Lawyer: Abuse verdict possible game-changer

Miami attorney Ronald Weil says the Southern Baptist Convention’s local-church autonomy defense in sex abuse lawsuits against churches is more legal strategy than fact.

By Bob Allen

The attorney for a man awarded $12.5 million by a Florida jury for childhood sexual abuse suffered at the hands of a Baptist minister says the verdict could be a game-changer for how Southern Baptists handle credible accusations of clergy misconduct.

ronald weil“I think it’s a good thing for the Florida Baptist Convention to clean up their act,” attorney Ronald Weil of the Miami-based law firm Weil, Quaranta, McGovern said Jan. 22 of last week’s judgment by a Lake County, Fla., jury against the 3,000-church statewide affiliate of the Southern Baptist Convention. “Hopefully, this is a wake-up call for them to do that.”

The jury handed down a unanimous verdict on Saturday, Jan. 18, awarding damages to a victim now in his 20s who claimed he was molested as a child by a church planter trained and supposedly vetted by the Baptist state convention. A previous jury found the convention responsible for the minister’s actions in 2012.

Weil, a 30-year civil trial lawyer who specializes in sexual abuse and victims' rights litigation, said to his knowledge it is the first time for a state Southern Baptist convention to suffer a verdict in a case involving child sexual abuse.

A 2008 article in the Nashville Scene quoted Southern Baptist Convention General Counsel Jim Guenther saying the convention has never lost a lawsuit of any kind in the 50 years he has represented the denomination.

Guenther said the SBC had only been sued in sexual abuse cases five times and settled only one of those. That was not through an admission of guilt, but because the denomination’s insurance company chose to pay the plaintiff a “small nuisance value” rather than the attorney fees to try the case, he added.

Augie Boto, legal counsel for the SBC Executive Committee, said in a blog interview quoted in the article: “Though the SBC is named as a party in legal proceedings about twice per year on average ... it has not ever had a judgment rendered against it throughout its entire existence. SBC polity is the major reason for its frequent dismissal out of lawsuits on motions for summary judgment.” 

Guenther said the SBC typically is dismissed from lawsuits because in the denomination’s system of governance, local churches are responsible for choosing and supervising their ministers and not the national organization. “The law does not hold persons liable for things they had nothing to do with,” Guenther told the Nashville Scene.

Weil, however, said the local-church autonomy argument is “really a legal strategy and not so much a reality,” noting that voluntary cooperation doesn’t prevent state and national conventions from chastising churches that affirm homosexuality or call a woman as pastor.

Gary Yeldell, the convention’s attorney of record, said he is confident that the judgment will be reversed on appeal. “This confidence is based, in large part, on the jury's express finding that Myers was an independent pastor who was not hired, employed or supervised by the convention,” he said in a statement Jan. 21.

Weil said regardless of who signed the minister’s pay check, he was an “agent” of the state convention, which gave him eight weeks of training and conducted criminal, motor vehicle and credit checks but didn’t bother to contact “his two immediate previous churches, where he was run out of town” over inappropriate conduct with boys.

Weil said his client is now attending college and does not wish to be identified.

“He has good days and he has bad days,” Weil said of his client’s recovery from childhood trauma and betrayal. He said one thing the jury “absolutely rejected” was the idea that the victim would be able to walk through the experience unscathed.

christa brownChrista Brown, a victims’ advocate, welcomed the judgment against Florida Baptists.

“Cases such as this are what it will take for kids to eventually gain better protection against preacher-predators in the Southern Baptist Convention,” Brown said. “And I believe it is only a matter of time before courts will recognize that, in the context of clergy sex abuse, Southern Baptists are distorting their doctrine of local church autonomy so as to make it function as a legal strategy for minimizing the risk of liability rather than as a true religious doctrine.”

“When courts finally recognize that reality, Baptist denominational entities will not be protected against their long, immoral and unconscionable history of do-nothingness in the face of clergy sex abuse reports,” said Brown, herself a survivor of sexual abuse.

Eight years ago Brown fought unsuccessfully to get the SBC to adopt safeguards like an independent panel to receive and evaluate reports of clergy sex abuse and a database listing confessed and credibly accused individuals for use by search committees to screen out predators not listed in the national sex offender registry, because they have not yet been caught, tried and convicted of a crime.

Brown detailed her uphill battle to report her molestation decades earlier by a Southern Baptist youth minister in a 2009 book titled This Little Light: Beyond a Baptist Preacher Predator and His Gang. She is a blogger and has archived numerous articles on Baptist clergy sex abuse at a website called StopBaptistPredators.org.

Previous story:

Florida Baptists to appeal abuse award