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.
During a special, virtual session on Tuesday, the executive committee voted 44-31 to approve a contract with a third-party investigator, Guidepost Solutions. The contract allows Guidepost to review privileged communications and legal memos between executive committee members or staff and their lawyers.
“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.
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. The committee met again on Sept. 28 for a special, virtual session and voted 39-35 against waiving privilege.
After both votes, executive committee officers met with a Southern Baptist Convention sexual abuse task force that is overseeing the investigation to smooth out any disagreements between the two sides. 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.
Meanwhile, in the past two weeks, more than 1,100 Southern Baptist pastors and other prominent leaders penned letters asking the executive committee to waive privilege. Some of those letters included threats to withdraw local church funding from the executive committee.
At the same time, six executive committee members resigned, executive committee chairman Rolland Slade announced in Tuesday’s meeting. Some executive committee members who voted against waiving privilege last month changed their positions on Tuesday.
“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.
Executive committee member Mike Keahbone expressed a similar sentiment, saying that all of his concerns about the risks of waiving privilege were not assuaged. But he said he is more concerned about the division in the Southern Baptist Convention worsening if privilege is not waived.
“I ask us to walk by faith and not by sight,” said Keahbone, also a pastor from Oklahoma.
Ultimately, the waiver passed as pressure on the committee mounted. 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.
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.”
Follow Liam Adams on Twitter @liamsadams.
This article originally appeared on Nashville Tennessean: Southern Baptist Convention group waives privilege in sex abuse probe