News

Influential Southern Baptist layman Paul Pressler subject of sex abuse suit

Former Judge Paul Pressler, who played a leading role in wresting control of the Southern Baptist Convention from moderates in 1979, poses for a photo in his home in Houston on May 30, 2004. (AP Photo /Michael Stravato; caption amended by RNS)

Former Judge Paul Pressler, who played a leading role in wresting control of the Southern Baptist Convention from moderates starting in 1979, poses for a photo in his home in Houston on May 30, 2004. (AP Photo /Michael Stravato; caption amended by RNS)

(RNS) — Paul Pressler, who was instrumental in the conservative takeover of the Southern Baptist Convention in the late 1970s and early ’80s, is fighting a lawsuit by a former office assistant who alleges the onetime Texas appeals court judge sexually abused him over the course of several decades.

The $1 million suit was filed Oct. 18 by Gareld Duane Rollins Jr. in the District Court in Harris County, Texas.

The plaintiff, now in his 50s, claims he was abused by Pressler starting when he was in his midteens, continuing when he was hired as a “boy Friday” in the judge’s home office and ending around 2014 when Rollins was rearrested and imprisoned for driving while intoxicated.

In a court document responding to the claims, Pressler and his wife, Nancy, a co-defendant, “categorically deny each and every allegation.”

Pressler’s attorney, Ted Tredennick, said the suit’s claims cannot be taken seriously.

“Mr. Rollins is clearly a deeply troubled man, with a track record of multiple felonies and incarceration, and it is the height of irresponsibility that anyone would present such a bizarre and frivolous case,” according to a statement sent to RNS.

The 40-page suit describes sexual acts that allegedly occurred around the time Pressler enrolled Rollins in a Bible study at First Baptist Church in Houston. The suit says Pressler told Rollins that he should consider the alleged rape “our secret, our freedom, no one but God would understand.”

The suit was filed by Rollins’ attorney, Daniel Shea, a Houston lawyer and former Catholic deacon who previously represented young men who alleged they were sexually abused by a seminarian who fled to his native Colombia after the charges arose. That case was settled in 2008.

Legal documents filed in the suit against Pressler, now in his 80s, contain letters he wrote on behalf of Rollins to a parole board reviewing his status after he was charged with forgery and driving under the influence. The suit says Rollins turned to drugs and alcohol — leading to multiple DUI arrests — as a response to the alleged abuse.

In one letter, Pressler mentions plans to employ Rollins after the younger man was granted parole and released from rehab.

The suit also names as defendants Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and its president, Paige Patterson, and Houston’s First Baptist Church, and claims they are liable for their professional, personal or denominational connections with Pressler.

The legal document also goes into the movement led by Pressler and Patterson starting in 1979 that turned the Southern Baptist Convention in a more conservative direction after deep theological battles. It claims that the movement was focused on power, which the suit called “a key ingredient in the abuse of children and women.”

Mark Lanier, a Houston lawyer representing Patterson and his seminary, rejected the allegations, saying they are “riddled with errors and falsehoods.”

“We will diligently defend the fine reputation of Dr. Patterson and SWBST in court,” he said, referring to the seminary by its initials.

Jared Woodfill, who along with his Houston-based Woodfill Law Firm was also named as a defendant, said Rollins’ suit has no grounds. The suit describes Woodfill as a principal of the firm that succeeded one whose leadership he shared with Pressler.

“This is a frivolous lawsuit filed by an ex-con in an attempt to extort money from the Pressler family, Paige Patterson, Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, First Baptist Church of Houston and me,” he said. “We will fight this case until we win and justice is served.”

The church responded to RNS with a statement saying the allegations about it date to 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.”

Rollins’ suit, which seeks relief for alleged “severe mental injuries,” claims the other defendants were “co-conspirators” or “joint enterprisers” or otherwise liable for their professional, personal or denominational connections with Pressler.

“There are no allegations that any of the other defendants were physical perpetrators,” Shea said in an interview.

