By Jennifer Davis Rash
The Baptist Paper
Discussions about the investigation of the Southern Baptist Convention Executive Committee’s handling of sexual abuse cases landed primarily on the topic of funding during the Feb. 21–22 EC meeting.
While the original motion passed by messengers to the 2021 SBC Annual Meeting in Nashville states the investigation is to be paid for by the EC’s Cooperative Program allocation, some confusion existed originally about what that meant.
Would the funding come off the top of all CP dollars flowing through the EC to be distributed to all funded entities or strictly from the portion of the CP funds disbursed for EC operations? And if it is the latter, how would that work when the EC’s annual operating budget is roughly $8.5 million?
EC members clarified the confusion and approved the plan for the investigation to be paid out of the EC’s financial reserves.
Currently, the EC has $15 million in investments with $12.2 million of those available as unrestricted funds.
Along with the clarification, EC members also approved increasing the original estimate of $500,000 in legal fees for the the EC and $1.6 million in legal fees for the Sexual Abuse Task Force to $2 million for each — a total of $4 million.
Archie Mason, EC member from Arkansas and chair of the committee on convention finances and stewardship development, said projections indicate the $4 million will be enough to pay the legal fees through the SBC Annual Meeting in June and possibly what might be billed through the September EC meeting.
“It’s probably going to cost more than that,” he said. And while the estimate for the final tally of the investigation “is open ended … it’s going to have to end in June.”
Report on work of the task force
EC members also heard a brief update on the work of the task force from Ed Litton, chair of the Committee on Cooperation. Litton is not a member of the task force but appointed the members and chairs the committee formed to serve as a liaison between the task force and the EC.
Task force chair Bruce Frank and co-chair Marshall Blalock were unable to be present, so Litton provided the report.
“Work is progressing … and there has been cooperation on every level,” he said. “The process is working.”
Gene Besen of the Bradley law firm in Dallas, current interim legal counsel for the EC, confirmed the work being done by GuidePost Solutions is “within the confines of what their legal team is investigating.”
EC member Jay Ridenour of Maine asked if EC members could receive an advance copy of the GuidePost report — without any editing rights, just so they are prepared for how to communicate with their churches, associations and state conventions, he said.
While no decision was made and it was unclear if that was a request that can be fulfilled, Litton affirmed the question.
“I definitely think you should be aware of that report,” he said.
‘United to stand against sexual abuse’
And in a somewhat unprecedented move, EC chair Rolland Slade allowed a question from a non-EC member sitting in the gallery — sexual abuse survivor Hannah-Kate Williams.
“What are the SBC and the task force planning to do [with the sexual abuse allegations that don’t fall within the timeframe currently being reviewed]?” she asked.
Litton explained that the task force “is charged with finding the agency to do the investigation … and with receiving the report and dealing with it. … We will look at how any decisions will fit into our polity and our convention. [The investigation] is confined from 2000 to the Nashville convention.”
EC member Mike Keahbone of Oklahoma also addressed Williams’ question.
“This investigation — and findings of it — is not the ending of what we will do regarding sexual abuse; it is the beginning of it,” he said. “We are united to stand against sexual abuse. … We are all committed to that. We are one heart. This is only the beginning.”
Williams showed appreciation for the responses. “That’s my prayer for you,” she added.
In related news, Slade announced in the Feb. 22 afternoon session that EC officials had come to a resolution with Jennifer Lyell, a former Lifeway Christian Resources employee, who said she suffered the loss of a job and her reputation after coming forward to tell her story in 2019. She also has reported health issues as a result of the fall out.
EC members approved the resolution and an official statement about the matter.
“The SBC Executive Committee acknowledges its failure to adequately listen, protect and care for Jennifer Lyell when she came forward to share her story of abuse by a seminary professor,” Slade said as he read from the statement. “Baptist Press failed to accurately report the sexual abuse Jennifer Lyell reported to two SBC entities and local Southern Baptist churches,” he said.
“The SBC Executive Committee acknowledges its failures to Ms. Lyell, including the unintentional harm created by its failure to report Ms. Lyell’s allegations of nonconsensual sexual abuse (which) were investigated and unequivocally corroborated by the SBC entities with authority over Ms. Lyell and her abuser. The SBC Executive Committee apologizes for all the hurt it has caused, is grateful for Ms. Lyell’s perseverance and engagement, and prays for her complete healing from the trauma she has endured.” B&R