A brief filed in a Kentucky case has infuriated members of the denomination across the country, just as it grapples with an abuse scandal.
For six months, almost no one took notice of the brief filed quietly by Southern Baptists in a case winding its way to the Kentucky Supreme Court.
At the center of the case is a woman whose father, a police officer, was convicted in 2020 of sexually abusing her over a period of years when she was a child. The woman later sued several parties, including the Louisville Police Department, saying they knew about the abuse and had a duty to report it. Now, the state’s highest court is considering whether sex abuse victims can have more time to sue “non-perpetrators” — institutions or their leaders that are obligated to protect children from such abuse.
None of it appeared to have anything to do with the Southern Baptist Convention, the nation’s largest Protestant denomination. But in April, lawyers representing the denomination filed an amicus brief opposing expansion of the statute of limitations for lawsuits against third parties, including religious institutions.
The brief, reported by The Louisville Courier-Journal in October, landed like a bombshell in Southern Baptist circles. The organization has spent the last several years grappling with revelations that its national leaders suppressed reports of abuse and resisted reform for decades. The brief, abuse survivors and those critical of the church say, offers the first clear look at the church’s true position on whether its leaders can be held accountable for abuse.
It has led to a flurry of blistering reactions and efforts by S.B.C. leaders to distance themselves from the brief, which they characterize as a decision driven by lawyers. The brief says that the denomination has a “strong interest in the statute-of-limitations issue” in the case, and argues that a 2021 state law allowing abuse victims to sue third-party “non-perpetrators” was not intended to be applied retroactively.
“I’ve never seen such unmitigated and justified anger among Southern Baptists,” said Russell Moore, the former head of the denomination’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, who is now the editor in chief of Christianity Today.
The brief has disrupted continuing reform efforts in the denomination, which have gained momentum since an investigation by The Houston Chronicle and The San Antonio Express-News in 2019 revealed that hundreds of Southern Baptist leaders had pleaded guilty or had been convicted of sex crimes in recent decades.
Since then, the denomination has passed a resolution calling abuse both a sin and a crime, commissioned and published a third-party investigation into its handling of abuse and pledged to create a searchable database of people who have been credibly accused of abuse in Southern Baptist settings.
The denomination’s president, Bart Barber, who has supported abuse reforms, said in a statement that he takes “full responsibility” for the denomination joining the brief. He said he was asked for approval by the S.B.C.’s legal team and regrets not giving it the attention he should have. “I know that my credibility with you is harmed by this, perhaps irreparably,” he wrote in an open statement to Southern Baptists.
Yet, in that same statement, he said he is undecided on the matter. “I am not sure exactly what I think about statutes of limitation. I think they are a mixed bag,” he wrote. “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.”
States including California and New York have expanded the statutes of limitations for filing civil suits in abuse cases. About a dozen Catholic dioceses in the United States are currently in bankruptcy proceedings.
Victims and their advocates say that the brief undercuts the intentions of the thousands of local pastors and other delegates at the denomination’s annual meeting who have consistently supported reform efforts.
In the last several years of votes on the meeting floor, “abuse reform is undefeated,” said Mike Keahbone, a pastor in Oklahoma who is on the denomination’s executive committee and its Abuse Reform Implementation Task Force, established last year.
Mr. Keahbone said that members of the executive committee, the denomination’s top leadership body, were not informed about its lawyers’ intentions to join the brief.
Jules Woodson, who has said her youth pastor sexually assaulted her at a Texas church in the 1990s, said she and other abuse survivors felt the denomination seemed to be acting behind closed doors to oppose what it championed in public.
“This is exactly what us survivors have been saying all along,” Ms. Woodson said, describing the denomination as an institution that, when push comes to shove, operates as coldly as a business.
Ms. Woodson and two other survivors issued a statement calling the brief a “disgusting” move to “actively detonate any and all measures of justice that are rightfully ours as victims of abuse.”
The parties signing onto the brief include Lifeway Christian Resources, the denomination’s publishing arm, and the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. Both are defendants in a suit filed in Kentucky by a woman who says that her father, a Baptist pastor, abused her for years and that employees of various institutions failed to protect her.
Al Mohler Jr., the seminary’s president, said in a statement that in “questions of law” the seminary must defer to legal counsel. A Lifeway spokeswoman did not respond to a request for comment.
Jonathan Whitehead, a lawyer who often represents religious institutions in court, said that while the goal of rectifying abuse is a noble one, it may be too much to expect the denomination to provide pastoral support to victims, to accept legal responsibility for past abuses and to protect its own existence.
“It’s awfully hard to be the party of care and the party of responsibility at the same time.”
For reform advocates, the episode has been disturbing.
“We’re absolutely alienating women, and we’re alienating generations like millennials,” said Keith Myer, a pastor in Maryland who organized a fund-raiser to help abuse victims attend the annual meeting this summer. “It can’t just be about preserving our institutions. You have to think about preserving the membership and preserving what we stand for.”