(RNS) — The Southern Baptist Convention, the nation’s largest Protestant denomination, has been added as a defendant in a case alleging that a prominent layman and onetime Texas appeals court judge sexually abused a former office assistant over the course of several decades.
In a court document filed Jan. 12 in the District Court of Harris County, Texas, plaintiff Gareld Duane Rollins Jr. of Houston added to the claims of his $1 million suit filed Oct. 18. The suit alleges that the SBC and other defendants should be considered liable for abetting or concealing Paul Pressler’s conduct through their denominational, professional or personal connections.
The amended petition claims the SBC, along with others, “fraudulently misrepresented and continue to misrepresent 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.”
Asked for a reaction to the new claims, Roger S. Oldham, spokesman for the SBC Executive Committee, said: “We are satisfied the allegations about the SBC in the amended complaint are without merit.”
The plaintiff, now in his 50s, claims he was abused by Pressler, now in his 80s, starting when the plaintiff was around 14. Rollins alleges that the abuse continued when he was hired as a “boy Friday” in the judge’s home office and ended around 2004 when Rollins was rearrested and imprisoned for driving while intoxicated.
In an earlier court document responding to the claims, Pressler and his wife, Nancy, a co-defendant, said they “categorically deny each and every allegation.”
Pressler’s attorney, Ted Tredennick, has said the suit’s claims cannot be taken seriously. In a Jan. 11 letter to the court, the lawyer said Rollins’ claims “fail” due to the statute of limitations and a prior settlement signed by the plaintiff in 2004.
The suit also names as defendants Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and its president, Paige Patterson, and Houston’s First Baptist Church. Their lawyers have rejected the allegations.
The legal documents describe 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. The suit claims that the movement was focused on power, which the suit called “a key ingredient in the abuse of children and women.”
With the addition of the SBC to the suit, Rollins, in his amended petition, said he now intends to prove that all the defendants have been negligent by putting their institutions’ reputations above the well-being of children.
Jared Woodfill, who along with his Houston-based Woodfill Law Firm was also named as a defendant, has said Rollins’ suit has no grounds.