Lawsuit against SBC marks new challenge to historic Southern Baptist sex abuse report

A former seminary professor alleges in a new defamation lawsuit he was the target of a conspiracy by the Southern Baptist Convention to improve its image amid reports of a sexual abuse coverup, saying SBC leaders made him “a bona fide scapegoat.”

The lawsuit, filed in an Alabama circuit court, illustrates not just the ongoing challenges but a new type of test on abuse reform for the Nashville-based denomination. It comes as the SBC, along with state Southern Baptist groups, launch new initiatives in the wake of a historic report from an outside firm, Guidepost Solutions, on SBC leaders repeatedly failing to address abuse and care ffor survivors.

Guidepost and the SBC are two of 12 total defendants named in the lawsuit that revolves around allegations that David Sills sexually abused Jennifer Lyell starting in 2004, when Lyell was a student and Sills was a professor at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky.

Denying the abuse allegations, Sills said in the new lawsuit he engaged in an “inappropriate relationship” with Lyell that was “consensual.” Furthermore, Sills claims Lyell and SBC leadership strategically used, and Guidepost complicity promoted, the abuse allegations in a campaign to rehabilitate the convention’s reputation.

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“By making renewed accusations about the Plaintiffs in 2022, Defendants breathed new life into this conspiracy and caused intense emotional anguish and despair to Plaintiffs,” read the complaint from Sills and his wife, Mary, who are represented by three different law firms in Alabama, Mississippi, and Illinois.

The other defendants in the lawsuit are current and former SBC officials, the SBC Executive Committee, Southern Seminary and its president, Al Mohler, Lifeway Christian Resources, which is the SBC’s Nashville-based publishing arm, Lyell, who was a former vice president at Lifeway, and former Lifeway senior vice president Eric Geiger.

“I do not need to be under oath to tell the truth — and there are no lies that will shake my certainty about what is true,” Lyell said in a statement responding to the new lawsuit.

“The most egregious, cruel lies do not leave me without hope when those asserting them are reckless enough to do so in a form that not only allows my witness but provides a clear means by which it will be formally provided,” Lyell said.

Guidepost and Geiger could not be reached for comment. Lifeway said in a statement its attorneys are reviewing the complaint and doesn't have further comment.

Responding to the lawsuit, the SBC Executive Committee, and Southern Seminary and Mohler reaffirmed their support for Lyell's allegations.

“The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary has followed best practices in this matter and has nothing to hide," Mohler said in a statement about the lawsuit. "We will make this truth clear in any forum necessary and we will do so vigorously.”

An inquiry by the seminary corroborated Lyell’s claims, Mohler and the SBC Executive Committee said in previous statements.

"We intend to vigorously defend ourselves from this troubling attempt to recast an accused perpetrator as the victim of an imaginary conspiracy. We look forward to our day in court," special counsel Gene Besen, an attorney for the SBC Executive Committee, said in a statement.

Protesting Guidepost

Since Lyell came forward publicly more than three years ago, her story has been part of the debate within the SBC about believing survivors, responding to allegations and understanding different forms of abuse.

The Sillses lawsuit escalates that debate by challenging SBC officials and Guidepost for supporting Lyell’s allegations.

“The (Guidepost) report, published on May 22, 2022, intensified the controversy surrounding the allegations and the flimsy investigation, while also resurrecting and placing into circulation, anew, the malicious statements made by the Defendants against the Sills,” the Sillses allege in their lawsuit.

Guidepost's findings, affirmed by survivors and advocates, served as the basis for new policy recommendations and an SBC resolution apologizing to survivors, which named Lyell among others. Southern Baptist voting delegates, or messengers, approved the recommendations and the resolution at the SBC annual meeting in June in Anaheim.

But there has also been opposition.

An article in June in the Daily Wire, a conservative media outlet, critiqued Guidepost’s work and referenced Lyell’s story as an example. The Daily Wire article included “materially false assertions,” Lyell said in a statement in June.

Some of same critiques in The Daily Wire article are in the Sillses new lawsuit, such as the fact Guidepost didn’t contact Sills during its investigation.

But Lyell said in her June statement that due to the scope of Guidepost’s work, it wasn’t necessary for investigators to contact Sills and that “does not suggest the Guidepost investigation was done poorly or the report inaccurate."

Specifically, Guidepost looked at the aftermath of Lyell sharing her story with Baptist Press, the SBC executive committee-owned newspaper, for a March 2019 article. Baptist Press misrepresented Lyell’s story and SBC executive committee officials long refused to change or retract it. The Baptist Press ultimately retracted it.

A legal dispute between Lyell and the executive committee ensued and ended with a financial settlement and, this past February, a public apology from the executive committee.

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Lawsuits after Guidepost

The Sillses lawsuit, in addition to challenging the SBC's acknowledgment of past wrongdoing, bolsters a concern that people would use Guidepost’s investigation against the SBC in lawsuits.

But it came in an unexpected way because Sills is an accused perpetrator of sexual abuse.

The SBC is facing two other lawsuits referencing Guidepost’s report but the lawsuits are from those saying they are abuse victims.

The lawsuits, filed in June and August in local court in South Carolina, claim the SBC and the South Carolina Baptist Convention are responsible for failing to prevent alleged sexual abuse at Northside Baptist Church.

Both lawsuits say the SBC and South Carolina Baptist Convention failed in their duties by acting in “a negligent, grossly negligent, reckless, willful, and wanton manner.”

Drawing heavily from Guidepost’s report, both lawsuits contend the SBC, while saying it has limited authority over local churches in abuse cases, has demonstrated the opposite behind closed doors.

There has been “negligent promulgation of policy, procedures, rules and regulations concerning sexual misconduct of Southern Baptist Clergy, improper disciplinary actions against pastors accused of sexual misconduct, improper hiding of known sexual misconduct by pastors,” both lawsuits in South Carolina say.

The SBC and the South Carolina Baptist Convention responded in court filings and acknowledged they have a role in preventing abuse within Southern Baptist churches, but that doesn’t implicate them in the alleged abuse at Northside. Also, the two defendants argue the references to Guidepost's report are not relevant to the specific abuse allegations.

Northside responded to both lawsuits in court filings, largely denying the allegations in the second lawsuit and seeking exemption from the first lawsuit due to applicable statute of limitations.

Liam Adams covers religion for The Tennessean, part of the USA TODAY Network. Reach him at or on Twitter @liamsadams.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Lawsuit against SBC takes aim at historic abuse report and response