By Lonnie Wilkey
NASHVILLE — Judging from reactions on social media and other outlets, some Southern Baptists are unhappy with the Executive Committee of the Southern Baptist Convention.
Though the Executive Committee agreed to fund up to $1.6 million for an independent investigation into allegations of the mishandling of sexual abuse claims, it stopped short of waiving attorney-client privilege, according to a Baptist Press report.
Members of the EC who voted to waive the attorney-client privilege claim the Executive Committee is failing to heed to the will of the convention, which voted in June to have a task force appointed that would oversee a third party “investigation into any allegations of abuse, mishandling of abuse, mistreatment of victims, a pattern of intimidation of victims or advocates, and resistance to sexual abuse reform initiatives,” according to the motion presented by Tennessee pastor Grant Gaines of Belle Aire Baptist Church in Murfreesboro.
An amendment, which was made to include the waiver of the attorney-client privilege, was defeated by a vote of 55-20. Supporters of the waiver note that the matter will be under negotiation for seven days and that it was necessary to protect the Southern Baptist Convention and the Cooperative Program.
In a statement to the Baptist and Reflector, Gaines said, “messengers (at the annual meeting in Nashville in June) voted overwhelmingly to take the reins of this sexual abuse investigation out of the Executive Committee’s hands and to place it into the hands of the Sexual Abuse Task Force. This was to prevent an obvious conflict of interest.
“The messengers understood that since the Executive Committee is the group under investigation, they can’t be the one in charge of setting the terms of the investigation. The messengers voted to allow the Sexual Abuse Task Force to set the terms of the investigation based on the recommended best standards and practices of the third party firm hired to do the investigation (Guidepost Solutions), and the messengers specifically affirmed that if the waiving of attorney-client privilege was one of those recommended best practices, then that would become part of the agreement.
“So when Guidepost announced that waiving privilege would indeed be the best thing for the EC to do, we expected it to happen, just as we had voted on,” Gaines said.
Gaines said he and others knew the Executive Committee would have to take official action to waive the attorney-client privilege.
“When the EC voted not to waive their privilege yesterday (Sept. 21) they made two massive errors. First, they defied the will of the body they are called to serve. And second, they sent a clear message that liability and money are more important than seeking justice for SBC sexual abuse survivors.”
Gaines expressed appreciation for “many of the EC trustees who were brave and did the right thing by voting to waive privilege yesterday, but far too many of them buckled under the pressure and influence of EC leaders.”
“Now, indeed, is the time to lead. It’s time to lead out in doing the right thing whatever the cost. My prayer is that over the next seven days as the EC officers and members of the Sexual Abuse Task Force negotiate an agreement on the issue of waiving privilege, justice, mercy, and truth will prevail over attempts to cover ourselves.” he said.
Liz Evan, an attorney and member of Hilldale Baptist Church, Clarksville, is on the task force. “The EC should waive privilege because the messengers mandated it and the EC works for the messengers, not the other way around. As Julie Wood (CEO of Guidepost Solutions, which will conduct the investigation) stated in her explanation to the EC, when a public report is part of the contract, which is the case here, waiver is standard.”
The media relations office of the SBC Executive Committee released this statement on Sept. 22: “We recognize there are diverse perspectives on the recent meeting of the SBC Executive Committee, and we appreciate these diverse points of view. From our point of view, the Executive Committee has demonstrated yet again its support for an effective and independent review and the Executive Committee still does not —and has not — oppose in principle the fundamental questions at issue, including requests to waive privilege when appropriate and in coordination with the third party commissioned to conduct the inquiry.
“This week, the Executive Committee fully funded the review — in effect beginning the formal review process — and moved the critical discussions further in a spirit of unity and cooperation even if some substantive issues remain unresolved. We ask Southern Baptists to pray, especially over the next seven days, that the ultimate outcome of this process strengthens and unifies our convention as it relates to this independent review but especially as it relates to our collective concern for survivors of sexual abuse.”
Retired Tennessee pastor Ron Hale, a member of West Jackson Baptist Church, Jackson, responded to the Baptist and Reflector’s request for a statement. Hale and the four other Tennessee members of the EC — Robyn Hari, Stacy Bramlett, Chuck Williams and Ted Murphy — voted against the waiver.
Hale’s statement reads:“Knowing many of my fellow 86 Executive Committee members, we desire to help guard against all sexual abuse, help previous victims, and protect the innocent. I joined the majority of my Executive Committee members voting not to waive the SBC EC’s attorney client privileges.
“As a retired pastor, director of missions and state convention leader, I had time to study and understand the unintended consequences within the motion that was passed at the SBC annual meeting in Nashville. My legal fiduciary duty is to guard the SBC from never-ending lawsuits and rendering the SBC uninsurable.
“When my fellow messengers voted on the motion, we were not in a lawsuit. It is my conviction that signing the contract before the EC would have waived our attorney client privileges forever in this case. Let me say it this way — once waived, always waived! Our SBC would be opened to endless lawsuits and the possible future bankruptcy of our Cooperative Program and the largest missionary force in the world.
“In the middle of a negative social media swarm, we are desperately seeking God for a righteous path forward. We humbly need your prayers!”
In a statement released to the B&R, EC member Robyn Hari noted that “the events of the past few days are some of the most difficult I have ever experienced.
“Please know that I desperately want to approve the signing of a contract that will move this forward. As a woman, mother of two daughters and grandmother to three granddaughters, a thorough investigation and review is fully supported and extremely important to me,” she said.
“I have not talked to one EC member that does not desire the very same thing. However, the wording of the motion and the Guidepost contract in its current form presents some legal challenges as it relates to fiduciary obligations. As a business professional and someone who is a fiduciary to three additional boards, I knew the gravity of the situation and sought legal counsel independent of the SBC,” said Hari, a member of ClearView Baptist Church, Franklin.
“The counsel I was given was consistent and I was told I could not support the signing of the current contract without breaching my legal fiduciary duty. Please understand that it would have been so much easier to have said ‘yes’ and avoided the mean-spirited backlash I have received.
“However, I choose to remain optimistic that there is a way to stay true to the will of the messengers, conduct a thorough investigation, all within a legal structure that allows me to vote affirmatively without compromising my integrity or legal and ethical responsibilities. My prayer is that this will be accomplished over the next few days.” B&R