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Southern Baptist Convention Privately Settles Sexual Abuse Lawsuit That Accused Former Leader Paul Pressler

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The Southern Baptist Convention and others have reached a confidential settlement in a high-profile lawsuit that accused a former leader of sexual assault, ending a six-year legal drama that helped prompt a broader reckoning over child sexual abuse in evangelical churches, expanded victims’ rights in Texas and showed that a prominent conservative activist and Texas House candidate repeatedly downplayed abuse allegations.

In 2017, Duane Rollins filed the lawsuit accusing Paul Pressler, a longtime Southern Baptist figure and former Texas judge, of decades of rape beginning when Rollins was a 14-year-old member of Pressler’s church youth group in Houston.

Rollins claimed in court documents that the alleged attacks pushed him into drug and alcohol addictions that kept him in prison throughout much of his adult life. After disclosing the alleged rapes to a prison psychiatrist, Rollins filed the suit in Harris County against Pressler along with other defendants who he accused of enabling or concealing Pressler’s behavior — including the Southern Baptist Convention and Jared Woodfill, the former chair of the Harris County GOP and Pressler’s longtime law partner.

Rollins’ claims were a key impetus for “Abuse of Faith,” a 2019 investigation by the Houston Chronicle and San Antonio Express-News into sexual abuse in the SBC, the nation’s second-largest faith group. The series led to major reforms in the SBC, revelations that top leaders had routinely ignored or downplayed warnings about a sexual abuse crisis, and an ongoing Department of Justice investigation.

As part of Rollins’ suit, at least seven other men came forward with their own allegations of sexual misconduct by Pressler in incidents spanning four decades. The suit also showed that Woodfill, a prominent anti-LGBTQ+ activist, was aware of allegations that Pressler was a sexual predator but continued to provide him with young, male personal assistants who worked out of Pressler’s River Oaks home. Three of the men have alleged sexual abuse or misconduct.

Woodfill is currently running for a Texas House seat against incumbent Rep. Lacey Hull, R-Houston, and has been endorsed by Attorney General Ken Paxton and Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller.

Pressler, 93, is one of the most influential evangelical figures of the last half-century, and is considered the co-architect of the SBC’s “conservative resurgence” that began in the late 1970s and prompted the faith group to adopt literal interpretations of the Bible, align more closely with the Republican Party, ban women from preaching and strongly condemn homosexuality.

Pressler — who formerly represented Houston in the Texas House and served for 14 years as a state appeals court judge — is also an influential figure in GOP politics. His endorsement has for years been sought by conservative evangelical politicians, including U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas. In 1989, Pressler was nominated to lead the Office of Government Ethics under President George H.W. Bush, though the bid was later withdrawn; and Pressler is a founding member of Council for National Policy, a secretive network of conservative judges, politicians, media figures, megadonors and wealthy business owners that is currently led by Tony Perkins, head of the anti-LGBTQ+ Family Research Council.

Pressler denies the allegations and has not been criminally charged for any of the alleged abuses. An attorney for Pressler did not respond to a request for comment about the settlement, which is not public.

In a statement, legal representatives for the Southern Baptist Convention and its executive committee confirmed that they had “entered into a confidential settlement agreement” despite being “fully prepared” to proceed to a trial that was scheduled for February after being postponed twice this year.

“However, several factors ultimately made settlement the more prudent choice,” they wrote. “Chief among those factors was the horrendous nature of the abuse allegations, the likelihood that counsel for the SBC and Executive Committee would have to confront and cross-examine abuse survivors, the Executive Committee’s current financial condition, and the willingness of multiple insurance carriers to contribute to the terms of the settlement.”

Michael Goldberg, who represented Rollins along with a team of lawyers from Baker Botts, said Friday that they had resolved the matter with Pressler on “mutually satisfactory terms,” and added that his team was “very proud of the settlement we reached against the Southern Baptist Convention and Jared Woodfill.”

Woodfill has denied wrongdoing and said this week that he has not settled the case, though a Harris County judge signed off on a motion last week that said “all claims, counterclaims and controversies” in the suit were resolved.

“We are fighting the insurance company and oppose any payment,” Woodfill said in a text message on Thursday.

A pattern

The settlement almost never happened.

By the time that Rollins disclosed the alleged abuses to a prison psychiatrist in 2016 and was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder as a “direct result of the childhood sexual trauma he suffered,” the statute of limitations for filing a lawsuit against Pressler had long passed.

Nevertheless, Rollins pushed forward with the suit, arguing that the alleged rapes by Pressler — a spiritual mentor who Rollins said weaponized religious language to justify his predations — were so traumatizing that he unconsciously developed a sort of Stockholm syndrome that, coupled with the drug and alcohol addictions he blamed on the trauma, made it impossible to recognize himself as a victim until decades had passed.

