Top Southern Baptist committee funds sex abuse probe

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FILE – In this Tuesday, June 11, 2019 file photo, Jules Woodson, center, of Colorado Springs, Colo., is comforted by her boyfriend Ben Smith, left, and Christa Brown while demonstrating outside the Southern Baptist Convention’s annual meeting in Birmingham, Ala. First-time attendee Woodson spoke through tears as she described being abused sexually by a Southern Baptist minister. (AP Photo/Julie Bennett, File)

NASHVILLE, Tennessee (AP) — A top Southern Baptist Convention committee agreed Tuesday to fund a third-party investigation into its handling of sexual abuse allegations but held off on waiving its attorney-client privilege for the probe, delaying for the future a decision seen as a key demand of the thousands of Southern Baptists who set the review in motion.

The Executive Committee allocated $1.6 million for Guidepost Solutions, the firm conducting the investigation into allegations it mishandled abuse cases, resisted reforms and intimidated survivors and advocates. They also agreed to taking more time to negotiate the contract and other legal questions related to the investigation.

“I think it’s a good step and I think that it shows our unity on the urgency of the matter,” Executive Committee Chair Rolland Slade said.

The decision, the latest action taken in the denomination’s ongoing public reckoning with the scandal, came at the end of the Executive Committee’s two-day business meeting in Nashville. The investigation, including the question of whether the Executive Committee would waive its attorney-client privilege, dominated discussion. The rule protects the confidentiality of communications on legal advice and some Executive Committee members raised concerns waiving it could impact litigation and insurance policies.

Delegates, also known as messengers, voted overwhelmingly at their national gathering in June to create a task force charged with overseeing the third-party investigation.

They also directed the task force to agree to the investigator’s recommended standards and best practices, “including but not limited to the Executive Committee staff and members waiving attorney-client privilege in order to ensure full access to information and accuracy in the review.” In August, the task force formerly asked the Executive Committee to waive it, saying it is the will of the messengers and critical to the investigation.

On Monday and Tuesday, Executive Committee members heard from key stakeholders about the investigation, asked questions about the risks of waiving privilege and disagreed over how much of this week’s discussions should happen behind closed doors.

Julie Myers Wood, the CEO of Guidepost Solutions, told the Executive Committee waiving privilege is the “only way to ensure that the investigation is viewed as fully credible, transparent and thorough and to show that the EC has and the Southern Baptist Convention has nothing to hide.”

On Tuesday, the members took hours to hash out what they ultimately approved, which also included asking the task force and Executive Committee officers to come up with a contract in seven days that did not waive attorney-client privilege.

After the vote, Executive Committee member Joe Knott from North Carolina said they have a legal responsibility to be good stewards of the institution.

“Anyone who does harm to anyone else should be exposed and full courts of law brought down upon them. No one wants to cover up any crime,” Knott said. “However, there are also laws that govern fiduciary responsibility and we don’t want to break those laws either.”

SBC President Ed Litton said in a statement that Tuesday’s decision by the Executive Committee fell short of the mandate the delegates gave in June.

“I’m disappointed that several known issues are only now being addressed with appropriate seriousness, but I’m grateful the investigation will begin,” Litton said.

The investigation into the Executive Committee is expected to take several months. A written report of the findings is due to the task force before Southern Baptists meet in June for their annual denominational meeting.

The report is expected to be made public along with recommendations from the task force about the next steps the convention should take.

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