The task force investigating the Southern Baptist Convention Executive Committee’s handling of sexual abuse allegations has selected Guidepost Solutions to conduct the independent investigation called for by messengers at the 2021 SBC Annual Meeting, but SBC leaders are questioning the extent to which they can or should cooperate in the investigation.
A Sept. 9 press release issued by the task force said proposals from several investigative and law firms were vetted, and Guidepost Solutions was selected based on several criteria, including the firm’s extensive background in abuse and the proper responses to sexual abuse, survivor care and abuse prevention, along with background and experience in SBC culture and polity.
“Selecting a firm with significant expertise and credibility in this sphere provides assurance that the processes will prioritize accuracy in the counsel, assessment and report provided,” according to the task force statement.
In a statement released to Baptist Press, the SBC Executive Committee welcomed the announcement saying: “Now, nearly three months after the Annual Meeting, the Executive Committee welcomes the announcement that Guidepost Solutions has been chosen by the task force to conduct the third-party inquiry of the Executive Committee.”
Rolland Slade, Executive Committee chairman, also affirmed the Guidepost selection in a statement saying, “I thank the task force for their diligence in selecting Guidepost Solutions. Now that we know the firm, we can all move forward to the next steps. As I asked in June, please be patient with all of us as we walk this road together. We want make sure we do things right.”
In June, the Executive Committee announced that it had retained Guidepost to “conduct an independent review of its processes,” according to a statement from Ronnie Floyd, president of the Executive Committee. Floyd noted Guidepost’s position as a “global leader in monitoring, compliance, sensitive investigations, and risk management solutions” and the firm’s “deep experience providing advice and counsel to faith communities in this area.”
But in recent public statements and written communication to Executive Committee members, Floyd has not committed to waiving the committee’s attorney-client privilege in its contacts with Guidepost. Floyd also raised questions about whether doing so would violate SBC bylaws.
One potential sticking point is a request of convention messengers, the task force and Guidepost that members of the Executive Committee waive attorney-client privilege. The task force declared this to be “absolutely critical to ensuring that the third-party firm has full access to relevant and material information.”
In a statement also released Sept. 9 as reported by Baptist News Global, the Executive Committee said its leadership “is not opposed in principle to requests for the waiving of attorney-client privilege considerations when it is relevant, it is appropriate, and it is in consultation with the third-party commissioned to conduct the inquiry, Guidepost. Speculation to the contrary is internet rumor and untrue.”
It added, however, that “these are decisions for the Executive Committee’s board of trustees” to make. The statement also declared: “We urge the public to leave this review now to Guidepost and the Executive Committee to be handled in an appropriate and professional manner on behalf of all Southern Baptists.”
Independence and transparency
The task force contract signed with Guidepost says that Guidepost “will remain independent of the task force, the SBC, the Executive Committee and the Credentials Committee. No attorney-client relationship will be formed between Guidepost and the task force, the SBC, the Executive Committee or the Credentials Committee. Accordingly, communications between Guidepost (including its employees and agents) on the one hand, and the task force, the SBC, the Executive Committee and/or the Credentials Committee will not be protected by the attorney-client privilege.”
Further, it stipulates that Guidepost “will document in its written report whether any person or entity has withheld access to information, documents, records, facilities and/or employees, officers, agents, or others through a claim of attorney-client privilege or the attorney work product doctrine.”
In a letter to the Executive Committee obtained by Religion News Service, Floyd said that statements by the task force should not be considered legal advice, adding that the committee had to decide whether or not to follow the best practices outlined by Guidepost.
“We should seek to understand these best practices before we decide which practices to apply,” he said. “For example, if we do this incorrectly, will we be as a nonprofit organization, denying our rights to effective counsel in the middle of litigation?”
Floyd also downplayed the role of the abuse task force, saying its only role was to hire an outside firm, wait for that firm to issue a report and then report back to the messengers.
The task force argues, however, that attorney-client privilege has been used in the past by other groups to hide important information from investigators and that claiming privilege would run counter to the will of SBC messengers.
“The Messengers sent a clear message to Members of the SBC Executive Committee by passing the Motion and emphasizing that they expect an open and transparent investigation with waiver of privilege,” the task force stated in an update on its website. “Members of the SBC Executive Committee, who hold a position of trust within the SBC, have a duty to be open and forthright, and operate at the direction of the Messengers.”
Grant Gaines, pastor of Belle Aire Baptist Church in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, agrees.
He said that waiving privilege is essential to making sure that investigators have access to all the information they need. Gaines said he hopes the Executive Committee will abide by the will of the messengers.
“I expect the Executive Committee to vote to waive privilege when they meet in September,” Gaines said.
Failing to do that, Gaines said, would put the Executive Committee in conflict with the clear statement by church messengers.
Floyd’s lack of commitment to waiving privilege or a refusal by the Executive Committee to follow the will of the messengers could lead to a crisis in the denomination, said Bart Barber, pastor of First Baptist Church Farmersville, Texas, a former member of the Executive Committee who often speaks on Southern Baptist governance.
Technically, said Barber, the Executive Committee is not obligated to heed the messengers on the question of waiving privilege. That decision is in the hands of Executive Committee members. But defying the will of the messengers was a “nuclear option,” Barber said, and could have significant consequences. The SBC’s entire governance model is built on “a rope of sand.”
“What makes that rope of sand work is trust,” he said.
Failing to follow the will of the trustees would be “a tremendous violation of trust” and undermines the claim that churches — not denominational leaders — run the convention, Barber added.
Rolland Slade, senior pastor of Meridian Baptist Church in El Cajon, California, and chair of the Executive Committee said that he believes the committee is obligated to abide by the will of the messengers.
“We don’t have a choice,” he said.
During the Executive Committee’s upcoming meeting, to be held Sept. 20-21, in Nashville, Slade expects committee members to have in-depth conversations about how to comply with the will of the messengers.
“We have to do this the right way,” he said.
Read the full press release, which includes the criteria used to select Guidepost Solutions and more information about the Guidepost team members who will work with the task force here.
Survivors, witnesses and other members of the public who wish to communicate with the Guidepost team can do so through the following email address: ECInvestigation@guidepostsolutions.com.
Persons reporting information to this email address can do so anonymously. Names and other personally identifying information of survivors and witnesses who choose to report information to this email address will remain private so long as permitted by law. Only Guidepost will have access to the information submitted to this email address; it is not accessible to the Task Force or the SBC.
EDITOR’S NOTE — This article was updated on Sept. 15 to include comments from several SBC leaders.