SBC legal counsel, Jamie Jordan and Jim Gunther, but also the new legal counsel that the Executive Committee hired just for this specific issue, Locke Lord LLP is the firm — all attorneys, including the task force attorneys and our insurance coverage attorney, advised us that this action would put our insurance in jeopardy.”
“It was very clear,” he said. “They couldn’t say with 100 percent certainty, but they definitely said, ‘We’ve never even dealt with this before. Nobody waives their privilege up front.’”
Holloway and Robertson underscored that they felt waiving attorney-client privilege was a violation of fiduciary responsibilities because it would jeopardize insurance coverage. Thus, instead of the insurance company, Brotherhood Mutual, footing the bill, Cooperative Program gifts will be used, not only for all the investigation costs, but for any future costs related to any litigation, frivolous or not.
They both pointed out that Guidepost Solution’s contracted fee (Guidepost Solutions is the organization that has been hired to conduct the investigation) is estimated to be $1.6 million and that the attorney costs for representing the Executive Committee will be on top of that amount.
“If you lose your insurance company, and we’ve been told it is not just possible, but probable, then the money to cover all this is coming from the pockets of the little widow ladies who sit on the front rows of my church and Mike’s church and the churches all over the Southern Baptist Convention who did not give their tithes for the purposes of paying lawyers and investigations,” Robertson explained. “They gave it for the work of the Gospel. That’s the reason you have insurance. You have insurance so your mission dollars don’t have to pay for this. But we just voided all that, potentially.”
The two Executive Committee members also agreed that “hundreds if not thousands” of similar thorough internal investigations are done by major corporations and governmental entities without having to waive attorney-client privilege, including those conducted by Guidepost Solutions.
Guidepost Solutions reportedly has been used by other SBC entities and churches to investigate sexual abuse-related cases.
The Religion News Service reported that Guidepost Solutions was hired by The Summit Church in Raleigh-Durham, North Carolina, to investigate J.D. Greear’s (their pastor and then the SBC president) 2020 hiring of a Memphis, Tennessee, pastor, Bryan Loritts, despite an alleged sexual abuse coverup by Loritts in Memphis involving Loritts’s brother-in-law, Rick Trotter, who was found to have taken voyeuristic pictures of women and children.
Holloway said Guidepost Solutions offered a compromise but that those who opposed attorney-client privilege “dug their heels in.”
“Their lawyer, Julie Woods from Guidepost, presented the Michigan Model [a plan to ensure a full, fair and independent investigation while protecting privileges] as a workable solution. We looked at it and said, ‘We can work with that.’ The other side said, ‘We don’t want that.’”
Fountain underscored that it was her hope that the Executive Committee officers and the task force could find a way to balance attorney-client privilege during the open investigation.
“The Michigan Model seemed to be one option that might have led to a path forward with guarded attorney-client privilege,” she shared.
“It was not accepted,” she noted. “So, there will be an open investigation with all privileges related to these claims waived.”
Holloway and Robertson took exception to some on the other side of the debate who had asserted that attorney-client privilege would provide cover for guilty deeds.
“Let me be clear, those who voted ‘no’ to waiving attorney-client privilege did not do so to protect anyone or to hinder in any way the uncovering of any alleged wrongdoing,” Robertson underscored. “Every member of the EC welcomed the investigation. This was clearly demonstrated when the overwhelming majority of the committee voted to allocate $1.6 million to fund the investigation.”
“Furthermore, attorney-client privilege does not protect people who are guilty,” he continued. “You can’t hide behind attorney-client privilege if there has been fraud, or criminal activity. Attorney-client privilege doesn’t protect that.”
Holloway expressed disappointment that “the EC is being treated as if they’re guilty and that we need to offer evidence to prove our innocence.”
Both were adamant that there are no public accusations of sexual abuse committed by an EC staff or EC member, as far as they know. They also feel that a public whistleblower report by an ERLC trustee has connected the dots of this investigation of the Executive Committee with the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission and their former president, Russell Moore, who was investigated three times by different task forces formed by the Executive Committee.