About the author

Adelle M. Banks

Adelle M. Banks, production editor and a national reporter, joined RNS in 1995. An award-winning journalist, she previously was the religion reporter at the Orlando Sentinel and a reporter at The Providence Journal and newspapers in the upstate New York communities of Syracuse and Binghamton.

15 Comments

Click here to post a comment

  • Ugh, Mark Lanier, shyster to the sociopaths. one of the ugliest Rethug lawyers in the country. Hope that somehow justice prevails and miserable old stuffed toad Pressler finally pays for some of his atrocities!

  • Tried and Convicted in the Court of WWW/Social Media! Welcome to the 21st century. Think I’d like to go back a few.

  • Paul Pressler’s POWER 1

    What an astounding, if complicated and hard-to-prove, accusation this is against my fellow born-again Christian brother, but worth my looking into:

    That “[Paul] Pressler … starting in 1979 … turned the Southern Baptist Convention in a more conservative direction … [by means of] POWER … ‘a key ingredient in the abuse of children and women’ … [whereby (1)] Gareld Duane Rollins Jr. … was abused by Pressler starting when he was in his midteens, … [involving] sexual acts … [and] rape [that] ‘no one but God would understand’ … [and whereby (2) he was] turned to drugs and alcohol — leading to multiple DUI arrests — as a response to the alleged abuse.”

    That’s incredible, if believable! Paul Pressler wielded that much dual POWER – seriously?! POWER that he so abused in church politics and – at the same time – to Gareld Duane Rollins Jr.’s sexuality and overall well-being?!

    I’ll see what I can dig in from news media, before I make up my mind. Hopefully nothing.

  • Paul Pressler’s POWER 2

    According to Jim Jones, “Moderates Unite? The Future of Southern Baptist Dissidents”, Christian Century, August 14, 2002, pages 30-34: “Political TACTICS … used successfully by Paige Patterson, Houston Judge Paul Pressler and other conservative leaders … [was] described by Roy Honeycutt, former president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, as ‘unholy FORCES’ threatening to destroy cherished Baptist traditions of soul liberty and priesthood of the believer.”

  • Otherwise, super-CREEPY, right? That “[Paul] Pressler … starting in 1979 … turned the Southern Baptist Convention in a more conservative direction … [by means of] POWER … ‘a key ingredient in the abuse of children and women’ … [whereby (1)] Gareld Duane Rollins Jr. … was abused by Pressler starting when he was in his midteens, … [involving] sexual acts … [and] rape [that] ‘no one but God would understand’ … [and whereby (2) he was] turned to drugs and alcohol — leading to multiple DUI arrests — as a response to the alleged abuse.”

  • Don’t you find this accusation weird, though? That “[Paul] Pressler … starting in 1979 … turned the Southern Baptist Convention in a more conservative direction … [by means of] POWER … ‘a key ingredient in the abuse of children and women’ … [whereby (1)] Gareld Duane Rollins Jr. … was abused by Pressler starting when he was in his midteens, … [involving] sexual acts … [and] rape [that] ‘no one but God would understand’ … [and whereby (2) he was] turned to drugs and alcohol — leading to multiple DUI arrests — as a response to the alleged abuse.”

    Otherwise, remember the rule: Rejoice if Pressler is being persecuted because of his righteousness in Christ Jesus. And rejoice if he’s sent to prison because he did evil to Gareld Duane Rollins Jr.

  • Paul Pressler’s POWER 3

    According to David Flick, “How Fundamentalist Myths Changed the SBC”, Baptist Life, June 9, 2002:

    “Paul … Pressler’s claim to fame was his introduction of a secular method of POLITICS into denominational life. … Perpetuated [by him] … the myths of ‘liberalism’ in the seminaries and churches snowballed, becoming a strong factor in the fundamentalist TAKEOVER of the Southern Baptist Convention. … At the 1979 convention in Houston … [by] using the myths about a wide-spread liberalism in the ranks of the Southern Baptist seminaries and leaders, Pressler and the fundamentalist leaders who occupied the skyboxes managed to elect Adrian Rogers, whom they planned to be the first of at least ten consecutive denominational presidents … [to] seize CONTROL of all boards and agencies in the convention … EXPUNGING anyone who was deemed to be liberal … [Hence, per his] new meaning to the phrase, ‘Going for the JUGULAR.’ By 1990 … the fundamentalists had secured complete CONTROL of all the boards and agencies of the convention … fired or excluded many seminary professors and presidents … replaced with fundamentalists.”