Thus, Rollins argued, his statute of limitations should have begun when he realized he had been abused, rather than when the last assault occurred. His lawsuit was initially dismissed on statute grounds. But Rollins appealed and, eventually, had the dismissal overturned by the Texas Supreme Court, which agreed with Rollins’ arguments. The court’s opinion was a major victory for sexual abuse victims and their advocates, who have for years pointed to research that shows child sexual trauma can remap developing brains and make it difficult for many survivors to come forward until after their 50th birthday, and after their standing to file lawsuits has elapsed.

Rollins’ lawsuit also uncovered a 40-year pattern of alleged abuses by Pressler. As part of the suit, a former member of Pressler’s youth group said in a sworn affidavit that Pressler molested him in 1977 while the two were in a sauna at the country club in Houston’s tony River Oaks neighborhood. The man was entering his sophomore year in college at the time; Pressler, meanwhile, was a youth pastor at a Presbyterian church in Houston. He was ousted from that position in 1978 after church officials received information about “an alleged incident,” according to a letter introduced into the court file. Soon after, Pressler ramped up his involvement in Southern Baptist life.

Rollins said Pressler began sexually abusing him not long after. He said the rapes continued on and off for nearly a quarter-century, often while he was working as Pressler’s aide.

In 2004, court records show that a small group of leaders at the massive First Baptist Church of Houston were made aware of allegations that Pressler, a powerful deacon at the megachurch, had undressed and groped a young man at his home. In a letter to Pressler that was unearthed as part of Rollins’ lawsuit, the church leaders condemned Pressler’s “morally and spiritually” inappropriate behavior. They also feared that publicizing the allegations would damage Pressler’s reputation in their church and the Southern Baptist Convention.

An attorney for First Baptist Church of Houston, which was a defendant in Rollins’ lawsuit, did not respond to a request for comment Thursday about the lawsuit settlement. The church has previously defended its handling of the 2004 incident, saying that there were differing accounts of what happened and that Pressler’s position on church committees and as a teacher were eliminated as a result.

The same year that First Baptist was made aware of those allegations, Rollins filed a lawsuit for non-sexual assault against Pressler that was quickly settled for $450,000. Woodfill, who represented Pressler in the matter, said under oath last year that he was told by Rollins’ attorney at the time that Pressler had sexually abused Rollins as a child. Despite that, Woodfill continued to lean on Pressler’s conservative reputation, connections and influence to bolster their law firm, providing him with young, male personal assistants despite Pressler doing almost no work.

“I can think of one or two cases that he brought in,” Woodfill testified as part of Rollins’ new lawsuit last year. “He may have gone to one hearing in his entire time with us, two at the most. Really, it was his name. … He got an employee that worked for him. So he didn’t get a salary. He didn’t get a draw. He didn’t get a bonus. We paid for someone to come and assist him. That’s how he got compensated.”

Woodfill similarly downplayed sexual misconduct allegations in 2016, after a 25-year-old lawyer at his firm alerted Woodfill that Pressler had told him “lewd stories about being naked on beaches with young men” and then invited him to skinny-dip at his ranch, court records show. The attorney said he addressed the incident with a longtime employee of Woodfill’s law firm, who made it clear that this was not the first time he’d heard such allegations.

“I discovered that this was not unusual behavior for Pressler, and that he had a long history of lecherous behavior towards young men. Even going as far as bringing scantily clad men and parading them through the office,” the attorney wrote in an affidavit that was filed as part of Rollins’ lawsuit.

Woodfill — who’d just played a key role defeating an equal rights ordinance for LGBTQ Houstonians — responded to the young man’s request for help with shock. “This 85-year-old man has never made any inappropriate comments or actions toward me or any one I know of,” he responded, court records show.

The young attorney’s claims are similar in detail to those from other Pressler accusers, who said he leaned on his stature and connections in conservative religious and political circles to try and coerce them into lewd massages, naked swimming sessions or sex. One accuser — a young Houston Baptist University student — said in a sworn affidavit that he stopped pursuing a career in ministry, frequently had panic attacks and attempted suicide as a result of Pressler’s alleged behavior.

Court filings also show that Pressler’s family was alerted about his behavior in 2017, when an aide claimed in a letter that he had “both heard stories of and personally witnessed” Pressler getting nude massages from “young men who work for him.” He also claimed that Pressler had recently bragged about skinny-dipping with three boys who were younger than 10, and that he had seen Pressler “manipulate” a 20-year-old into giving him a massage and then repeatedly kiss him.

“He talks way more about nudity, the male body, being naked in spas in Europe, being naked in general than God, or his Baptist background,” the aide wrote before announcing his resignation.

Pressler, he added, “needs to be stopped.”

Editor’s note: This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune.

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Faithfully Magazine is a fresh, bold and exciting news and culture publication that covers issues, conversations and events impacting Christian communities of color.

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