Monday, October 30, 2023

Statement Regarding the Convention's Amicus Brief

 Good morning:

Last week a reporter published a story about an amicus curia brief that the Southern Baptist Convention joined in a Kentucky sexual abuse case. Many of you have wanted me to make a statement about this brief. I should have said something long before today. I am so glad that I didn’t.

You see, if I had given you a hot take…if I had commented immediately, I would have said, “What are you talking about? I don’t know anything about any amicus brief.” But over the weekend I found the email where I approved the SBC’s participation in this brief. 

This is my doing. I approved it. I take full responsibility for the SBC’s having joined this brief, and this lengthy statement will help to explain the mistakes I think I have made.

In saying that, I know that a lot of people are disappointed with me and angry. I’m talking about friends I’ve had for two decades. I’m talking about survivors of sexual abuse for whom I have wanted to be an advocate. I’m talking about people I myself appointed to carry forward the SBC’s response to the Guidepost Investigation. A lot of people—a lot of friends and allies—are really disappointed with me today. I don’t have words to express how I feel about that.

And I know that a lot of you would pose this question: “Bart, what were you thinking?” I’m going to try to answer that as best I can, although I’m having to piece it together myself, since I did not even remember that I had done this. Maybe I can explain why I did not remember 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. That night I released a video responding to heated criticism I had received for appointing Todd Benkert to that committee. I made that video from a hotel room in Nashville.

Why was I in Nashville? The day we are talking about, August 9, was the day when I attended orientation with all of the new members of the SBC Executive Committee. We were in meetings all morning and into the afternoon. As soon as that day-long orientation was over, I had to go to another meeting. I had called the Great Commission Council together to reveal to them something they did not yet know—that the Department of Justice had opened an investigation of the Southern Baptist Convention and that we were determined to cooperate fully.

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. 

And so, maybe you can imagine what I was doing. I was sitting in an orientation meeting, trying to pay attention. At the same time, I was fielding questions about my ARITF appointments, some of which were pretty insistent. Also, I was preparing for what I expected to be a tense and difficult meeting. In between all of that, as the other things allowed time, I was sneaking looks at this brief, reading it to see whether I could approve of our participation in it. And the clock was ticking. The whole thing was an email conversation, and a brief one at that. I became aware that the SBC Executive Committee was joining the brief. I approved our joining the brief. I hadn’t heard anything about it or thought anything about it since then until last Wednesday.

Legal work has not been my favorite part of the SBC presidency, although I have tried to discharge my duties in this area with appropriate diligence. There is one aspect of courtrooms and affidavits and depositions, however, that I have welcomed. In legal matters, the only oath I have had to take is to tell the truth. Not what side it favors. Not what outcome it engineers. When I am asked to sign an affidavit, I read it from start to finish and simply ask myself, “Do I know all of these things to be true?” If so, I sign it. If not, I ask for it to be corrected. Our legal counsel have told me on more than one occasion, “Bart, just tell the truth.”

I do not recall my exact thoughts in reading the brief. I did not know the circumstances of the underlying legal case. I do, however, know what has been my consistent practice in addressing these legal matters, so I am very confident that I was reading that brief asking myself the question, “Is this an honest, true legal question for which the Southern Baptist Convention can take this position in good faith?” What was I thinking? I was thinking about THAT question. I did what I did because of the answer to that question.

There’s another important question to consider. The Executive Committee of the Southern Baptist Convention, not the Convention President, is empowered to act as the Convention ad interim. The consent that I gave on August 9, 2002, was consent that I gave in coordination with the decision made by the Interim CEO of the SBC Executive Committee to join this brief. The messengers have not voted on any of this. Does it even lie within the power of the SBC President to make decisions about amici curiae unilaterally on behalf of the Convention? I think probably not. When the SBC Executive Committee exercises its ad interim authority on matter like this, I think that the President of the SBC is as obligated to execute those decisions as he is if the messengers had voted on the matter themselves.

Those are interesting questions, to be sure. The more important question is this one: What about Samantha Killary? Knowing what I know now about what she has endured, I can’t stop thinking about her. What have I communicated to her and to other survivors by taking this action? Those questions can give clarity when legal questions are difficult to sort out. And some of the legal questions in play certainly are difficult to sort out.

I am not sure exactly what I think about statutes of limitation. I think they are a mixed bag. I agree with our 2019 resolution that statutes of limitation can get in the way of true justice. I also think that sometimes they are an important part of justice. The SBC gets sued sometimes by abusers alleging defamation when we take stands against clergy sexual abuse, and that’s only going to increase as we move forward with abuse reform. Protections like statutes of limitation enable us to have a Ministry Check Website. I am uncomfortable with the harm statutes of limitations can do, but I also think that they play a valid role in the law sometimes.

I may not know for sure what I think about statutes of limitations, but I know for sure what I believe about preventing clergy sexual abuse. I know for sure what I believe about reporting suspected sexual abuse every time, right away. I know exactly what I believe about how sexual misconduct disqualifies people from pastoral ministry.

Also, among all of those other things that I can say with certainty, I can say this: I did not give this decision to file this brief the level of consideration that it deserved. Some of the most important information affecting my decision was information I failed to seek. Knowing what I know now, I know that I should have asked more questions. I should have taken the opportunity to request a meeting between the Interim CEO, myself, and our legal counsel to gather more information. I did not have the power to decide then, but I did have the opportunity to advise. I failed to use that opportunity wisely, and I regret that. Our future decisions likewise lie with the SBC Executive Committee. I hope to do a better job of using my voice to influence those decisions going forward.

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?” I spent that day appointing people like Marshall Blalock and Todd Benkert, both of whom have publicly expressed disapproval of this brief. I wasn’t appointing Todd or Marshall out of one hand while trying to thwart their efforts out of the other. I know that for sure. I spent that day trying to support everyone on the Abuse Reform Implementation Task Force and to carry forward our work. August 9, 2022, was not a day I spent trying to hurt survivors.

That’s what makes it hurt so much, and that’s what makes me so disappointed in myself: I did, in fact, wind up hurting survivors by what I did. My determination for us to advance abuse reform in the SBC is no less than it was when I began, but I know that my credibility with you is harmed by this, perhaps irreparably.

Throughout the last year and a half, so many of you have told me that you are praying for me. I can tell by the looks on your faces that some of you think I am joking when I reply, “Please keep praying for me, because every day I make decisions for you that I do not know how to make.” I am counting on your prayers and I am counting on wisdom from above. I hope that I learn a little with every mistake that I make, and I hope that those of you who are angry with me today can find it in your hearts to forgive me.

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