“The allegations are all in Moore’s leaked letter. That is what prompted this investigation,” Robertson said.
There were two leaked letters, one written to J.D Greear and another written to Moore’s trustees but not sent, according to multiple public reports.
The one to trustees was leaked about three weeks prior to the SBC annual meeting. It contained accusations that the Executive Committee (officers and staff, not trustees) mishandled abuse allegations and mistreated survivors.
These same accused officers and staff of the Executive Committee responded by initiating their own investigation, including the hiring of Guidepost Solutions, which is the company now being hired by the task force named by SBC President Ed Litton.
This apparent link between the investigation of the Executive Committee and the Executive Committee’s investigation of the ERLC and Moore caused Robertson to question the nature of the investigation of the Executive Committee.
“If the true motive behind the motion is care for survivors across the Convention, then why didn’t the motion call for an investigation into every SBC entity?” Robertson asked. “What about the possible survivors who may have been harmed in cases outside of the Executive Committee… do we not care about them? The whistleblower report by an ERLC trustee claims that Russell Moore and the Chairman of the ERLC trustees, covered up these very allegations for more than a year. Surely, the messengers will call for a similar investigation at the ERLC for the sake of these abuse victims.”
Fountain, Robertson and Holloway appeared to agree in part about concerns regarding what transpired at the SBC annual meeting.
“I do not believe the 2021 messengers had all the details of the ramifications of the motion that was passed,” Fountain said.
But Fountain believed messengers “felt enough was enough and it was time that we do the right thing to investigate allegations, identify responsible parties, and hold offenders and supporters accountable for injustices.”
“The whole truth needs to be told,” she emphasized.
Holloway’s concluding thoughts seemed to summarize both men’s sentiments.
“In the end, I could not vote for something that could eventually lead to the bankruptcy of the Southern Baptist Convention in the next few years, causing us to have to call home some 8,000 missionaries from all over the world,” Holloway said. “I couldn’t vote that with a good conscience.”
Fountain closed out her statement asking for “all of the SBC to come together in prayer for the accusers and the accused as well as for the Convention as a whole.”
“We have thousands of missionaries whose life’s work is entrusted to us,” she reflected. “Sin is very alive and thriving in our world. He has hearts prepared to hear of His saving grace.”
Regarding the potential departure or escrow of financial gifts by some churches because of the controversy, she urged that “Now is not the time to take our Cooperative Program dollars and leave because we do not like the way the vote went.”
“Have we become a people who trust God only when things go our way?” she asked. “If ever there was a time for prayer and revival, that time is now.”
The ERLC whistleblower mentioned by Robertson is Jonathan Whitehead, a Harvard-trained attorney, and an at-large ERLC trustee from Missouri.
The Baptist & Reflector, the news service of Tennessee Baptists, reported that Whitehead accused Moore and then-ERLC board chair David Prince, an SBTS assistant professor and pastor of Ashland Avenue Baptist Church, Lexington, Kentucky, of plotting to trigger a crisis at the SBC annual meeting “to produce political ends.” He said the letter was withheld from trustees and then leaked just prior to the June SBC gathering.
According to the B&R, Whitehead alleged that the ERLC staff, under the leadership of Moore, responded similarly to the SBC Executive Committee to sexual abuse survivors, noting that “ERLC staff believed that the SBC and ERLC could ‘never satisfy’ some of the victim advocates, namely Christa Brown who called for the SBC to initiate a sexual offender database.”
The ERLC trustee further decried the “blatant deception” of the whole matter, claiming the leaked letters “were written and leaked to shake messengers trust and confidence at an SBC annual meeting. The leak avoided disclosure to fiduciaries (trustees) and a dispassionate investigation because the goal was to deprive the Convention (messengers) of confidence in the entire fiduciary system.”