A lawsuit alleging decades of sexual abuse by retired Texas state judge Paul Pressler has named a Southern Baptist Convention entity among its co-defendants.
Following multiple media reports on the Oct. 18 suit, Pressler’s legal team released a statement Dec. 12 to Baptist Press, in which attorney Ted Tredennick called the allegations “frivolous.”
Pressler — who helped engineer a strategy to turn the Southern Baptist Convention back to its theologically conservative roots in the late 20th century — denies the allegations by Plaintiff Gareld Duane Rollins, who claimed Pressler sexually abused him repeatedly between the late 1970s, when Rollins was 14, and 2014. Rollins’ petition, filed in Texas state district court, alleges he was enrolled in a young adult Bible study which Pressler led at Houston First Baptist Church, and later served as Pressler’s office assistant.
Rollins listed Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, its president Paige Patterson, Pressler’s wife, Nancy, Houston First Baptist Church, Pressler’s former law partner Jared Woodfill and the Woodfill Law Firm as additional defendants, claiming they facilitated the abuse and “concealed the wrongful conduct of Pressler” from law enforcement authorities.
Each of the defendants, in their responses to the lawsuit filed with the court, have denied all allegations by Rollins.
The lawsuit demands more than $1 million in relief, claiming the alleged abuse contributed to Rollins’ life of substance abuse and crime.
Pressler, 87, was a justice on the Court of Appeals of Texas, 14th District, and a member of the Texas state legislature. He also served Southern Baptists in various other volunteer capacities.
Pressler’s formal response to the lawsuit, filed with the court Nov. 17, stated that he “generally and categorically” denied “each and every allegation” in the suit.
Mark Lanier, an attorney representing Patterson and Southwestern, told BP in written comments he “can say categorically that” the seminary and Patterson “had no knowledge of, no participation in, nor any suspicion of any improper behavior by anyone as set out in the complaint.”
At least 10 pages of the 40-page lawsuit focus on the SBC’s conservative turn, known as the Conservative Resurgence, arguing the culture fostered by Resurgence leaders contributed to the alleged abuse.
The lawsuit claims Patterson, like Pressler, “appears to be a closet Calvinist” and that the supposedly Calvinistic theology they advocated during the Resurgence regarded women and children as “property.” Pressler’s co-defendants, the suit claims, made “minors sexually available to Pressler,” who, “under Calvinist dogma,” is “considered to be [among the] Vice Regents of God.”
Southwestern and Houston First Baptist, the lawsuit alleges, “fraudulently misrepresented to the public in word and deed, including to Plaintiff Rollins and his mother, that Pressler was a Godlike, sexually safe, moral, and great person of the earth who, as a Magistrate, worked God’s wisdom and thus would not be sexually dangerous to minors.”
Houston First Baptist told BP in a statement: “A lawsuit has been filed against a former member of our church, the church itself, and other parties. Paul Pressler III and his wife were members of Houston First Baptist Church for many years. They have not been members of our church since 2007.”
The events the lawsuit alleges are said to have “occurred in the 1980s, and we do not believe that any former or current staff members had knowledge of or involvement with any of the conduct forming the basis of the allegations,” Houston First said.
The case is in its earliest stages and is likely to proceed with typical pre-trial discovery requests and other normal motions and responses.
Southwestern and Patterson filed a motion Nov. 17 asking a judge to change the venue of the case to Tarrant County, where the seminary is located. A hearing on the motion is scheduled for Jan. 16.
— David Roach is chief national correspondent for Baptist Press, the Southern Baptist Convention’s news service.