(RNS) — Facing fresh evidence of an alleged rape cover-up by its former President Paige Patterson, the board of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary voted to strip Patterson of the title and benefits it had granted him while ushering him out of the seminary's leadership a week ago.
In a statement posted to its website Wednesday (May 30), the executive committee of the Fort Worth, Texas, school's board of trustees took away “all the benefits, rights and privileges provided by the May 22-23 board meeting, including the title of President Emeritus, the invitation to reside at the Baptist Heritage Center as theologian-in-residence and ongoing compensation.”
Patterson's swift firing represents the most dramatic turn in the #MeToo movement's effects on the Southern Baptist Convention, the largest Protestant denomination in the United States.
The new evidence, the statement said, related to an allegation that in 2003 Patterson, then president of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, N.C., incorrectly handled an allegation of sexual abuse.
It did not specify further. But The Washington Post reported last week that while Patterson was president of Southeastern, he told a female student not to report an alleged rape to the police and to forgive her assailant.
The about-face from the board caps a dramatic fall for Patterson, one of the leaders of the Southern Baptist Convention’s theological shift to the right and once a lionized figure in the denomination.
"There’s no joy in my heart over this decision," said Wade Burleson, an Oklahoma pastor and blogger and one of Patterson's most prominent critics. "However, this action declares to the world that the Southern Baptist Convention is able to self-correct. It may take time. It may be ugly at times. But in time, the SBC will do the right thing."
Last week, the board appointed D. Jeffrey Bingham, dean of the School of Theology, to the position of interim president. Patterson was given the title of president emeritus, a newly created position that came with a salary and permitted Patterson and his wife to continue living in a house owned by the seminary.
According to the seminary statement, “new information confirmed this morning was presented regarding the handling of an allegation of sexual abuse against a student during Dr. Paige Patterson’s presidency at another institution and resulting issues connected with statements to the Board of Trustees that are inconsistent with SWBTS’s biblically informed core values.”
Board members have remained mum about their deliberations. But Danny Akin, Patterson's successor at Southeastern, confirmed that he sent portions of the victim's student files to the trustees at Southwestern with her permission. Those included interviews with the dean of students at Southeastern after the victim’s conversation with Patterson, in which he allegedly told the young woman not to report the rape. Files on the attacker, who was expelled, were also sent.
Akin also confirmed that Patterson or his assistants took all the presidential files with him to Southwestern and that Southeastern is asking for them back.
"Everything related to the presidential office was shipped to Southwestern," Akin said.
On Monday, the woman who said she was raped in 2003 outed herself on Twitter. She is Megan Lively, a social media strategist who lives in Wilson, N.C. Lively declined an interview, saying she was only speaking to a local Christian publication.
Before Lively spoke out, demands for Patterson’s ouster had already multiplied in the wake of recently surfaced recordings in which he boasted that he advised a woman to stay with her abusive husband and "be as submissive as you can" and objectified the body of a 16-year-old girl.
Those remarks led more than 3,200 Southern Baptist women to sign an online letter in early May, asking the trustees to take action against Patterson.
"Many within the inner circles of the SBC knew and understood that the matters that were addressed in the petition I, and 3,000 others, signed were the tip of the iceberg," said Karen Swallow Prior, a professor of English at Liberty University and a Southern Baptist. "It was just a matter of uncovering what lay beneath the surface. I’m sure there is much more."
Prior said she and other women feel justice has been done.
"I’ve seen people remark that the arc of justice has moved," she added. "It has moved slowly, but better slowly and later than not at all. Many who were frustrated with the board’s earlier decisions are happy, even if it feels like the decision could have been sooner and should have been made sooner."
Patterson, the architect of the conservative takeover of the Southern Baptist Convention in the early 1980s, is also known for using his position to push back against feminism and the women’s movement. He helped reinstate a biblical literalism with regard to marriage, family and the role of women. He also helped push an amendment to the denomination’s statement of faith that says “a wife is to submit herself graciously to the servant leadership of her husband.”
Patterson is scheduled to give a keynote sermon to pastors during next month’s annual meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention.
But several resolutions are being drafted to affirm the denomination's commitment to protecting women from abuse. One is titled "On Repudiating Predatory Behavior." Another, drafted by Jason K. Allen, president of Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Kansas City, reads in part: "We denounce not only sexual impropriety and abuse but also anyone who would facilitate or knowingly cover up such acts."
The Southern Baptist Convention meets June 12-13 in Dallas.