Paul Pressler’s Case Haunts Southern Baptist Abuse Reform

The downfall of a prominent leader of the Conservative Resurgence—a “dangerous predator” whose behavior was hidden for decades—symbolizes a wider failure to deal with sex abuse and coverup.

Paul Pressler has long been an eminent Texas Republican, having served as a state representative and judge in Houston. He also once served as the first vice president of the Southern Baptist Convention, but the title doesn’t capture his true place in the firmament of the SBC.

As one of the architects of the Conservative Resurgence that reshaped the largest US Protestant denomination beginning in the 1970s, he was been hailed for decades as a hero who helped rid SBC churches of a creeping liberalism.

But recently, Gene Besen, a lawyer for the SBC, called Pressler, 93, a “monster” and “a dangerous predator” who leveraged his “power and false piety” to sexually abuse young men even as he was building his reputation as a conservative reformer.

“The man’s actions are of the devil,” Besen said, clarifying that he spoke in his personal capacity and not as a representative of the denomination. “That is clear.”

What makes Pressler’s case so enraging to many Southern Baptists, however, is that his abuse has been detailed for years. A lawsuit, filed by a former Pressler assistant named Gareld Duane Rollins Jr. claiming the older man abused him for decades, has been making its way through the courts since 2017. (The suit, which named Pressler, the SBC, and other Baptist entities, was settled in December.)

In 2004, the year Pressler was first elected vice president, his home church warned in a letter about his habit of naked hot-tubbing with young men after a college student complained that Pressler had allegedly groped him, according to the Texas Tribune. That same year, Pressler agreed to pay $450,000 to settle Rollins’ earlier claim that Pressler had assaulted …

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