  • Paul Pressler’s POWER 4

    According to Brian Kaylor, “Southern Baptists Adopt Controversial Resolution on Israel”, Ethics Daily, June 16, 2016:

    “SBC messengers … passed a resolution urging an end to flying the Confederate Battle Flag. ‘I applaud the Southern Baptist Convention’s prioritizing racial reconciliation during its 2016 annual meeting,’ [‘Robert Parham, executive editor of EthicsDaily.com and executive director of the Baptist Center for Ethics’] said. ‘It was a good day for all Baptists on race relations in America.’ … [However] the resolution time on Tuesday ended with an unusual moment as Paul Pressler, the other key leader with [‘Paige Patterson, president of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary’] in the rightward shift of the SBC, came to a microphone and complained about not being allowed to speak against the resolution on the Confederate Flag. Speaking at a microphone after the resolution’s passage, Pressler INSISTED he should have been given special PRIVILEGE to speak despite the established protocol. He CHARGED [‘SBC President Ronnie Floyd’] and parliamentarian Barry McCarty with a conspiracy to stop him from speaking, calling such an action ‘very bad, illegal, improper and unfair.'”

  • Paul Pressler’s POWER 5

    According to Emma Platoff, “Paul Pressler, former Texas judge and religious right leader, accused of sexually assaulting teen for years: A lawsuit filed this fall alleges that Paul Pressler, a former state judge, lawmaker and leader on the religious right, repeatedly sexually assaulted a young man over a period of decades, beginning when the boy was just 14”, Texas Tribune, December 12, 2017:

    “[Duane Rollins’] lawyer, Daniel Shea … said [Paul] Pressler previously SETTLED with Rollins over a 2004 battery charge for an incident in a Dallas hotel room. That settlement is not public, Shea said, but reference is made to such an agreement in recent court filings. Shea said that though Rollins filed that ASSAULT charge more than a decade ago, he had a ‘suppressed memory’ of the sexual ABUSE until he made an outcry statement to a prison psychologist in November 2015. Harvey Rosenstock, a psychiatrist who has been working with Rollins since August 2016, wrote in a letter included in the suit that Rollins is a ‘reliable historian for the childhood sexual trauma to which he was repeatedly and chronically subjected.'”

  • Paul Pressler’s POWER 6

    According to Ronald J. Ostrow, “Judge’s Fitness for Ethics Post Questioned”, Los Angeles Times, September 22, 1989:

    “[Paul Pressler] who was President Bush’s choice to head the Office of Government Ethics may be eliminated from consideration because of unspecified ethics problems uncovered by an FBI background check, Administration officials confirmed Thursday. … The FBI has been conducting its background check on Pressler since July, and one source familiar with the case said some of the most critical information was supplied by colleagues and subordinates of the Houston judge. A recent account in a Texas newspaper said that Pressler critics, including moderate Southern Baptists who have been alienated by his fundamentalist crusade, presented allegations to the FBI accusing the judge of religious bigotry and official MISCONDUCT. … The Houston Chronicle reported that the Harris County district attorney’s office was looking into allegations that Pressler, a justice on the 14th Court of Appeals in Houston, misused county office equipment and staff for church-related business. … The judge also was accused of having improperly tape-recorded a phone conversation with a seminary student in Kentucky and of having attempted to get a Houston company to FIRE an attorney who had written a critical letter about Pressler to a Baptist newspaper, the Chronicle reported.”

ADVERTISEMENTs