Four high-profile Southern Baptist Convention group leaders quietly filed an amicus brief opposing a sex abuse victim's lawsuit in Kentucky. This lawsuit had nothing to do with them or the SBC, but if successful it could drastically alter the scope and number of lawsuits the SBC faces from similar victims.

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When it comes to sex abuse, the leaders of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) know what their first priority is: protecting themselves and their sinecures. But they do their best work there in the shadows. Recently, their top leaders noticed a sex abuse victim in a whole other field filing a lawsuit against an organization that allegedly aided and abetted her abuser. Her lawsuit had nothing to do with the SBC. However, if it goes in her favor it might spawn similar lawsuits from Southern Baptist sex abuse victims. So Southern Baptist leaders went into action to defeat it.

Alas and alack for them, they got caught. Their response to the catchening is interesting, though. If anybody entertained any doubts at all about just how Jesusy this denomination really is, then this episode of Christians Behaving Badly ought to settle those doubts for good.

(Author’s note: The SBC is torn into two distinct factions. The “Old Guard” are rabid traditionalists who want to ignore the sex abuse crisis, while the “Pretend Progressives” are rabid traditionalists who act like they really care a lot about helping sex abuse victims. Right now, the second group is winning elections left and right. But as today’s story proves, both sides are simply using sex abuse as a political football.)

Situation report: The lawsuit that worried Southern Baptist leaders

In 2018, the adoptive father of Samantha Killary, Sean Jackman, was convicted of sexually abusing her. At the time, he was a longtime police officer. The court sentenced him to 15 years in prison, with parole possible after only a few years. However, Killary soon found that her battle had only reached a midpoint.

Soon enough, the news got out that while in prison, her abuser continued to draw a pension from the police department. In 2020, Killary also had to fight tooth and nail to ensure that Jackson’s first parole request was denied.

So full justice had not been done, in Killary’s opinion. At least two of Jackman’s fellow police officers had allegedly known of the abuse and had done nothing about it. She also felt that the police department itself should be held responsible for the conduct of its three now-former employees.

So she launched a lawsuit against those two officers and her father’s police department.

Initially, the problem with the lawsuit was simple: it’d been filed after the statute of limitations in her state had expired. Though the statute of limitations had been doubled in 2017, her abuse had occurred before then. So she appealed in the hopes that her lawsuit can be considered according to the 2017 law, not the one that governed Kentucky when her abuse occurred. This time, the appeal successfully landed on the laps of her state’s Supreme Court.

In the meanwhile, in 2021 her state expanded the scope allowed to lawsuits. Now, they can be filed against employers, religious entities, state agents, and the like who don’t do their duty to protect children. As well, lawsuits regarding abuse occurring before 2017 may take advantage of 2017’s expansion of the statute of limitations.

The highest court of Kentucky must now decide if Killary’s lawsuit can move forward or not.

Why Southern Baptist leaders freaked out about this lawsuit

Killary vs. Thompson could significantly change how sex abuse victims in Kentucky get justice. Groups that campaign for children’s rights, like Child USA, want Kentucky’s Supreme Court to allow Killary’s lawsuit to go forward.

Obviously, this lawsuit has nothing whatsoever to do directly with the Southern Baptist Convention or its ongoing huge sex abuse scandal. But it worried the denomination’s leaders very much.

See, just like Kentucky itself, the SBC is looking down the double barrel of tons of potential lawsuits from the victims of their employees. If Kentucky’s Supreme Court allows the lawsuit to go forward, it could have a huge impact on the SBC as a whole.

That’s how Southern Baptist leaders got involved.

Possibly the worst PR decision ever made in the SBC

Various lawyers for the SBC filed an amicus brief opposing the lawsuit. In it, they argued against allowing Killary’s 2020 lawsuit to continue. On its last page, we find signatures from four high-end, Kentucky-based lawyers. They represent:

  • The SBC as a whole
  • LifeWay Christian Resources (the SBC’s propaganda and publishing division)
  • Southern Baptist Theological Seminary (SBTS, the SBC’s flagship seminary)
  • The SBC’s Executive Committee (or EC, its top-ranked committee; it handles day-to-day business and sets budgets for SBC entities)

Between them, these groups effectively function as the public face of Southern Baptists.

In fact, these lawyers got permission to write the brief in mid-2022. They submitted the brief in February 2023. The court’s agents time-stamped it in April 2023. Everyone just found out about it recently. A big part of me wonders if Southern Baptist leaders just thought nobody would notice it.

Well, everyone sure as hell did.

If Southern Baptist leaders thought they’d been dealing with a PR disaster before, this brief just amped that situation up to 11.

The Southern Baptist Christ-o-sphere explodes

A whole bunch of Southern Baptist leaders, pastors, and activists erupted with protests.

Sex abuse survivors called the amicus brief “disgusting.” Members of the EC who hadn’t known anything about it expressed their anger and surprise. Mike Keahbone, a member of the EC and the actual task force dealing with the scandal, sounded particularly upset. I can understand why. Out of everyone on the EC, he at least should have been in the loop for this situation.

You almost have to respect Al Mohler’s pathetic attempt to avoid attention. He’s a Southern Baptist made man who runs SBTS, which is one of the entities whose lawyers created the amicus brief. He owes his entire livelihood and status to the Conservative Resurgence that bred the Old Guard SBC faction of today.

This time around, he made some pitiful mealy-mouthed noises about how gosh, we all just need to “respect the rule of law.” I guess SBC-lings just need to forget that he runs SBTS, which means he absolutely knew what his own lawyers were doing in writing that amicus brief—and more importantly, why. They didn’t just fly off the handle and write it on their own.

