NASHVILLE, Tenn. – After a battle that dragged on longer than many expected, the Southern Baptist Convention executive committee waived attorney-client privilege for an investigation into the panel’s handling of sexual abuse reports and treatment of victims over the past 21 years.
On Tuesday, the executive board voted by 44 to 31 in a virtual session to approve a contract for Guidepost Solutions as a third-party investigation. Guidepost can review confidential communications between members of the executive committee or their staff, as well as legal memos.
“I am grateful that the vote went yes today after much deliberation and private sessions,” said Jules Woodson, a sexual abuse survivor and activist. “That being said, it should not have taken three weeks to get here. The fact that it did is part of the problem.”
Ronnie Floyd, executive committee president and CEO, who has not expressed support for waiving privilege before, said he will support the committee’s decision.
“The leadership and staff of the executive committee will provide support to Guidepost on implementing next steps to facilitate their investigation,” Floyd said in a statement.
At the convention’s annual meeting in June, the messengers, or the Southern Baptist Convention’s voting delegates, called for the investigation into the executive committee and for the committee to waive privilege.
See also:Southern Baptist Convention churches have threatened to cut funding for the executive committee on sex-abuse investigation.
Learn more:Southern Baptist Convention’s sexual abuse investigation was delayed once again by executives.
The executive committee – which acts on behalf of the convention outside of its annual meetings – voted for the first time on whether to waive privilege during an in-person meeting on Sept. 21. At the time, the committee voted 55-20 against waiving privilege. September 28 was a second session of the committee. This time, they voted to waive privilege by voting 39-35.
The executive committee members met with the Southern Baptist Convention Sexual Abuse Task Force, which is overseeing both sides’ investigations to resolve any issues. The task force has always supported waiving privilege, while the executive committee’s attorneys, Guenther, Jordan, & Price, advised against the move, according to a task force news release about the negotiations.
Executive committee members who continued to oppose waiving privilege expressed concerns about risks to the convention’s insurance. The executive committee’s insurance company could choose not to pay any settlements in lawsuits that arise from the investigation’s final report, the task force explained in a news release last week.
“We all know that to vote for this motion is to jeopardize the financial stability of our executive committee and perhaps the entire convention,” said Joe Knott, executive committee member and a lawyer from North Carolina.
Over 1,100 Southern Baptist pastors, and other leaders, have written letters to the executive committee asking them not to grant privilege. Some of these letters threatened to pull funding from local churches from executive committee.
At the same time, six executive committee members resigned, executive committee chairman Rolland Slade announced in Tuesday’s meeting. Some members of the executive committee who voted against Waiving Privilege last month have changed their views on Tuesday.
See also:Southern Baptist Convention Executive Committee declines attorney-client privilege in sex abuse investigation
“It comes down to that not advocating, not falling in line with the direction of our convention, I believe could be even more disastrous for the executive committee than where we are right now,” executive committee member and Oklahoma pastor Dave Bryan said in Tuesday’s meeting.
Mike Keahbone from the executive committee expressed similar concerns, saying that he was not satisfied with his concerns regarding privilege waiving. He said that he was more worried about divisions in the Southern Baptist Convention if privilege wasn’t waived.
“I ask us to walk by faith and not by sight,” said Keahbone, also a pastor from Oklahoma.
As pressure increased on the committee, the waiver was ultimately approved. The executive committee officers, who were tasked with reaching a compromise with the task force and making a recommendation to the whole committee, never supported the final contract that received approval.
Because the two groups couldn’t reach a solution late last week, the task force publicly released details of a new contract on Friday.
Elements of Guidepost’s final contract are identical to previous versions. Guidepost will investigate allegations that executive committee members and staff mishandled abuse allegations, mistreated and intimidated victims, or resisted sexual abuse reform initiatives since Jan. 1, 2000.
But the contract includes a new clause establishing a “committee on cooperation,” which will be an intermediary between Guidepost, the task force, and the executive committee.
“The committee on cooperation will ensure that the executive committee fulfills its fiduciary obligations to the SBC and the messengers,” the clause reads in a nod to the argument that proponents of waiving privilege have made in recent weeks.
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After the executive committee approved Guidepost’s contract, Slade, a pastor from California, called out personal attacks on executive committee members on both sides of the debate in recent weeks.
“I want to express sorrow over the conduct that we have displayed as Southern Baptists over the course of this absolutely necessary deliberative process,” Slade said. “Now that our path has been set out before us, it’s more than time to stop attacking the motives of one another and to move down this road together.”
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