The much-anticipated decision on whether the SBC Executive Committee will waive attorney-client privilege for the investigation into allegations of the mishandling of sexual abuse claims should come during today’s meeting (Sept. 21).
Two extra sessions were added to the agenda (one yesterday and one today) “with the hope we can help bring clarity to these issues for you as you seek to find a path forward,” Ronnie Floyd, president and CEO of the Executive Committee, shared with EC members. Along with a live stream of the sessions, an audience of various SBC-related entity personnel, media representatives and sexual abuse survivors filled the seats behind the EC members.
Abuse survivors recognized
Survivors indicated their goal was to make sure the EC members could see them as real people with real hurts. Among those present was Hannah Kate Williams, who stood beside Tennessee pastor Grant Gaines in June as he proposed the motion (see wording of the motion below) that led to the current decision being debated about attorney-client privilege.
Williams shared with The Baptist Paper, “I hope my presence speaks to the fact that while some of these people have hurt me, I am their family. We are the family of God and we don’t get to abandon each other when it gets hard. I hope my presence here casts for them the vision I see — all held accountable at the foot of the cross but also our eternity of all being fully reconciled to Christ and each other at the table of the King.”
The survivors as well as friends attending with them said they are hopeful as they prepare to watch the business proceedings take place again today. Some also noted they understood the need for the Monday afternoon executive session. The executive session was approved 54 to 23 in order to discuss the situation with attorneys from the law firm of Locke Lord, a firm recently hired with the approval of the EC officers.
Still, it “was hurtful” to hear how some of the reasoning was explained, survivors said, because it gave the impression they are to blame for what is happening, said Jessica Alldredge of First Baptist Church Oregon, Ohio. At the same time, “I was overwhelmed when they recognized us,” she added.
Welcomed officially by EC chairman Rolland Slade from the podium, survivors received a standing ovation and in between sessions were greeted in the hallways by several EC members and other participants.
“Up until that point I had been fairly composed but that gesture made me cry,” Alldredge said. “We are frequently ignored or belittled and it was a surprise to be acknowledged. I was also struck by the number of people who thanked us for coming. Some even had tears in their eyes while telling us they were working hard on our behalf to make things right. There are good people standing up for us in the process and that should be recognized.”
Tiffany Thigpen and Jennifer Lyell also were among abuse survivors attending Monday’s meeting.
Floyd shared during his opening statement, “The SBC Executive Committee is committed to doing the right thing in the right way in order to elevate the mission of the Convention — eliciting, combining, and directing our energies for the global propagation of the gospel.
“The SBC Executive Committee stands against all forms of sex abuse, mishandling of abuse, mistreatment of victims and any intimidation of abuse survivors in every Southern Baptist church, association, state convention, entity and affiliated organization.
“As president and CEO of the SBC Executive Committee, I encourage the members of the SBC Executive Committee to work with the Sex Abuse Task Force and the independent review firm in every way possible, but within our fiduciary responsibilities as assigned by the messengers.”
Fiduciary responsibility was the phrase that surfaced often as Executive Committee members debated the points and heard from Bruce Frank, chairman of the Sexual Abuse Task Force, and Julie Myers Wood, chief executive officer of Guidepost Solutions, during the opening session.
“In the big picture, this is not all that complicated,” Frank shared. “How to do it is where we’ve got some questions.
“A nonprofit that doesn’t have the trust of either the messengers or the mission or the missions field is going to be impacted far more by not dealing transparently with any mess than if they deal honestly with it,” he said. “There is a huge cloud over our convention right now. We can run away from it; we can pretend it’s not there, but there is a huge cloud that alleges that some of our leaders have not cared for, not shepherded, not responded to efforts to improve how we care for survivors and best prevent sexual abuse in our convention.
“The investigation is going to take place either now or later,” he added. “Likely when it takes place, there are going to be some things that hurt, things we should have done better. … This can be an amazing time where we deal with any potential junk, a thorough investigation, in a front of a watching world and have an amazingly fresh start.”
Wood noted that attorney-client privilege can be tricky. “In this context, the motion is talking about the Executive Committee’s corporate privilege and … there are many relevant documents not covered under this privilege.
“I encourage the Executive Committee to waive the attorney-client privilege. … It was the will of the messengers. … Waiving is the only way to ensure the investigation is purely credible,” she said, but Wood also acknowledged there was no pending lawsuit when the motion was passed by messengers in June.
“I think the Executive Committee will look hard at anything they give to us because that will certainly be an item that is requested by counsel in a new lawsuit,” she said. “I think that is certainly a fair thing to do to think through … our potential exposure on really privileged facts.
“This is a very important decision for the EC to make. … I would ask you to think through what sort of transparency are you looking to have,” Wood said. “I appreciate the seriousness of this and the seriousness for which you are taking it.”
Definition of attorney-client privilege:
“The attorney-client privilege protects the confidentiality of communications between an attorney and a client to the extent that the client has communicated confidential information to an attorney for the purpose of obtaining legal advice. This means that the attorney may not disclose such information to anyone, even a court of law in any civil or criminal case, unless the client presently is using the information to commit a crime or fraud or intends to commit a crime or fraud. The purpose of the privilege is to encourage clients to speak freely and frankly to their attorneys so that attorneys have the information that they need to assist their clients. A client may waive its right to assert the privilege.”
—William Ross, Cumberland School of Law, Samford University in Birmingham
The motion approved by messengers to the 2021 SBC annual meeting in Nashville asking for an investigation of the Executive Committee stated:
That we ask the newly elected president of the SBC to appoint a task force within 30 days of the dates of this Convention that shall be comprised of members of Baptist churches cooperating with this Convention and experts in sexual abuse and the handling of sexual abuse-related dynamics.
This task force shall either assume oversight of the third-party review announced previously by the Executive Committee or initiate a separate third-party review.
Said task force shall ensure that the third-party review includes an 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.
The investigation shall include actions and decisions of staff and members of the Executive Committee from January 1, 2000, to June 14, 2021. This investigation should include an audit of the procedures and actions taken by the Credentials Committee of the Southern Baptist Convention, which was formed at the Convention meeting in Birmingham, Alabama, June 11–12, 2019.
The review shall be funded by allocations from the Cooperative Program.
We further move that the task force agree to the accepted best-standards and practices as recommended by the commissioned third-party, including but not limited to the Executive Committee staff and members waiving attorney client privilege in order to ensure full access to information and accuracy in the review.
A written report on the factual findings of this review shall be presented to the task force 30 days prior to the SBC annual meeting in 2022, and made public in full form within one week of the task force’s receipt of the report along with suggestions from the task force for actions to be taken by our Convention.