Possibly the worst response from a Southern Baptist president in years

To go along with the worst PR decision the SBC’s ever made, the Southern Baptist leaders responsible for the brief responded in possibly the worst way imaginable.

Bart Barber, the current president of the SBC, offers a hilarious take: Of course he took total accountability for the brief, yes yes. Accountability times ten! SOOOO accountable! BUT IT WAS REALLY ALL THEIR FAULT FOR RUSHING ME.

(This is the typical form of false accountability for evangelicals. If they use the magic A word, that accomplishes the entire task. No real accountability ever happens—or needs to happen. They just reset the outrage meter that way and life continues like a sitcom.)

In a huge blog post on his personal site (archive), Barber wrote about having no memory whatsoever of the brief or his approval of it:

It happened on August 9, 2022, nearly fifteen months ago. The day before, on August 8, 2022, I announced the appointment of the Abuse Reform Implementation Task Force. [. . .]

In the middle of that day, I now know that I received an email from the SBC’s legal team making me aware of this brief and recommending that we join it. It came at 1:30 PM, which was during the EC trustee orientation and a little more than two hours before I needed to lead that other meeting. The filing deadline was that day, the email said, so I had a little more than three hours to reply one way or the other.

Bart Barber

Gosh, he was just so turned around and everything was just so hectic that he had no real idea what the heck he was doing! He didn’t even remember doing it! He struggled super-hard with the decision but remembers none of it!

Barber ends by declaring that he’s really quite an idiot who has no real idea what he’s doing as the president of the SBC. He concludes by very piously asking for SBC-lings to forgive him for angering them.

Sidebar: Spotting some Southern Baptist strawmen

Shortly before his post’s end, Barber throws in a nice strawman argument:

I can tell you for sure what was NOT my line of thinking.
I was not thinking, “How can I harm survivors of sexual abuse today?”

Bart Barber

Nobody has ever accused him or anyone else of thinking that. It’s interesting that he chose it as a strawman defense, though.

People accuse him—and other SBC leaders—of putting the SBC’s reputation, its money, and its power above justice and real reform. He couldn’t possibly answer that accusation in any kind of adequate way. So he created an accusation he thought he could defeat.

As well, the problem is not that some SBC-lings are angry with him. They are, yes. But that’s not why he should ask for forgiveness. Heck, he’s asking the wrong people to forgive him in the first place.

The problem is that he acted completely out of character with his presentation as someone who cares about sex abuse and reform.

This isn’t the first disastrous Southern Baptist amicus brief

This isn’t the first time that an amicus brief has bitten Southern Baptist leaders in the rump. In 2017, the president of their International Missionary Board (IMB), David Platt, ate crow under similar circumstances. He’d signed onto a lawsuit regarding a mosque being built. A zoning board had refused to allow it, which led to the Muslims wanting it to sue them. Platt’s amicus brief supported the Muslims.

If there’s much of anything Southern Baptists dislike more than being told “no,” it’s supporting Muslims. Their community blew up over that one. In the end, the Muslims won their lawsuit, but Southern Baptists were very sore about Platt’s decision to support them.

Then, in 2020, the same thing happened. This time, the culprit was the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC), a committee devoted to convincing Americans that Southern Baptists’ control grabs and culture wars are completely great.

In this case, Will McRaney, once the Executive Director of the General Mission Board of the Baptist Convention for Maryland/Delaware (BCMD), sued the SBC’s North American Mission Board (NAMB; they handle recruitment in the United States). BCMD operated under NAMB. The guy then in charge of NAMB, Kevin Ezell, didn’t like McRaney. Apparently, Ezell had threatened to withhold NAMB funds from BCMD unless they fired McRaney. After the firing, McRaney alleged as well that NAMB interfered with him finding other Southern Baptist work. (A federal judge dismissed McRaney’s lawsuit in August.)

In the SBC, the main Southern Baptist Convention mothership itself functions as the will of its voters and leaders. Below that hover a number of state-level conventions. Each is supposedly autonomous, just like each individual SBC church. Only the mothership isn’t.

But the language the ERLC used in this brief suggested that there was a clear “hierarchy” of power in the denomination. Everybody noticed. The ERLC backpedaled hard on this one for obvious reasons.

A very clear picture emerges from all of these briefs and apologies:

Power protects its own at all costs.

Don’t ever believe they really care

This story, right here, is why I call Barber’s faction the Pretend Progressives. They are not actually progressive in any way. They don’t really want to see the SBC make progress against sex abuse.

What they really are is a bunch of Southern Baptists who oppose the Old Guard.

Each faction wants to rule the SBC like a high-school clique. That requires votes from SBC-lings. It’s an unavoidable reality for a denomination that really doesn’t like reality much.

If the Pretend Progressives could snag those votes by being honest about their actual plans and desires for the denomination, they’d be doing that. It’s definitely a far easier strategy than the dog-and-pony show they’re giving their flocks these days.

That’s what the Old Guard is doing, though, and it’s important to remember that they are losing this war.

The SBC’s massive coffers and money-making potential matter too much to simply give in to the Pretend Progressives, though, so this is one war that won’t be ending any time soon. Whoever wins, the people who care about justice and reform lose.

ROLL TO DISBELIEVE "Captain Cassidy" is Cassidy McGillicuddy, a Gen Xer and ex-Pentecostal. (The title is metaphorical.) She writes about the intersection of psychology, belief, popular culture, science,...

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